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An Autobiography of My Appetites

Written by Kate ChristensenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Kate Christensen



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List Price: $13.99

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On Sale: July 09, 2013
Pages: 368 | ISBN: 978-0-385-53627-1
Published by : Doubleday Knopf

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On Sale: July 09, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-8041-4901-3
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ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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EVENTS EVENTS
Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A delectable memoir about the transformative power of food, Blue Plate Special is a deeply personal narrative in which food becomes the vehicle for exploring a life. Here, novelist Kate Christensen tells her own story, from her unorthodox childhood in 1960s Berkeley as the daughter of a legal activist who ruled the house with his fists to her extraordinary success as a PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author. Hungry not just for food, but for love and a sense of belonging, Christensen writes honestly about her struggle to find the contentment she has always yearned for. A beautifully written account of a knockabout life, full of sorrows, pleasures—and, of course, food—Blue Plate Special is a delicious reading experience.

Excerpt

Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition


Chapter 1

Breakfast at McGee

When I was a kid, on what passed for chilly mornings in Berkeley, my mother used to make my sisters and me soft-boiled eggs with pieces of buttered toast broken into them. We had eggcups, but we never used them. These soft-boiled eggs were so good, we’d lick the bowls clean.

One such morning, when I was about two years old, my parents sat at the breakfast table with my baby sister, Susan, and me. The table was littered with cups and plates and bowls, eggshells and toast crumbs. The sun shone in the windows of the kitchen in our small bungalow on McGee Avenue in Berkeley. My father was about to walk out the front door to go somewhere, work probably.

My mother said in a high, plaintive voice, “Please stay and help me, Ralph. I just need some help. Don’t leave yet.”

My father paused in the kitchen doorway, looking back at us all at the table. Something seemed to snap in his head. Instead of either walking out or staying to help my mother, he leaped at her and began punching her in a silent knot of rage. It went on for a while. He slammed his fist into her chest and stomach. He pulled her hair. He seemed to want to hurt her badly. She gasped with shock and tried to stop him, but he was much stronger than she was. Then he let her go abruptly and slammed out the door and left us there, the three of us. My baby sister was wailing. My mother picked her up out of her high chair and held her, weeping slow, silent tears, rocking back and forth. I remember being paralyzed with an inward, panicky terror, but I didn’t cry, I’m sure of it. I just stared at the table, at the eggshells and toast crumbs, and then I looked at my mother.

There we sat, a young family around a breakfast table on a sunny morning, surrounded by the shells of soft-boiled eggs, such a cozy and nourishing breakfast. The air jangled with the wrongness of what had just happened, vibrated with the disjunction between this sweet scene, mother and children, and the terrible thing my father had just done.

There were many later violent incidents like this one, according to my mother, but that is the only one from those early years that has stayed near the surface of my memory. Maybe this was the first time it happened, the first time my father beat up my mother in front of me. Maybe I had learned by the next time to shield myself by blinding myself, by blocking my memory.

Whatever the case may be, this particular wrecked breakfast is imprinted on my soul like a big boot mark. It became a kind of primordial scene, the incident around which my lifelong fundamental identity and understanding of the dynamic between women and men was shaped, whether I liked it or not.

In that moment, as a helpless child, I had two choices of people to identify with. In that moment, I split in half. As part of me stared at the eggshells, the toast crumbs, the empty, yolk-streaked bowls, that other part allied itself with my father, the person with the strength and force and power.

And so, from then on, I denied that part of me that was female. I tried to be like some idealized version of a guy: tough, impermeable, ambitious, sexually aggressive, and intolerant of weakness and vulnerability, in myself and everyone else.

My self-protective urge to be masculine, remove myself from all things female—myself, my mother, my baby sister—let me get through my childhood and early adulthood believing, because I told myself so, that I was unaffected and unscathed by any of it. My father didn’t hit me. He hit my mother. She was the one who was hurt. I was okay. And it had nothing to do with my own relationships with men. I wasn’t my mother. This last was key: I was not my mother, I wasn’t vulnerable, I wasn’t feminine, and I wasn’t ever going to be beaten up by anyone. I would do the beating up, if it came to that.

And so internally I absorbed my father, beating up his wife, a young, exhausted, vulnerable girl, punching her in the breasts, pulling her hair, seized by a rage that had nothing, really, to do with her at all, a rage that went all the way back to his childhood and was now caused by his own sense of failure, his disappointment in himself.

I absorbed my mother’s perspective, too, even as I refused to identify with it. She was attacked and punished for being needy, for daring to ask for something, for revealing her weakness. Her withstanding of this punishment without fighting back or leaving went back to her own childhood and was caused by a deep sense of unworthiness and a fundamental unlovableness.

