Ruby Tandoh on food memoirs
Idon’t know the food that Emily Nunn talks about in her book The Comfort Food Diaries, released last month. Her world is one that bulges full with things like sweet potato hand pies, country ham biscuits, boiled peanuts and collard greens. When she talks about comfort food, she doesn’t mean the Yorkshire puddings or syrup sponge or jollof rice that I’ve learned to wrap myself in when life’s sharp edges begin to catch. She is talking about fried catfish, hush puppies and pork tenderloin, all eaten in the slouching light of the evening Virginia sun. Now living in North Carolina, just a hop south across the state line, she has cooked all of these vibrant flavours into a memoir, following in the footsteps of countless female food writers before her. This isn’t a life that I recognise, but I tasted it, bright on every page, and I finished hungry for more.
“No one who cooks, cooks alone,” famously wrote Laurie Colwin, whose books Home Cooking and More Home Cooking set the bar for a whole generation of food memoirists who would adopt Colwin’s eclectic blend of prose, recipe, dictate and memoir. It makes sense that Nunn chose this as the epitaph for her own memoir, setting the tone for a book that unfolds in chapters as varied as “Ezra Pound cake” and “The Peanut, Pickle, Country Ham Cure’. This is a life story not just seasoned with food vignettes, but constructed around them. In the aftermath of her brother’s suicide, and working through a breakup, familial estrangement and alcoholism, Nunn subverts the idea that all food stories are fluffy, trite little things. She takes a tour around the US via the kitchen tables of the people she loves, and burrows the finest of roots back into the Southern soil.
The food memoir is a densely populated genre and one that riles as many as it seduces. In the post-Ruth Reichl bare-all foodie era, it seems that anyone who has so much as fiddled with a can opener is writing a food memoir. Following in the footsteps of much-revered authors such as Julia Child and MFK Fisher (whose name, some 25 years after her death, still provokes a swell of hushed, fawning chatter among food writers), these aspiring memoirists eagerly commit their lives and – often overblown – food tales to paper, and publishers eagerly push these stories out into the world. It is easy fodder for critics, who rankle at the necessary self-absorption of it all. In LA Weekly, Jenn Garbee complained that these books “tell essentially the same early-adult coming-of-age story: how some sort of culinary revelation altered their lives”.
To be fair to the critics, these books are all more or less the same. The Comfort Food Diaries may disrupt the usual tropes (kindly grandma, “real food” epiphany, nurturing mother) with less palatable stories of divorce, affairs and addiction, but the core of the book draws on familiar ideas – as Nunn recalls in the final chapter, “food has become my touchstone for understanding what real love is”. This is the heart of New York Times food writer Kim Severson’s memoir, Spoon Fed, too – no matter the chasm of difference between Severson’s queer, west-coast foodism and the traditional, perhaps conservative, comfort foods of Nunn’s journey through the southern states. When friends Lucy Madison and Tram Nguyen co-wrote Pen & Palate, they spoke this truth in their own way, sharing their still-unfolding story of two very different lives converging, diverging and merging, and always with a plate of food between them.
But the samey warmth of these books isn’t something that jars with me. I like this mirroring. I like the similarities that shine through the differences, and the sense that there is something bigger underlying all of these stories: a distinctly “feminine” way of navigating the kitchen, not through encyclopaedic culinary knowledge or macho cheffiness, but tenderly, thoughtfully and with sharing
at the centre. This commonality creates something tangible to hold on to, whether you’re a white Brit reading Yemisi Aribisala’s Longthroat Memoirs – about the author’s native Nigeria and the food cultures that nourished her – or a mixed-race Essex girl discovering grits and hushpuppies in the clutches of Nunn’s southern charm.
When I read Diana Abu-Jaber’s The Language of Baklava, I’m reminded of the nausea of falling back into a home that is not quite yours anymore, even though her home is Jordan and her table heaped high with shish kebabs and grape leaves, and mine is not. In Madhur Jaffrey’s Climbing the Mango Trees, I understand the vastness of family, lineage and legend. In Maman’s Homesick Pie, by Donia Bijan, I recognise the cruelty and insatiable appetite of adolescence, despite Bijan’s formative years being spent in, and then out of, an Iran in turmoil.
The proliferation of voices of women of colour in this genre is no coincidence, and I was shocked to read a list of top 10 food memoirs where only one of the 10 was authored by a non-white person. Food pierces to the heart of identity, forging the stuff that makes the bodies and bones of us. Women’s stories of displacement, family, culture and difference are ways of yanking power away from postcolonial stories about “us” and an alien “them”. They refuse to speak to some imaginary universal human experience, instead delving deep into fuzzy, tactile, indefinable things such as taste and hunger. They centre foods and people that are too often exoticised, and poke fun at the obtuse old gatekeepers of the food world. Aribisala’s aforementioned Longthroat Memoirs features a whole chapter on a westernised recipe for so-called “Nigerian River Province chicken soup”, which, she curtly concludes, is “not Nigerian soup” at all.
Somehow, it is in these little details that we see our own lives mirrored: a first dizzy taste of queerness, or the dullness of cooking for one, or a story begun with a full pot of tea. The people may be different, the flavours unusual or the places far-off, but the message – that food informs who we are, and how we love – stays true.
As Bijan wrote of her late mother in Maman’s Homesick Pie: “I liked nothing better than to work quietly at the kitchen table as she moved from pantry to stove, breaking the silence only to ask her a question I already knew the answer to, just to hear her voice.” Sometimes we know how the story will end, but we want to hear it nonetheless, just to fill our mind and bellies with familiar joys. That is comfort food.
Emily Nunn subverts the idea that all food stories are fluffy, trite little things