[14 April 2009]
“I’ve spent most of my life doing kitchen battle, feeding others and myself, torn between the desire to escape and the impulse to entrench myself further. When social revolutions hustled women out of the kitchen and into the boardroom, I seemed to be caught in flagrante with a potholder in my hand. I knew that the position of women like myself was of strategic importance in the war between the sexes. But if you could stand the heat, did you have to get out of the kitchen?”
So writes Betty Fussell in the first chapter of her memoir, My Kitchen Wars. The book is her reply to this rhetorical question, and the answer is no. For years she stifled her writing talent in order to be the perfect housewife and avoid competing with her literary critic husband, Paul. But Fussell eventually found a way to stay in the kitchen while also carving out professional space as one of the country’s leading food writers and researchers.
She published her first book in 1982 soon after she and her husband split, and just last year released her eleventh book—Raising Steaks: The Life & Times of American Beef. Her 1992 book The Story of Corn is an oft-cited source in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
My Kitchen Wars was first published in 1999. By then, Fussell, who was born in 1927, had led a life sufficiently eventful for her memoir to read like a novel. She has braved the early death of her mother, a childhood with an ambivalent stepmother, two miscarriages, a stillborn child, a decades-long inner struggle about her career, an affair, and a divorce.
In fact, in a 2007 interview, Fussell said that she initially tried to write the book as a novel in order to avoid citing real-life names. All of this personal drama is writ upon the cultural landscape of the US in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, when the country was experiencing huge changes in women’s roles and in its interaction with the world.
Fussell writes with disarming honesty and self-reflection. After the birth of her first child, she confesses, “Poor darling Tucky, her parents lived in literature, not life, and the babies in literature were all taken care of by somebody else”. She is not naturally motherly, and isn’t afraid to tell us so. She is also open about her evolving feelings towards her husband, and the climatic moment when she realizes their marriage is over.
You can understand the reasons she loves her husband and stays with him, in particular their shared love for good food and entertaining, and their mutual admiration of literature. You can also see from early on why she feels suppressed—the societal need to fit the well-worn mold of a good wife weighs her down, the conflict between professional ambition and the energy-draining requirements of motherhood chafes, her husband’s single-minded focus on his own career keeps her in a supporting role. This book is as much about the choices, burdens, sexual mores, and societal expectations that faced women during the last century as it is about food.
For Fussell, food is a way of defining the stages of her life: the home-grown chickens she ate while living with her fundamentalist Christian grandparents, the clam dip with Ritz crackers she serves at her first cocktail party, the first fritto misto she eats on a tour of Europe with Paul, her initiation into French cuisine via Julia Child.
As her husband’s career blossoms, Fussell pours her energy into becoming a champion entertainer, well-known for her haute cuisine. Even at the times when food is a sideline to her story, Fussell keeps it in focus through the creative use of metaphor, comparing, for example, the move to a new home in New Jersey as “expanding from a custard cup into a casserole”.
Fussell has led a fascinating life during interesting times, and tells her story with a down-to-earth realness and inhibition that keeps you engrossed from decade to decade. It is also inspiring to read about a woman who has found her greatest professional successes after the age of 50, and is still sharing her passion for learning with the world in her 80s. There is no question who has come out on top in this war.