Culinary memoirs, like all memoirs, are popping up everywhere. Betty Fussell's My Kitchen Wars stands a cut above the rest. Crisply witty writing distinguishes Fussell as a cooking expert as comfortable putting words together as she is creating meals. Author of nine books, contributor to such worthy publications as The New York Times and The New Yorker and food historian, she's got a lot of credibility in the kitchen and not just a little talent with the written word.
True to its title, My Kitchen Wars casts an interesting life against the backdrop of that last bastion of domesticity, the kitchen. Chapter titles like "Annihilation by Pressure Cooker" and "Attack by Whisk and Cuisinart" tell readers that Fussell isn't kidding -- she's fought a lot of battles in gender wars, child v. parent wars, marital wars. Her gradual love affair with food wends in and around the various hostilities, sometimes rescuing her, sometimes providing her with the only weapons she can find. Born into a strict Presbyterian family and bereft early on of her mother (Every unhappy family, yada yada yada, as a cynical modern Tolstoy might say), Fussell endured a childhood yearning for more from her undemonstrative father and less from an incredibly anal-retentive osteopath stepmother. It was when she escaped to college that she met her future husband, the essayist-to-be Paul Fussell.
Paul Fussell was crucial in engendering a deep love of literature in the then-Betty Harper. A long and painful hiatus in their relationship ended when Betty moved to New York after graduation and the two again met up. Their marriage started out during the tail end of Paul's grad school days, and ran its course over decades of decadence and heady long-haired debate in the midst of an ever-shifting crowd of literary royalty including Kingsley Amis, Anthony Powell and Elizabeth Jane Howard. Pulitzer winner Philip Roth's first wife had a brief fling with Paul, while Betty carried on with writer friend Dave McFarlane, back in the days of power-entertaining and spouse-swapping. Through all of this, the Fussell's marriage was a tug-of-war regarding husbands, wives, and their proper places in the marital scheme of things.
Betty's desire to write and teach, Paul's fear of her success, and one humdinger of a midlife crisis finally teamed up to slam the oven door on the tenuous souffle of their marriage. Betty Fussell's success with writing and food prove that her life has not been ill-spent; regret does not seem to be the overriding emotion in My Kitchen Wars. Rather, the feeling at the end of things is the exhausted satisfaction of one who has been through a protracted civil war and come out whole, with the scars and medals to prove she was there. All in all, this short and witty memoir is a blue-ribbon winner.