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'Blue Plate Special': Memories Served Dish By Dish


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Soft boiled eggs and buttered toast - it may not be something you need to follow a recipe to make and not perhaps the most memorable dish you've ever had, but soft boiled eggs and buttered toast have the power to connect author Kate Christensen to another time and place. Christensen has written a new memoir. It's called "Blue Plate Special." And in it, she includes recipes and talks about the foods that connect her to different chapters of her own life.

KATE CHRISTENSEN: (Reading) Food can do many things, but it can't substitute for sex. If you're seized with terrible, unprintable rage towards someone you love, a ripe, velvety avocado can send you over the edge with its innocent bystander meekness. To taste fully is to live fully. And to live fully is to be awake and responsive to complexities and truths. Good and terrible, overwhelming and miniscule. To eat passionately is to allow the world in. There can be no hiding or sublimation when you're chewing a mouthful of food so good it makes you swoon.


MARTIN: I think it's probably safe to say food is far more than just nutritional fuel for you.


CHRISTENSEN: You could call it an obsession if you wanted to.

MARTIN: We mentioned in the intro soft boiled eggs. Can you describe the memory connection you have to that particular dish?

CHRISTENSEN: The book begins and ends with soft-boiled eggs, actually. And the connection with the memory of my childhood is a sad and violent one. I sat at the breakfast table and I watched my father punch and hit my mother. My sister was a baby at the time and we were both there. And it was because she had asked him to stay and help her instead of going to work. And she asked in a very plaintive, emotional way that somehow seemed to be trigger something in him that I've never understood and that was really not in keeping with my father as I knew him. He was charming and, if anything, distant and mild-mannered. And it was in conjuring the memory that the soft boiled eggs came back to me and the egg shells on the table and the yolk.

And in writing the book, I found that memory and food go hand in hand for me. And something about tasting and remembering tasting is a powerful way to recreate entire scenes for my life. And my intention was to write about food. My life just happened to be this story that went along with food for me through time.

MARTIN: As an adult, you sought out someone as your life partner who also shared your connection to food, and this was your husband John. But you describe your honeymoon as a somewhat mixed affair. It was like this eating tour and you were both willing to the food and you were on this road trip and you're savoring all these regional delights. But you write about it as if it were covering up some red flags.

CHRISTENSEN: Well, the red flags were that we had an intensely romantic, passionate courtship for two years during which we ate. I mean, eating was what we were both so passionate about. And after our wedding, we set off on a road tour of the South equipped with Jane and Michael Stern's "Road Food," which is a wonderful book. And as soon as we began to cross the Verrazano Narrows Bridge - I mean, we had been married less than 24 hours - we had the classic husband-wife fight, which is where's the map? Which way do we go? And meanwhile I'm holding the map but I have no idea which way to go because I haven't looked at it. We were both freaking out, thinking how on earth have we become a husband and a wife after being fellow artists and passionate eaters. And we ate our ways through the South. So, that saved our honeymoon.

MARTIN: I'm skipping ahead here, but after years of happiness and then some tough times, the two of you ended up parting ways. When did you learn to appreciate eating alone. You write about this a lot in the book - not just immediately after the divorce, but it's been a process for you coming to grips with that and how that changed your relationship to food.

CHRISTENSEN: All my life I've treasured the sense of safety and peace and comfort in being alone, which includes eating alone. But when my marriage ended I lived alone for a while. And when the sun would go down - and that's the time when people tend to want to gather and eat together - and I would feel blue and lonely and miss my husband and us being married and the air turns a little blue. And I would comfort myself by making myself a full-on meal and sitting and eating it and enjoying it and often having wine with it and treating it as a dinner party of one.

MARTIN: You say that a stocked kitchen really helps keep loneliness at bay. I wonder if you ever found that to be dangerous, unhealthy in a way to eat to the other side of some moment of depression.

CHRISTENSEN: I think it can be. Food can be dangerous. But I think - if I can call it healthy - the healthy attitude toward food is that it's just food. And you eat it and it's gone. But it also opens you up to all kinds of other feelings. So, it's always been difficult for me to sublimate emotions in food because I find that food is so exciting that it actually exacerbates anything I'm feeling and thinking in the end.

MARTIN: Do you ever intentionally cook dishes that you know will transport you back to your childhood?

CHRISTENSEN: You know, it's so funny. There's a dish that my mother used to make called farmer's fritters that are really simple cottage cheese pancakes, and she would make applesauce. And we would have storytelling night and go around the table and tell stories and eat stacks and heaps of farmer's fritters. And I recently made those again and it completely transported me to those nights. This is a really good childhood memory as opposed to the other one. You know, my mother and sisters and I, living all together having this sort of adventure, I thought, in the desert and telling stories by candlelight on a Friday night. My first bite of the farmer's fritters brought me right back.

MARTIN: You end the book talking about finding love again after having been alone for a while after your divorce, meeting someone and the joy that comes with discovering that kind of relationship later in life. You've had a lot of professional success. I wonder what is the dish that you most closely associate with this time in your life.

CHRISTENSEN: It would certainly be something Italian, because Brendan, the man that I fell in love with and now have lived with for four years, is a fantastic traditional Italian cook. And I think if I had to choose one dish, it would be the most simple, homey, cozy dish that he makes, which is pasta with pea sauce. I'm not sure I put the recipe in the book. Maybe I'll have to put it in my next one.

MARTIN: Sounds delicious.

CHRISTENSEN: It is. It's like the chicken soup of pasta. Good for the soul.


MARTIN: Kate Christensen. Her new memoir is called "Blue Plate Special." She joined us from the studios of Maine Public Broadcasting in Portland, Maine. Kate, thanks so much for talking with us.

CHRISTENSEN: Thank you. That was so much fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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