A spate of new food memoirs promised something different. But the lack of diversity is the same old story.
Some personal news: I’m writing a food memoir.
I wouldn’t do that to you. Or to myself.
The culinary memoir comes with limiting parameters. We have the chef’s memoir, the restaurant critic’s memoir and, the bulk of the category, the food writer’s memoir. The first two have been dominated by White men; the third is shared between men and women, most of them White, and most of those by women have recipes scattered throughout and might just as easily be categorized as “narrative cookbooks.”
Earlier this year, for a second, I dared to hope we might witness a real moment of change when I counted the pending arrival of seven American memoirs from women in the food world within a six months span. And though some had recipes, none entirely played to type. How promising.
Before I could celebrate progress, I noticed all seven were written by White women. “In that respect, it hasn’t evolved very much,” said Lisa Baker Morgan, an attorney and private chef who writes of reinventing her life after divorce, enduring a near-death experience and emerging as a single mother hellbent on moving to the City of Light in “Paris, Part Time” (Ciao Yummy).
I’m not the only one who noticed. “There are so many … female food memoirs coming out this year, and they’re all White women and I’m just really tired of that. Like, ‘Oh, well, we gave the White girls some things, everyone be quiet,’ ” said Lisa Donovan, whose “Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger” (Penguin Press) begins and ends with her decision to quit the restaurant industry. It’s a story of self-empowerment — of unearthing the truth about her heritage to determine how it shaped her, and taking inventory of her own choices so she could create “a bigger space for myself.”
Deborah Madison, the chef, instructor and author who’s known for her expertise in vegetable cookery, seemed more interested in self-acknowledgment when writing “An Onion in My Pocket” (Knopf), although her motives weren’t purely egocentric. “I’m not trying to be a chef in this book or to do anything but to say something to myself and to others about who I am,” she said. This entails clarifying to people that she is “not a card-carrying vegetarian by any means,” and stressing the importance of seeking and sharing “the deep nourishment” and the “kindness and generosity that comes with food.”
Dominique Crenn is proud to be a chef in her memoir. She should be; she’s the only woman in the United States to receive three Michelin stars. But “Rebel Chef” (Penguin Press), which she wrote with Emma Brockes, is not restricted to cooking. “I wanted to bring to the forefront a type of reflection on life and who we are and maybe it can inspire others to maybe really think about themselves,” she said.
Fanny Singer’s “Always Home” (Knopf) is all about her mother, chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. An art critic and curator, Singer hoped to capture her relationship with Waters solely from her own perspective. “It was the thing I had to write in order to ever be able to get beyond into other subjects and modalities — I think because this relationship is one that exerts so much force on my life in a really wonderful way, but also in a way that … it’s not escapable,” she said. “I joke that my epithet is ‘Alice Waters’ Daughter, Fanny Singer,’ like how I am introduced to almost everyone.”
There’s a fairy-tale quality to her remembrances of summers on a vineyard in the South of France; lunchboxes packed with painstakingly composed salads; and road-trip picnics that might include an egg poached on the hood of a car. Singer presents the scrappy, madcap nature of it all, but she is aware her upbringing was extraordinary.
In her memoir, Morgan fulfills another kind of fantasy and follows in the footsteps of Elizabeth Gilbert, escaping her reality to refashion it; unlike Gilbert in “Eat Pray Love” (still the reigning cliche of woman’s memoir 14 years after being published), Morgan chases joie de vivre by the Seine. She observed that despite the number of autobiographical accounts of women “overcoming adversity” or moving to France, her experience is a little-represented one. “There are reasons there aren’t many memoirs about divorced mothers doing these things. How do they have the time?” Morgan said. “If I was a woman who had to work three jobs to put food on the table for my children, I wouldn’t have time to write.”
Don’t forget the labor of pitching letters to agents and writing proposals. “The ability to do that ad nauseam is a privilege that a lot of people do not have,” she said. Alimony and child support help. So does shared custody, as it did in her case. But many women go without that assistance. And many people, married or no, with or without kids, do not have the resources or support to pack their bags for Paris to pursue a dream, either.
Morgan believed so strongly in her project, she self-published it under the imprint she established in 2008. This, I realize, is another privilege.
So is memoir.
