On why I wrote a memoir about food
(from The Joys of Cooking: A Love Story, forthcoming with She Writes Press)
Prologue: (Kensington, California, 2009)
It started with the cookbooks. In January 2009, having been married for six months, I moved with my husband, Bill, from the large house we’d been renting in the Berkeley Hills — with its smashing views of the Golden Gate — into a smaller house that we could actually afford to own. Our new house had nice views of the Bay and a large kitchen, but the pantry was smaller than the one we’d had before. The new pantry, in fact, did not seem large enough to store my 140 cookbooks. I should prune this collection, I thought, as I riffled through the opened but unpacked boxes. Yet how to begin?
I’d moved so many times in my life that each new relocation recalled at least two others. Perhaps that was why I began to dwell upon a book I’d disposed of during a previous change of place — a desk calendar with French recipes and French menus. I hadn’t used the calendar in two decades, and most of its pages had come loose, but, out of nowhere, its absence began to feel like a wound. I‘d been fond of its black-and-white pictures of Paris and the French countryside, had imagined serving one of its chic menus, and at one point had even cooked one or two of its dishes. And now, without knowing why, I longed to see those menus again, yearned to remember what I’d tried to cook, struggled to place the book and its pleasures in my life. Had it been published in the 1970s? I began to ache for the ’70s and for the pantry in Philadelphia I had painted deep orange red.
I saw I had to keep the books. I’d annotated them, ranked their recipes, turned their pages with buttery fingers, and read through several as if they’d been Holy Script. They spoke of the decades and cooking fashions I’d lived through, reminded me of men I’d loved, recalled the life stages of my daughter, who’d given me such happiness, and brought me face to face with earlier versions of myself.
But lingering above those boxes, still wondering at my hunger for a calendar I hadn’t looked at in many years, I realized that the cookbooks were more to me than a reflection of my past. They’d been agents of my recovery — from childhood misery, from profound self-loss, from my fear even as an adult that the world would never seem like home. I’d cooked from them to save my life and I’d succeeded. It was then I knew that if I were to tell the story of my long journey home, I would tell it through my cookbooks. And that was the beginning of this memoir.
Cry Babies (Compton, California, 1945)
In 1945, the summer I was 4, I was summoned to the kitchen.
“Judy Gail, come here.”
It was not a good sign when Mother used my middle name, and that afternoon especially I was apprehensive. Earlier that day a little girl had threatened me, saying she’d tell her mother I’d “played doctor” with the boy down the street. And it was true. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” the boy, who was even younger than I, proposed. And though I knew this was something my mother wouldn’t like, I agreed to do it anyway, thinking it mildly exciting but not too bad. When I entered the kitchen the Western sun had tinted the white walls the color of lemon frosting, and a faint smell of molasses from the Crybaby cookies Mother had baked hung in the air. Mother, who was standing near the kitchen sink in a red flowery apron, began, much to my horror, to dissolve in tears.
“I thought you were a good little girl,” she managed to choke out, but then her sobs became so rapid and so deep that she could no longer form words.
For about fifteen seconds I thought, What is wrong with you? Why are you so upset? But then a wave of abandonment and shame washed over me, and I too began to weep, my head hanging towards the green linoleum floor. Without meaning to, I had made Mother’s world completely fall apart. I had disgraced her as a parent and she had cast me out. In that moment the person I was used to being slipped down a hole. I was not a good little girl. I was falling through darkness and was no one at all. Over the months that followed, a numbness paralyzed me, as if I’d developed a case of polio inside. And though I began in kindergarten that fall to regain a fragile sense of self, I was haunted, well into my 30s by the fear that there was something horrifying about me, something I could never discuss.
It is hard now to understand how a single moment in the kitchen had leveled such fatal power. But a picture of me at three, faking a smile beside my brother’s baby chair, tells me that even before my shaming, I was fragile, resentful, and insecure. It was not just that my brother’s birth had diverted to him some of the attention my mother had paid to me. It was that Mother, as I later understood, had felt ambivalent about me from my birth.
“You paid no attention to me when I was pregnant,” she would taunt my father long after I’d become an adult, “and then Judy was born and you went on and on about how beautiful a baby she was.”
I don’t know if she ever forgave either one of us. Perhaps her mixed feelings about my father, and my arrival in the world, along with her desperate need that a daughter’s actions reflect well upon herself, had left me insecure about her love and about my worth. Maybe that moment in the kitchen had felt like the ultimate step in a long abandonment, one that prompted a final slippage of my sense of self and home. All I know is that I died that day in the kitchen and had to be reborn.
For the rest of my childhood I struggled painfully to conceal a sense of monstrousness in myself, and for many years I had a recurring dream: I am guilty of murdering someone, secretly and long ago, but now the decaying, accusing body is about to be unearthed and my judgment before the world, has come. Small wonder I longed for comfort, security, and love, feelings that ground us in a sense of who we are and that permit us to feel the world is home And since cooking and baking were the most reliable forms of nurturing my mother did provide, that hunger for identity and place would unfold in kitchens, play out in dining rooms, and lead to multiple encounters with molasses cookies, three kinds of fudge, and cinnamon-smelling pies with flaky crusts and tender fruit.
* * *
(Cookies so good, you cry for more!)
1 c sugar
1 c molasses
1 c butter or margarine
1 c boiling coffee
1 tsp vanilla
2 tsp soda (dissolved in coffee)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 F.
1. Cream sugar and shortening.
2. Add eggs.
3. Add liquids and dry ingredients alternatively.
4. Drop batter from spoon onto greased cookie sheets.
5. Bake at 350, 8-15 minutes until cookies spring back from the finger when touched.
6. Frost with lemon or vanilla frosting.
* * *
Judith Newton, Professor Emerita and longtime director of Women and Gender Studies at U.C. Davis, is the author and coeditor of books on women writers, feminist criticism, women and history, and men’s movements. She blogs at iPinion.us.