After reading and enjoying Shoba Narayan’s Monsoon Diary: A Memoir With Recipes, I remember thinking to myself that I wished that there were more books like it out there.
Of course, there are countless culinary memoirs out there, from Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential to Ruth Reichel’s epic trilogy chronicling her rise as a shining star of foodiedom, but I was less interested in reading about the lives of food professionals and more drawn to the narratives penned by authors who were not intimately involved in the culinary world. (My one exception is Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme’s My Life In France, which tells the story of how Child transformed herself from a wide-eyed expatriate in Paris to the American kitchen icon we all know and love. That story I thoroughly enjoyed and plan to read again at some point in the near future.)
Specifically, I wanted to hear more about the experiences of women, particularly those from other cultures, and how they expressed their feelings about food. Narayan’s book, of course, was not -all- about food, but it was the thread that bound the narrative together, and I found the way she wove her experiences in the kitchens of both her homeland of India and her adopted country of America to be enlightening and completely fascinating.
The fact that she added recipes to the mix made it all the more delightful.
In seeking out similar works, I was thrilled to find three treasures, all similar to Monsoon Diary in tone and expression, but differing drastically, just as the telling of any person’s life is going to be enormously different from the accounting of another individual’s experiences.
Diana Abu-Jaber’s The Language of Baklava tells a tale of a girl growing up between two vastly different cultures: the suburban America of her mother and the beautiful, urban and rural Jordan of her father. Torn between the extremes of growing up half Arab and half American, speaking both Arabic and English, eating delicious Lebanese food at home and standard American fare at school, Abu-Jaber does her level best to fit into both worlds, and finds herself alternating between comfort and disquiet as she navigates back and forth from one world to another.
Told with wit, poetry and a deft sense of humor, The Language of Baklava is a beautiful evocation of what it is like to being a citizen of a liminal reality. Abu-Jaber grows up “betwixt and between,” neither wholly one nationality or the other, but finally, in adulthood, she learns to embrace the totality of her experience and her family and celebrate everything which gives her a unique storyteller’s voice.
Abu-Jaber, like Narayan, does sprinkle delicious-sounding recipes throughout her narrative, so that readers can conjure up the dishes that fire her memories with fragrant poignancy.
Leslie Li’s Daughter of Heaven: A Memoir With Earlthy Recipestells a very different tale: that of a girl born of an American-born Chinese mother and a very traditional, very strict Chinese father. Li’s paternal grandfather was Li Zongren, the first democratically-elected vice president of China, to whom Chiang Kai-shek left power when he fled China for Formosa in 1949.
Nine years later, Nai-Nai, Li’s grandmother, her grandfather’s first wife, comes to live with her son’s family in the United States and fills their backyard with her vegetable garden and begins cooking traditional meals for her granddaughters. At first, Li and her sisters resist their grandmother’s food, but soon enough, they become seduced by its savor, and eventually, it becomes the lifeline that ties the family together. Li intersperses memory with history with recipes, and paints a stunningly realistic and nuanced portrait of her grandmother in process, immortalizing her in prose, which is a fitting offering to any beloved ancestor.
Michael Lee West’s Consuming Passions: A Food Obsessed Life, is not as tightly written a narrative as either Abu-Jaber or Li’s books, but while episodic and written into self-contained short remembrances and essays, it counts as a memoir. Rather than making of her life a tightly woven fabric that presents the story from beginning to end, West makes a patchwork crazyquilt, showing a glimpse of childhood here, and adulthood there, with a kaledscopic cast of characters turning up in each paragraph, dropping jewels of wisdom or hilarity from their mouths.
West, who, yes, is a woman, grew up in the South, and comes fully equipped as every Southerner does, with a family that is made up not of real people, but characters from an unwritten novel. (I know this is true of all Southerners, for I am one such person myself, and each and every person to whom I am related sounds like they stepped right out of some novel somewhere. Just ask anyone who has heard me tell the epic stories that revolve around my people.)
This Southern propensity for having unwritten novels for lives and characters for family members is probably related to the fact that nearly eveyone in the South is a born storyteller, innately gifted with gab, and a flair for the dramatic and the comedic in equal portions. West tells some great stories, and without fail she spins every yarn into something pertaining to food, and like all generous hostesses, she gives us the recipes for all of the dishes she serves forth.
I laughed aloud while reading Consuming Passions, as I suspect any reader would. I also gasped once or twice, and winced. It is just that kind of book.
All three of these memoirs are worthy reads; each of them gives a glimpse at the life of an ordinary woman who is living an extraordinary life.
Of course, reading these “extraordinary” lives leads an astute reader to understand that all lives are meat and bread for a skilled author; in the hands of an exacting wordsmith, the ordinary, the everyday, and the usual are transformed into the sublime.
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