When we spoke, Donovan referenced W.S. Merwin’s poems she revisited while editing her book, about his French farmhouse and its connection to “this persistent intention he’s always had with his life … of just being dedicated to these words.” Getting a book deal, being paid enough to write without having to worry about holding down a full-time cooking job, gave her the freedom to live in her own intention. “I think when you go into such high gear to do survival stuff your whole adult life, you go, and all of a sudden, you’re given this chance to downshift. … The intention was always there, but now I get to actually wholly be there,” she said.
Wholly being there was integral to Phyllis Grant’s process as she worked through “Everything is Under Control” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). “It’s a combination of self-awareness, and rewriting, and retelling the stories, which I’ve done as therapy,” she said. In tautly visceral prose that veers toward abstraction, Grant records her early years studying dance at Juilliard in New York City; her battles with anorexia; the restaurant jobs she worked until she realized she couldn’t tolerate the brutality and sexism; her marriage and childbearing; her more recent doula and yoga practices; and her close connection to her maternal grandmother.
She admits that in the wake of its publication, which coincided with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the surge of solidarity and awareness around the Black Lives Matter movement, she’s “grappling a bit right now with having a book out there and like, why is it out there? Why am I promoting it? What’s the point? What is it doing for people?”
What is it doing for which people, I could also ask.
Molly Wizenberg did ask — and acknowledged an aspect of her privilege while catering to others who share it. In her third memoir, “The Fixed Stars” (Abrams Press), she takes us through her redefinition of her sexuality and the end of her marriage. “This was a book about identity and queerness and family,” she said. “I am a pretty straight-presenting queer woman. And it’s a position of privilege, and also a position that, I mean, nobody needs to feel sorry for me, but I know that there are a lot of women out there who have reached out to me because they don’t see themselves either in straight circles or in queer circles. And so I wanted to write to create a place where all of us could recognize ourselves.”
Memoir demands the financial backing, time and space — physical and psychological — to investigate your life and probe your inner being, then dedicate yourself to your words so you can document your existence for readers (as opposed to simply keeping a diary).
Hearing about that poet in his idyllic farmhouse in France and his whole finding-and-committing-fully-to-his-purpose thing sent me straight back to the usual suspect: Virginia Woolf and “A Room of One’s Own.” Because that’s what we’re talking about. Now, though, we have to think beyond the room. We have to think about the house — the publishing house, and the publishers, editors and literary agents who help decide who gets those rooms.
That’s the ultimate privilege.
Who are they? Like the writers of food memoirs, most are White.
According to the Diversity Baseline Survey published by Lee & Low Books in January, as of last year, 85 percent of people in the editorial departments of U.S. publishing houses were White, an increase from 82 percent in 2015. Those are the people actively involved in inking book deals, deciding which titles get published and how much writers are paid, and shaping their work.
It’s easy to see how we end up with homogenous products. A substantive increase in memoirs from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) writers requires that they have the opportunity and funding to do the work. That takes more than an adjustment of publishing industry stats; it involves changing the ownership of the real estate and replacing the people in those positions who decide who’s getting those rooms — and what those rooms are worth. A recent Twitter hashtag — #PublishingPaidMe, generated by author L.L. McKinney — provoked an outpouring of responses from writers candidly disclosing their book advances, and the disparity was disarming. At least anecdotally, White writers reported receiving more, consistently, than their BIPOC counterparts, and often while having less experience or proven success.
Last month, Dana Canedy was named senior vice president and publisher of Simon & Schuster, making her the first Black person to manage a major publishing imprint. A week later, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Groups announced that another Black woman, Lisa Lucas, would take over two of the company’s imprints, Pantheon and Shocken. It is a step forward for the industry. But one Dana Canedy or Lisa Lucas can only do so much, and these imprints publish only so many culinary memoirs — if any.
Diverse culinary memoirs are most certainly not being published now. And I mean “diverse” in the obvious sense of authorship, but also in terms of content and formula; it’s all related. If we want to read examples that truly smash the prototype, we’re going to have to wait for ownership of all the houses to change — and for new houses to be built. Until then, authorship of food memoirs will remain a White privilege and, ultimately, a few exceptions aside, the same stories will continue to be told the same way, for the same readers.
Druckman is the editor of “Women on Food” (Abrams Press, 2019) and the author of “Kitchen Remix” (Clarkson Potter, 2020).
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