Excerpted from Stuffed by Patricia Volk. Copyright © 2001 by Patricia Volk. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Patricia Volk is the author of the memoir Stuffed; the novels To My Dearest Friends and White Light; and two collections of short stories, All it Takes and The Yellow Banana. She has published stories, book reviews, and essays in dozens of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, New York, The New Yorker and Playboy. She was a weekly columnist for New York Newsday, and she lives in New York.
A Conversation with Patricia Volk, author of Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family
Q: STUFFED is a book about the importance of family. How would you characterize yours?
A: My family is ferocious. They chomp life like they chomp brisket. STUFFED is their story— the gamblers, the lovers, the divas and bullies, the beauties, do-gooders and fakes. In a restaurant family, everything that happens takes place over food.
Q: The sub-title of this book is Adventures of a Restaurant Family — what does this mean?
A: The hallmark of my family is a cosmic disdain for the status quo, a kind of productive absence of peace. Nobody sits back. They live at full emotional tilt, wake up hot to wrestle the day. Whether they’re discovering the wrecking ball, inventing the Six-Colored Retractable Pen and Pencil Set, or being the first man to carve meat in a window, they’re jet-propelled.
Q: Do you have a favorite story?
A: My great-grandfather, Sussman Volk, brought pastrami to the New World. He'd been a miller in Vilna, but in 1887 New York didn't need millers. So Reb Sussel became a tinker, selling pots and pans off his back. One morning, while praying in a stable, he had an epiphany. He tore his hair and said, "My life lacks dignity!" Being a religious man, he knew how to butcher meat. Reb Sussel opened a small butcher shop at 86 1/2 Delancey Street. One day a Roumanian friend came in and asked if he could store a trunk in Reb Sussel's basement.
"If I let you store your trunk," Reb Sussel said. "What will you give me?"
"If you let me store my trunk, I will give you the recipe for pastrami."
Sussman sold it by the hunk. Then by the slice. Then he put it between two slices of rye. The first New York deli was born. Around this time, Uncle Albert became the first man to stir scallions into cream cheese.
Q: Your family invented a lot of things that changed America. Have you followed in their footsteps?
A: When I worked in advertising, Hershey's was coming out with a new candy bar. It was strange — puffed rice layered with sticky penuche rolled in caramel dipped in chocolate. What do you call this crazy thingamajig? I named it Whatchamacallit. I also invented a really good recipe for water, a way to recycle pantyhose with runs in them, and the word "Hoovering" for how eight year old boys eat.
Q: How did you come to write STUFFED?
A: My family struck me as larger than life, bigger than news. Growing up, I'd heard about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, but how could that love story hold a candle to Aunt Lil, who said she'd throw acid in Uncle Al's face if he ever left her? Or my grandfather, who was so thankful to win my grandmother, he forswore the one food in life he couldn't live without?
Q: Your work illustrates how the relationship between food and family can both bind and cause conflict. Do you think that is normally the case?
A: As I say in this book, in a restaurant family, you're never hungry, you're starving to death. And you're never full, you're stuffed. Every single bite you put in your mouth is open to scrutiny: Is it good? Why isn't it good? Is it as good as Aunt Gertie's? Is it too salty? Not enough salt? You want some more? Put that fork down now! What you choose to put in your mouth is no longer intimate. It’s not an independent decision. Do I think every family works this way? No. I have friends who grew up on frankfurter stew and whipped cream pie. No one spoke at the table. Food was a non-issue, body fuel.
Q: How is STUFFED a different sort of family memoir than most stories we see on the bookshelves today?
A: There's no way you can generalize. Maybe it's best to answer by saying what STUFFED is not. It's not about evening the score. It's not about victimization. It's not about hard won wisdom gained via pain. I disagree with Tolstoy only about one thing: Every family, happy or not, is one of a kind. I wrote STUFFED partly out of a fear that family is vanishing. Once we were four generations living in a five-block radius. Now those people are in Honolulu, Arizona and Boca Raton. If I wanted my family around me at dinner, the table would have to be 4,968 miles long. Everything we first know of the world comes from family. How can we learn from people who aren't there?
Here, Patricia Volk presents some of the key images from her past in full color, along with commentary.
1. What is the effect of the contents page? Why does Patricia Volk choose to organize the story of her family history around food? How has growing up in the restaurant business shaped her consciousness?
2. How does Volk’s approach to food differ from that of professional food writers or chefs whose memoirs you might have read? How does this book invite the reader to reflect on his or her own family’s history through its culinary habits? Might it be said that every family has its own unique gastronomic history and identity?
3. Judging from the recipes Volk presents in the book, how would you characterize the foods of her youth? See the restaurant menu on pages 165—66 or the recipes she makes while trying to learn to cook. Is there anything remarkable about these menus and recipes? How does the food appear in light of the last few decades’ emphasis on fresh produce and low-fat meals?
4. What are some of the less appealing aspects of Volk’s family life? How does she learn to be tolerant of people’s habits or defects of character? Does Volk come across as an unusually tolerant and loving person?
5. Can the traits and habits of the extended Volk and Morgen families–extensive connectedness and conversation, regular get-togethers, card-playing evenings, etc.,–be found in present-day American families, or does Stuffed describe a way of life that has largely vanished?
6. What role does food play in the author’s relationship with Mattie? How relevant is Mattie’s race to her place in the Volk family, particularly in Patricia Volk’s emotional development?
7. In the chapter called “Hersheyettes,” Volk reflects upon her relationship with her sister and upon their shared obsession with dieting. Dieting presumes an ideal; what is the ideal to which the sisters feel beholden? Why does Volk decide that if she ever has a daughter, she’ll make sure her daughter isn’t “tyrannized by beauty” [p. 152]?
8. In what ways is Stuffed a book about Jewish life, and how important is the fact that Volk’s family was not religiously observant? How is Jewish identity defined in this memoir? What objects, clothing, and places contribute to a sense of Jewishness for Volk’s family?
9. To what degree does Stuffed express a sense of nostalgia for childhood, for a sheltered existence, and for an earlier time? How realistically does Volk recall the atmosphere of middle-class family life in the middle decades of the twentieth century?
10. See the discussion of the word “piquant,” or the description of Granny’s V-8 carrot salad [p. 149]. How does Volk reproduce the sensation of eating? What are the challenges inherent in writing about eating?
11. Why, towards the end of the book, does the restaurant close, and what does this say about what has changed in New York City? What might the objects that Volk saves symbolize for her?
12. Why has Volk chosen “Stuffed” as her title? What does it mean to be stuffed? What is the relationship between being satiated and being stuffed? Is there a fine line between being comfortably satisfied and feeling dangerously overindulged?
13. Comment on the book’s structure. What is the time frame, and how often does Volk break with a simple chronological presentation of events? Why does Volk often break the flow of her narrative, or seem to change the subject? What effect does her approach to structure have on the reading experience?
14. Volk reflects, “In a family you don’t come from nowhere. You enter the world already a part of something. . . . Knowing so much about them, how open-hearted can you bear to be? You are born with the chance to love them. You might as well. They’re yours” [pp. 230—31]. How valuable is this piece of advice? How accurately does it sum up Volk’s approach to her own family?