As a means of resting my mind between engaging with two very intense books, I read “Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger,” a memoir by chef Lisa Donovan. It’s a brilliant account of how she survived and escaped an abusive first marriage, and then disentangled herself from the toxic masculine environs of professional kitchens, making for herself a career as a pastry chef where she could still have a personal life, build professional relationships with other female chefs, and be reflective rather than reactive.
While I very much enjoyed the book and admire Donovan’s resilience, I couldn’t help taking note of her admission that she grappled with how Southern white chefs pay vague homage to recipes that were shaped by Black female slaves and their descendants, but appropriate the techniques anyway, and profit from these women’s work without backing off from the wrongness. So why bring up the stirrings of discomfort in the first place? The one part where I saw some attempt to resolve it, she said that another chef told her that their southern culinary heritage is for all of them to claim and shape. It felt so much like reading defenses of yoga appropriation by white people that I was shaking my head in disbelief.
I mean, in light of how much good writing has come out of the Black activism of the past four years, it’s not hard to follow the crumbs (see what I did there? Twice now?). The need to confess to participating in the exploitation of Black people is so often conjoined with how some white women unburden re: the misery they endure from white men. These two elements flow together, like rivers that meet and appear to be in conflict, the waters of two different hues swirling as if boiling, then giving in and merging further on. “I am a perpetrator of harm/I am a victim of patriarchal violence–together I am the River Blanche.” So many memoirs and works of fiction are like this. And we are invited to blur the exploitative parts but see ourselves reflected in the triumphant feminist and sisterhood parts. While Donovan’s prose is truly beautiful, I couldn’t join her in her victory. It felt too much like she healed herself and cultivated her professional persona on the backs of Black women. I guess I am saying that I want to read differently now, and to hold public discourse to a higher standard. And I want to evade any invitations to swim in the waters of problematic feminism.
Since I was in a culinary frame of mind, I moved on to read “Consider the Fork” by Bee Wilson, which is a consideration of the history of kitchen utensils. If, as I did, you listen to it on Audible, you too might whimper with laughter at the parts where the reader, who is British, does accents–American, Russian, and French. There was more, but I must have blocked it out. Anyway, I enjoyed it, and from it I learned that the advent of table knives is what gave us dental overbites. Apparently this theory was proven by studying dead people’s skulls. Table knives were first used by Europeans, so remains from that period in history showed overbite-y Europeans, but Chinese people from that concurrent era didn’t have this feature. As knives became more widespread, more of us developed overbites, and, I imagine, orthodontics was born as a remedy to this evolutionary malady.
I thought about how significant a development this was. The author did note how chopstick use in East Asia meant that, rather than intense mastication at table, the difficult slicing work was happening in the kitchen. So all around the world, jawbones changed. We have become so used to a certain type of jawline being seen as attractive, and (I, anyway) rarely consider how our ancestral chewing heritage contributed to said appearance. If we survive as a species, perhaps our descendants will have facial structures altered by smoothie and bubble tea consumption!
This is a longwinded intro to say that A had a birthday, and is now 15! He is somewhat wrung out from being sung to so many times, but we cannot help ourselves. There is so little leeway to celebrate in these distanced times. Can’t have a party, can’t go out to eat, can’t celebrate at school. I was remembering how, last year, A brought monster themed cupcakes to school to share, and the kids loved the googly eyes.
But this year, his classmate made him a card, and shared it on Zoom, so my husband took a screenshot and printed it out. It’s the cutest. My sister sent him a bunch of cheery looking balloons. And his class had a dance party in his honor, and he got a kick out of that. Tomorrow, my family will wish him on Zoom. He is a blessed little guy, and he is a blessing to us.
Now that I am done with my interim books, it’s back to an intense read that will be tough on my spirit. But I am fortified by the break I took, and by the gratitude I feel towards women who write difficult books which make me cry, and make my body and heart hurt, and who don’t run away from the solidarity which we all need to cultivate so that we can be free of the tropes that keep us swimming in a river of murky compromise and calling that self care.
Donovan, Lisa. Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger. Narrated by Lisa Donovan, Audible, 2020, https://www.audible.com/pd/Our-Lady-of-Perpetual-Hunger-Audiobook/0593211332.
Wilson, Bee. Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat. Narrated by Alison Larkin, Audible, 2012, https://www.audible.com/pd/Consider-the-Fork-Audiobook/B009K8RTE8.