A guest post by Judith Newton
Since independently publishing my food memoir, Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen (She Writes Press) in 2013, my book has won 12 book awards. Once Dianne found this out, she asked me to speculate about why.
Tasting Home, to give you some sense of the book, is a feminist coming-of-age story about overcoming childhood and other traumas. Cooking for and dining with others had been fundamental to this process. Each chapter contains a food memory and ends with a recipe for a dish that played a central role in my life.
Once my memoir came out, it received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly Select and a series of independent press awards. None of this, of course, made Tasting Home a bestseller. It was my first non-academic book and I hadn’t a clue about how to market it. But I was pleased at this part of its critical reception.
So, why did Tasting Home win these awards? Let me speculate:
1. I entered contests. I was persistent about entering Tasting Home. Here’s a list of 50 book awards contests open to self and independently published works.
2. The book broke with some conventions. Tasting Home broke with some familiar conventions of “transformative memoir” and food memoir and thereby seemed new.
“Transformative memoirs” often involve a wound, ongoing conflicts, and recovery or resolution. At their best, they are characterized by honest self-revelation and emotional depth. As John Birdsall put it in an interview on this blog, there should be something raw about memoir.
Tasting Home had much to say about my traumatic loss of self when I was emotionally abandoned by my mother. Later, I wrote about my devastation at the death of my gay ex-husband. It had a quality that was distinctly “uncooked.” To write it was to put myself and my emotional equilibrium at risk.
Unlike most memoirs about trauma and recovery, however, every chapter in Tasting Home also contained food and food stories. These including my mother’s refusal to share a recipe without altering an ingredient, and my euphoria at cooking through Julia Child with my witty gay husband. There was always something life affirming, and often amusing, about each. Even the darkest sequence about my ex-husband’s death—at 46 from AIDS—came with a recipe for the sherried pork chops he liked to make. It also came with an injunction to enjoy them because “ that’s what Dick would have wanted us to do.”
Descriptions of food, scenes of cooking and dining, and even the recipes were like a life force coursing through a journey that was sometimes dark. Perhaps this constant combination of the dark and light set a tone that is different from that of many memoirs about recovery.
Tasting Home also differed from several genres of food memoir. I am not a chef. I have never moved in a world of chefs or food personalities, and, alas, have never had a food blog that became famous. Given the pains of my childhood, moreover, Tasting Home could not be a memoir that evoked nostalgia about growing up with food, or being part of cozy family kitchen scenes. My mother was not at all interested in teaching me to cook, preferring to be queen of the kitchen.
I could not write a memoir about an ethnic food tradition either. Although my mother was 100% Norweigan, she did little Norwegian cooking. We lived in Southern California and she was fond of serving tacos and enchiladas. So Tasting Home falls into the category of food memoir, but differs from the familiar food memoir paradigms.
3. The book had historical resonance. A third quality that might have caught the judges’ interest is that Tasting Home recorded a journey through several decades. One reviewer called it “A baby- boomer’s dream.” The memoir moves from the restrictions of the ‘50s to the optimism and political buoyancy of the ‘60s, through the women’s and gay liberations movements of the ‘70s, the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s, and to the formation of a politically successful community on my campus in the ‘90’s.
This journey tracked my feminist coming of age in relation to historically significant moments. But it also invited baby boomers to revisit a past and changing food traditions that they themselves had experienced.
4. My memoir was reflective. Tasting Home had a philosophical core that reflected on the emotional power of food. Dining with others can’t help but recall our first moment of feeling at home in the world, and the experience of being fed by another being. This experience can easily heal the adult self and make us feel connected to another person, a family, and a community.
Tasting Home meditated on the role of food in political organizing as well. Breaking bread together could be a central way of “working on the relationship” in political coalitions. Sharing food, as the Civil Rights Movement taught us, could help develop trust and a sense of common cause. As Publisher’s Weekly put it, the book had “plenty of insight.”
5. The memoir hungered for hope. A final point is that Tasting Home culminates in the formation of a political community which came together at lavish buffets. It recalled the optimism of the ‘60s—its cross racial politics, its celebration of love and food as a foundation for making common cause, and its success at struggling for social justice. For reasons I could never have anticipated, that hunger seems stronger than ever in the present moment.
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Judith Newton is professor emerita in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at U.C. Davis, where she directed her program and the Consortium for Women and Research. Her first novel, Oink: A Food for Thought Mystery, is forthcoming from She Writes Press on April 18, 2017 and is now available for preorder. Read more about her at judithnewton.com and at https://www.facebook.com/TastingHomeComingOfAgeInTheKitchen/
(Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.)