Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites
Kate Christensen’s autobiography Blue Plate Special is remarkable for three reasons. First: The appetites mentioned in the subtitle are yearnings for good food and fulfilling sex. The food she seeks is simple, but delicious. The sex is a hunt for love, contentment, and commitment.
Second: Ms. Christensen’s work is captivating and often brilliant in its sensuality whether the subject is an unattainable man or lamb’s ear lettuce.
And the book is honest. Baldly acknowledging cruelty to a friend or her mother, she bares it all, even mentioning her proclivity for dropping female friends and men from her life.
Blue Plate Special is the story of a very full life. It starts with the powerful memory of Ms. Christensen’s early life in Berkeley California—her father beating her mother in front of her and her four sisters—a memory she carries throughout her life.
After he leaves, life improves somewhat. Although they are poor, her mother is intelligent, generous, and loving so good books, music, and culture are always available in the home. Soon the family moves to Arizona, where her mother is accepted to graduate school. With friends her own age, the author finds some happiness, including chasing boys at recess to pin down and kiss.
Yet memories of her father remain tangled; she both fears him and as a tomboy identifies with him. In his absence, she casts herself as protector of the small family. Fortunately, her father rarely enters her adult life and eventually disappears altogether.
The major stories revolve around Ms. Christensen’s appetites as she seeks fulfillment through college and travel, lovers and husbands. Often she is lucky in love—for a while. Some of her yearnings lead to false starts—at times she ends up in the wrong sleeping bag.
Long periods of searching for love and peace of mind haunt her. She also has periods of self-loathing, perhaps from childhood memories, but also from her heavy drinking, her own selfishness, or neglect of her work. She records the impact of these occurrences as she begins to understand them. Maturing, she savors worthy experiences but still pushes others back into her psyche.
The author’s appetite and passion for food come surprisingly late. After high school graduation, she is able to get to France though her job as a nanny to four wild boys. Watching how the French appreciate food launches the beginning of her second grand passion—food.
“They interacted with their food, looked at it, chewed thoughtfully. They made clucking noises at a particularly good potage, buttered their bread with ostentatious ceremony.”
Ironically, after hating zucchini, it was zucchini in the form of courgettes, that first captivates her. “It was sublime, subtly multidimensional in flavor and velvety in texture, not like zucchini at all but some fairylike, delicate thing of palest green, very fresh, with an herblike essence.”
The French experience heightens her interest in food. “I began to pay closer attention to what I ate; I began to see it as . . . something to savor when it was good, like a well-written book or a piece of music.”
Although she can study good food, many years pass in which she cannot afford it; yet now and then she is a guest at a grand table. Her circumstances gradually, but not steadily, improve with her education (at Iowa, famed for producing writers) and publication of her work.
Appetites for good food and sex remain large in her life. Later she gains freedom from a stifling marriage and meets the man who will be, along with food, her big love.
Ms. Christensen’s search for and appreciation of good food is the search for what is now called umami (Japanese for “delicious.”) It is an earthy taste created by the use of most natural ingredients, handled lightly, perhaps even raw. This is the food that Ms. Christensen writes of, the food she respects and loves.
The author’s work is frequently compared to Laurie Colwin’s and other notable food writers’. But Colwin’s work, while delightful in its simplicity, usually celebrates simple food well treated in a cozy kitchen. Ms. Christensen’s work gains startling power from passion. If Colwin is the All American Girl Cook, Ms. Christensen is more wild, plunging into worldly episodes from Bedouins baking dough disks on hot rocks for breakfast in the desert to daylong meals during a cold Maine winter.
Ms. Christensen, mature and content in her 40s, looks back at her earlier life with respect, but also with acknowledgment of guilt; yet she never gives up her capacity to appreciate life, food, and love.
Some chapters include recipes, usually of one or a few natural ingredients and simple preparation. Most will be tempting to readers. At times, amazing amounts of various foods are eaten in one day. Dining partners may increase the delight. An account of one day’s food with her lover starts with the author making buckwheat blini with fine black mild caviar and crème fraiche:
“We ate and drank all day long. Brendan shucked fresh Maine oysters, which we ate raw on ice . . . with shallots in white vinegar and a cocktail sauce of lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, and horse radish.
“I dismantled two small endives and, on twinned pairs of the crisp bitter leaves, I slathered sour cream and loaded each with capers, fresh basil, and oil-packed artichoke hearts. We ate the whole plateful with a fresh batch of blini and slabs of two rather spectacular mild cheeses and some seedless purple grapes.
“Then I steamed a bunch of slender asparagus spears and served them with a gobsmackingly delicious dipping sauce made of the rest of the white wine vinegar-and shallots mixed with mayonnaise and Dijon mustard. After this, I steamed eighteen clams, which we dipped in hot butter and slid down our gullets one by one.
“Later, I melted a bar of very dark chocolate in a double boiler while I cut the stems off some eerily ripe, preternaturally juicy California strawberries. I dipped them in chocolate . . . we revisited the blini and cheese course.
“And then, with small glasses of Rioja, to finish this day of luxurious but simple eating, we ate the chocolate-dipped strawberries.”
Bon appetit, Kathy Christiansen.