When I understood this, I believed that by understanding, I was free of it. That was, of course, not true at all.

chapter 2

Liz and Ralph

w  Despite her treatment at the hands of my father, my mother never seemed like a victim to me, no doubt because she refused to see herself as one.

She was born Marie Elisabeth Pusch in July 1936 in Dornach, Switzerland, to Hans and Ruth Pusch. Her parents were anthroposophists, devoted followers of Rudolf Steiner, the philosopher and clairvoyant who started the first Waldorf School in a Stuttgart cigarette factory for the children of its workers. Hans was an actor and theater director at the Goetheanum, where he worked with Marie Steiner, Rudolf’s widow. Ruth was a eurythmist, a kind of dancer, who performed all over Europe with a troupe of other young sylphs in purple gowns and veils, waving their arms while overenunciating vowels and diphthongs in wobbling, dramatic voices.

Hitler’s rise to power put my grandparents on edge; they weren’t sure what would happen to anthroposophists at the hands of the Third Reich, since they didn’t take kindly to weird spiritual/artistic types. So Hans and Ruth began to consider fleeing Germany for New York City; my grandmother was American, my grandfather German.

When Hans was drafted into the SS, they immediately booked passage on an ocean liner to New York City, set to sail the following month. But something intervened, so they had to postpone their trip another month. The ship they would have taken sank, and everyone on board drowned. When they finally did set sail on another, later boat, three SS U-boats stopped the ship at midnight, as it was passing the Rock of Gibraltar. All the German passengers were called up on deck as a list of names was read, Hans Pusch’s among them.

My grandfather went down below to say good-bye to his wife and tiny daughters. My grandmother, crying, insisted that they sit and share an orange before he went. So they sat on the bunk, all four of them, and shared the orange that Ruth had peeled as slowly as she could. By the time Hans arrived back up on deck, the U-boats had pulled away and left him behind. And so they all came to America, saved by a piece of fruit.

Hans and Ruth immediately sent their daughters to Lossing, Ruth’s older sister Gladys’s boarding school for mentally handicapped children. My mother was three. She spoke only Swiss German and had to learn English as quickly as she could. At the farm school were a group of mentally handicapped children, including my aunt Aillinn, my mother’s older sister, who had been born deaf and mentally handicapped. With no one else to compare herself to, my mother didn’t realize she herself wasn’t “retarded,” as they called it back then, until she was five.

Gladys herself had gone deaf in her mid-twenties, while she was touring Europe as a concert pianist, and, suddenly bereft of her dreamed-of brilliant musical career—and with a gaping hole in her life to fill—she discovered the trendy, radical teachings of Steiner. She convinced her baby sister Ruth to join her in Europe, where she met Hans Pusch. Meanwhile, Gladys came back to America with a head full of pedagogical steam and single-handedly started the school, whose underlying philosophy was based on Steiner’s teachings.

Gladys was a mean little troll of a woman, and she beat my mother for her childish infractions and impish curiosity. My mother was expected to do chores even though she was only three. After Gladys took her by the hair one day and slammed her head against the wall over her little bed, then left her crying, Lizzie, as my mother was called when a child, ran off into the fields alone. She stayed outside for hours. She ate ears of corn, raw and warm from the stalks, lay between the rows, looking at the sky, feeling untethered to anything on earth, as if she could float away and no one would miss her or notice. But she also taught herself something important—that she could distance herself from whatever was going on by narrating her life to herself as if she were a character in a book. And that was how she got through her time there.

At five, she was sent to a “normal” Waldorf boarding school, in Pennsylvania. She didn’t live with her parents again until she was ten, when she moved in with them in New York City and was sent to the Steiner school there. Her father, Hans, a childish, rather stupid man given to tantrums, ignored her. Her clever, literary mother, Ruth (who had told my mother that she’d given birth to her solely as a companion and caretaker for Aillinn), made it clear to Lizzie that she could expect no affection, since her husband and older daughter demanded all the energy she had.

