What motivated you to write Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen, your culinary autobiography?
When I retired I began to rework some poems I had written about my gay ex-husband after his death. I thought of making the poems into a collection, but felt they needed a narrative to go with them. I contemplated writing a book about our love story but soon realized that a tale focusing solely on our relation would fail to capture some important aspects of my life. That led me to think about writing a memoir that would deal with our marriage and companionship, my life prior to our meeting, and how I came to terms with his loss and my difficult childhood.
Your book is a combination of memoir and recipe. Why do you think you chose to combine the two?
In 2009 I had just moved into a new house with my current husband. Our pantry was too small to hold all my cookbooks and I began to think I would have to prune the collection. Instead, I ended up longing for a cookbook I had discarded in a previous move. I puzzled over my hunger for a book I hadn’t used in decades until I realized that the cookbooks were a record of my past. I had annotated them, turned their pages with buttery fingers, and read through several as if they had been holy script. They brought me face to face with earlier versions of myself, with my life of cooking and dining with my gay husband, and with the life stages of a foodie daughter who had given me great happiness.
But the books were more. They had also been instruments 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. I saw that if I were to write a story of my long journey home, I would have to tell it through my cookbooks.
Food memoirs were very popular by 2009. Some came with recipes and some did not. I decided to include recipes both because they evoked the spirit of the different decades I had lived through and because they seemed like a gift to my readers. I wanted readers to feel what I often feel when I read magazines like Woman’s World—part of a community in which women share stories, give advice, provide comfort, and hand on recipes.
What food writers most influenced you?
M.F.K. Fisher. In her foreword to Gastronomical Me, Fisher writes that “...our three basic needs, for food, security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the other.” That insight struck me as so true of my own experience with food that it became a major theme of Tasting Home. Like Fisher, when I write about food and hunger, I write about “love and the hunger for it,” and when I write about those who shared meals with me, I am writing about “their other deeper needs for love and happiness.”
Also Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. During the many years I taught Like Water for Chocolate, I was working to organize a cross-racial community at my university. One of my unique contributions to this effort was to cook and serve large buffets which were consciously designed to make people feel at home, to instill a sense of common cause, and to unify people across racial, ethnic, and gender lines. I think Like Water, which is a novel about love and revolution, has a similar message. Each chapter is organized around a recipe, and the process involved in making the chapter’s dish is so thoroughly woven throughout the pages that cooking, an often invisible form of labor, becomes an emblem of the domestic love work that makes love and political community possible.
Has what you have written previously informed your writing of this book at all?
Yes. Even when I wrote academic books, I included personal history. I wanted to make the
point that the private and the public are related, that what happens in homes and in personal life has significant impact on what happens in the so called public world of civil society, intellectual endeavor, and government. The work that women do in the home and in shaping relationships, the fact that men share deep emotional investments in private and domestic life still gets overlooked in a lot of history and other studies of society and culture. Including bits of my personal life in my scholarly work was one way I resisted the tradition of ignoring the personal and the domestic.
You chose a startup indie publisher with an experienced editor from the world of traditional publishing. That took some faith. What gave you the confidence to move forward?
Brooke Warner, one of the founders of She Writes Press, was my writing coach and copy editor before She Writes Press came into being. I thought highly of her and enjoyed our work together. Just as I finished my memoir, She Writes Press was born. It seemed as if fate were pointing me toward the Press, and I was also drawn to the Press for its support of women writers and for its communal ethos. My five academic books had been published with mainstream academic presses and I didn’t feel I had to prove myself by going with a big publisher for the memoir. I’m retired, moreover, and, at my age, I didn’t want to spend a lot of time finding an agent, waiting for the agent to place the manuscript, and waiting another year or so to see it published. I wanted to get on to writing the next book!
What is your favorite type of cuisine?
I have to say French. Even now, when I want to cook a special meal, I go back to
Mastering The Art of French Cooking. Unfortunately, the dishes don’t always taste the same. Chickens are raised very differently now from the way they were in the 1960s. You have to find the right chicken—small and organic—to get similar results. I am also a big fan of pasta!
What’s next for you?
I am working on a mystery entitled OINK! that involves poisoned cornbread, a feminist network, and a university tainted by corporate values. It comes with recipes for dishes made of corn.
Judith Newton is Professor Emerita of Women & Gender Studies at UC Davis. Find images depicting meals from her culinary autobiography on
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Facebook. Barbara Bamberger Scott's review of the book is available here.