My Kitchen Wars, by Betty Fussell
I think I’d like Betty. I think we should be friends. She writes a memoir through the lens of a lifetime’s cooking--and eating. “Food, far more than sex, is the great leveler. Just as every king, prophet, warrior, and saint has a mother, so every Napoleon, every Einstein, every Jesus has to eat”.
Betty Fussell’s story is that of women in the twentieth century. The wars in the kitchen are the wars of the sexes, wars of the self. The youthful freedom of college finds Betty sampling the forbidden caffeine of coffee and Coca-Cola, and enjoying a wartime campus largely free of men. “We girls had been running the campus, occupying the posts of leadership, staging the shows, editing the newspaper, practically managing the football team”. But come the end of the war, “Overnight we were busted, not from officer to private, but to comfort woman.” When Fussell and other professors’ wives discover Julia Child, their dishes reach ever more complicated competitive heights. The exploration also had another sensory dimension—sexual antics by a group of people in their thirties now “desperate to play”. For the reader, it’s such fun to hear about the promiscuous habits of Kingsley Amis, but Fussell never lets us forget the desperation behind the abandon.
In the end, the story of cookery is a story of growth, and of Fussell’s final achievement of professional worth and status. Even when she returns to graduate school full-time “I knew that my full-time job was taking care of Paul, and anything else was moonlighting.” The Cuisinart decades of the seventies and eighties finally let Betty feel the resentment as her husband “reaped the merit badges for his prize-winning book, and I faded like an old Polaroid”. Her professional life eventually takes a different direction than his when she begins writing articles about food—and along the way, forges a new life for herself, much to the confusion of her husband. “He couldn’t understand that if I didn’t break the routine, the routine would break me”.
As a reader, food is a satisfying and visceral lens through which to absorb the stories—and lessons—of Fussell’s life.