My mother refused to be the pliable, respectful, spiritual daughter her parents expected and wanted her to be. Instead, she rebelled against her upbringing, rejected the teachings of Steiner, got into trouble constantly, and excelled at everything she did. She was sent away once more. She graduated from High Mowing, another Waldorf boarding school, this one in New Hampshire, at the top of her high school class with straight A’s, having been the captain of the basketball team and student body president. That summer, she took her cello to the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, Italy, to take a master class with Pablo Casals. After that, she went to Swarthmore for one year, then studied cello at the Yale music conservatory for another year, and then she went to Juilliard as a cellist, all on full scholarships. Then, with one semester to go before she would have graduated from Juilliard, my mother decided she wasn’t cut out for the life of a concert cellist, so she quit and bought a train ticket to Berkeley and moved there in June 1960.
Kate Christensen

About Kate Christensen

Kate Christensen - Blue Plate Special

Photo © Michael Sharkey

KATE CHRISTENSEN is the author of six previous novels, most recently The AstralThe Great Man won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award. She has published reviews and essays in numerous publications, most recently the New York Times Book ReviewBookforumOElle, and Gilt Taste. She writes an occasional drinks column for The Wall Street Journal called "With a Twist." Her blog can be accessed at: http://katechristensen.wordpress.com. She lives in Portland, Maine.
 

Praise

Praise

“A gorgeously written, boldly honest memoir. . . . Full of disarming humor and a rich appetite, both for the meals whose recipes dot the chapters and for life itself.”
The Boston Globe
 
“Christensen has deftly tucked food into every scenario, every relationship and every crossroads. . . . A homey and vivid portrait of a woman who has dedicated herself to sitting in a room—sometimes of her own—and writing good books, including this one.”
The Wall Street Journal
 
“A paean to cooking and food, from the homey to the haute. . . . [A] blend of personal and social history.”
The New York Times Book Review
 
“Christensen summons to mind a young, sexy Julia Child who mixes things with her hands and ends up with sauce on her chin.”
Elle
 
 “A fine case for life’s simplest pleasures—soul-satisfying sustenance shared with a soulmate.”
The Washington Post
 
“Picking up Blue Plate Special is a little like having Kate Christensen sit down next to you in a bar and hearing her life story. . . . In a bar, you wouldn’t get her recipes, however. They appear in the book and are built for comfort, from the Bachelorette Puttanesca to the Dark Night of the Soul Soup.”
— Los Angeles Times
 
“An inspiring and refreshing memoir that should whet the reader’s appetite to seek out the rest of [Christensen’s] oeuvre.”
The Miami Herald
 
“The memoir of an utterly original thinker, a free-spirited gourmand, and a great American writer. [Blue Plate Special] an expert guide on inspiration, ingenuity, heartbreak, buoyancy, home, love, family, screwing up, bouncing back, and perfecting the bacon-cheddar biscuit.”
—Gillian Flynn, author of Gone GirlDark Places, and Sharp Objects
 
“[A] poignant, delicious first memoir. . . . A delightful book that leaves you hungering for more.”
— People Magazine
 
“Christensen . . . brings a real sense of enchantment to her food writing. . . . She is both sensual and wickedly observant, a hard combination to pull off.”
—NPR
 
“A breathtaking book, sensuously written, emotionally generous, and decadent as a bowl of macaroni and cheese.”
—Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins
 
“A banquet of sorts, with a surfeit of flavors. Christensen eats for all of us, and writes about food at the intersection of everything that matters. . . . [A] fierce, big-hearted memoir.”
Portland Press Herald
 
“A moving feast of memory, a repast of the past. . . . [Christensen’s] clean prose is sprinkled with witty phrases and wry observations. . . . An honest portrayal of the forces that have shaped her: love and loss; joy and pain; trust and despondency.”
Christian Science Monitor
 
“Warm, wise, earthy, funny, honest, haunting, and bighearted. . . . If you’re crazy about M.F.K Fisher and Laurie Colwin, you will be crazy for this book, too. There's not a single empty calorie here: every morsel is both delicious and nourishing.”
—Rosie Schaap, author of Drinking With Men
 
“Christensen lifts her story toward something bigger, something signifying. She looks up and glances across her page. I see you, she says. And we feel seen.”
The Millions
“A banquet of a book about eating, loving, and overcoming, to be devoured as fast as one’s fingers can turn the pages.” 
—Cathi Hanauer, author of Gone and Sweet Ruin, and editor of The Bitch in the House
 
“A novelist’s deliciously engrossing exploration of her life through the two major passions that have defined it: food and writing. . . . A Rabelaisian celebration of appetite, complete with savory recipes, that genuinely satisfies.”
— Kirkus Reviews (starred)
 
“Christensen writes with savory, home-cooked clarity as she digs deeply into the pleasures and dangers of food, charting the culinary fads of the 1960s on as well as changes to women’s lives while zestfully telling intimate, harrowing, and hilarious tales of appetites corrosive and nourishing.”
— Booklist
Kate Christensen

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