Judith Newton, Professor Emerita in Women and Gender Studies at U.C. Davis, has written an intriguing memoir combining her love of life, her zest for food and her talent for cooking.
Tasting Home is arranged in an innovative way: each chapter details a chronological phase of Newton’s life, followed by a recipe. Newton grew up in challenging times, when feminism, civil rights, gay rights and personal freedom were all on the table but not yet fully savored. On her personal plate was a spicy mix: a lifelong love affair with delicious food, a many years’ love affair with a bisexual man, a yearning for motherhood despite relationship chaos, and finally a return to nurse her aged mother and spend time in her parents’ youthful haunts.
The writing is emotive. We feel Newton’s pain as she recalls her childhood traumas with cold, self-involved parents and her battles with fat (“I took refuge in eating, which at our house was easy to do, for the cookie jar in our kitchen was always full”) ending when she goes to college and starts a desperation diet of stale bread rolls and the occasional apple. Then there is the exhilaration as she realizes she has become an adult when she serves her first gourmet dinner to friends, the intense sorrow and frustration of choosing to love a man who could never totally be hers, and the intense sorrow she endures when he is gone.
We see Newton casting about for fulfillment – professionally, in an era when women’s rights and gifts were not yet given parity; personally, when trying so hard to maintain a sensual relationship with the man she adores causes both of them to grow tired and ill; psychologically, as she seeks therapy and deals with her deep-rooted sense of inadequacy; genetically, as she longs for a child but doesn’t have the right man to give her one; and physically, as she refines her skills as a cook, entertainer, teacher, leader, communard and lover.
The recipes are unconventional and sometimes surprising--ranging from Peanut Butter Fudge to Hot Toddy to Petis Pois Frais À La Française--leaving no doubt as to Newton’s abilities in the kitchen, as she details not just what to do but how to do it, how it feels to cook. This intelligent cuisine is what we would expect of this woman for all seasons and all seasonings: she has been “born again” as a Christian and later as a feminist; she operates her life through the spirits of Coyote and Frida Kahlo; and she fixes supper, it seems, almost every night. Whether she is discovering hippie health foods, testing the rich cuisine of Italy and France, or entertaining grandly at home in the Southwest a la Martha Stewart, Newton is talking the talk and walking the walk, and we are trailing along behind her, happily picking up the crumbs.