Oral tra­di­tion

Ruby Tan­doh on food mem­oirs

The Guardian - Cook - - Front Page - Ruby Tan­doh Ruby Tan­doh is a colum­nist and the au­thor of Crumb (Chatto & Win­dus) .Ruby was also a con­tes­tant in the 2013 se­ries of The Great Bri­tish Bake Off; rubyandthek­itchen.co.uk

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

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