Judith Newtonhas written a book that may represent the birth of a new genre. Described as a “historical culinary autobiography,”Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchencombines stories as well as ingredients to serve up lessons and tasty cuisine.
The blurb on Amazon reads:
If Julia Child had cooked Italian for a gay husband, used sugar to sweeten a sour childhood, and hosted buffets for a better world, she could have written Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen.
In this foodmemoir,Judith Newtonshares the unforgettable story of a life on the front lines ofactivismand in the kitchen. Having discovered during a difficult childhood that food andcookingwere sources of comfort and emotional sustenance, in the decades to come, through her marriage to a gay man, her discovery offeminism, her life in a commune, and her career in a university she learned how deeply food is tied to identity, love, community, and political engagement.
By turns moving, joyful, thoughtful, and wryTasting Hometakes us on a remarkable journey through the cuisines and cultural politics of the 1940s through the 2000s complete with recipes.
If you loved Like Water for Chocolate, you should tryTasting Home.
Here’s an excerpt:
THREE BUTTERS: RETURN TO DEATH VALLEY
“There is communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.” M.F.K. Fisher, Gastronomical Me
My husband Bill and I sat in the dining room of the Furnace Creek Inn. With its arched windows, heavy wooden beams, and circles of metal chandelier-—the Inn felt like the set of a 1930s movie. From our window, we looked across the stone verandah and miles of desert gravel to the Panamint Mountains. It was near sunset, and, against the rose-flushed sky, the Panamints had taken on that deep, smoky, lilac that eases you gently into a Mojave evening. Bill and I were eating Death Valley Date Nut Bread while we waited for our dinners. The bread was moist, nutty, mildly sweet with date. As in my parents’ days, the Inn served this confection at every meal, but by March of 2010, when gourmet dining was routine, the bread came with three kinds of butter-—honey, herbal, something peppery.
I ate the bread slowly as if presiding at a ritual, sampling each butter, one by one, wondering if my parents, who lived and worked in this Valley in the 1930s, ever ate in the expensive dining room of this hotel. I wanted to think I was fulfilling some Depression-era fantasy of theirs by having dinner in this fancy place, by staying in its nicest room, the one with the arched fireplace and the green and white Art-Deco tile. I had come to the Inn to be closer to my parents, now that both were dead. I had come to find them as they were in their later twenties–before my brother and I were born, before my mother’s distance from us, before the bitter fights over labor unions and Vietnam with Dad. I thought it would be easy to love them as they were back then. The next morning I walked the date palm gardens, trying to find the cluster of three palms which they stood before in the wedding photograph from 1938. I didn’t find the trees, but as I wandered through the grassy, shaded grounds, I heard the rush of water in the garden creek and the spill of waterfalls. The wedding party had posed along those waters. ￼
Afterward Bill and I drove the thirty miles to Death Valley Junction, the adobe compound enclosing a derelict plaza where my parents once worked and lived. I walked in the shade of the hotel arcade trying to gauge the plaza’s size. (One and a half times the length of a football field?) I tried to guess which of the boarded-over rooms had served as my father’s office when he worked for the Borax Company as stenographer. And I visited the Amargosa Hotel, where my mother, head housekeeper, had once overseen the hotel maids. The hotel was operating once more, despite the worn carpets, the musty smell, the dated furniture.
At the far left of the plaza, a new café had opened where the Lila C Café once stood. It was called T and T, for Tonopah and Tidewater, the railway whose long abandoned tracks lay on the other side of the two-lane road. We talked with Marie, the owner of the T and T, who advertised “the best hamburgers” in the world. The café walls were covered with scraps of paper testifying to the glory of her burgers.
“Aren’t those the old counter and stools from the Armargosa dining room?” I asked. I recognized them from a picture of my parent’s wedding breakfast. The wooden counter curved; the stools, red leather, were fastened to it.
“I think you’re right,” she said, momentarily impressed that I knew anything about the Junction’s past.
I told her about my mother and father in the 1930s and 1940s.
“Did your mother know Pearl?” she asked. Pearl evidently worked in an earlier version of this café.
“I don’t recall a Pearl,” I said. “Was she here in the 1930s and 1940s?”
“Maybe,” Marie said, but she didn’t really know. Only some of the past was living in this wilderness and most of that was frozen into relics that lay miles away in Death Valley National Park–Shoshone baskets, scales for weighing gold, wagons from the Borax mining days, the mineral display that had once belonged to my godfather, the date palm grove. The everyday life of the Junction in the late thirties and forties had vanished.
“Which of the burgers do you recommend?” I asked Marie.
“Actually,” Marie confided, “the best sandwich is the sub.”
I said I’d take it and Bill did too. We ate them among the testimonies to her burgers in a room festooned with Christmas lights, though by then the calendar read mid-March. Like many deserts, the Mojave was full of mirages.
After lunch, we walked to the adobe bungalows where Borax employees once lived—-two rows, three houses on each side; no sidewalks now, only rutted, sandy, dirt in between. Plumy Tamarisk trees grew wild, some bending to the ground, some leaning into the collapsing houses as if cradling them. At the end of the two rows my god father and god mother’s two story adobe house still stood. My parent’s bungalow was upright too, though its windows were broken, its door unhinged, the white paint flaking badly from the adobe. I slipped into my parent’s house and paused at the sink where Mother had washed her dishes. I lingered at the dining alcove where my parents and I had eaten my mother’s wondrous pies. I felt tenderness for that place, imagined times when we might have been happy there, longed for those times, as if they existed, as if I remembered them. ￼ We returned to the Park to hike Golden Canyon–deep, rich, honey in the afternoon. Then we drove to find the wildflowers. The first flush had come and gone, but we stopped at the occasional haze of yellow, purple, white. We saw “Desert Gold,” yellow daisy-like flowers with golden centers; “Scorpion Weed,” pale lavender, yellow throat, long stamens; and “Gravel Ghosts,” white cup-shaped flowers with stems so slender that the blossoms seemed to float above the rocky rubble that locals called “desert pavement.”
That evening Bill and I sat in the dining room again. We were not at a window table this time, but I could see the lilac smoke of the Panamints. Most of the menu before us alluded to the desert just outside-—Death Valley done as new cuisine. “Molten Jalapeno Cheese Cake” came with Tri-Color Tortilla Chips, Prickly Pear Salsa, Frizzled Cactus. The Inn salad featured the Death Valley dates that my mother had once packed. A barramundi fish came with “Tortilla Crust, Cilantro-Ancho Remoulade, Bell Pepper-Jicama Tangle, and Fried Yucca Batons.”
As Bill and I ate our Date Nut Bread with its Three Butters and toasted each other with a Sauvignon Blanc, I saw more clearly than before that this dining room, this meal were my Death Valley, not that of my parents. I was living my fantasy, not one of theirs. I could even hear my mother complain, as she often did once I was on my own: “You live so high on the hog.”
I thought about the Gravel Ghosts again, about their name, their seeming fragility, their ability to survive by clinging to desert rock. Of course I saw myself in them, but I saw my parents too. For, in the end, despite the distance, the differences, the conflicts we were also alike. I may have wished for a different childhood, cozy scenes of maternal instruction in the kitchen in which cooking and learning how to cook were nurturing, less fraught with tension and ambivalence. I may have said “I went my own way” in cooking as in life. And what I said, in many ways, was true. But our histories are like Golden Canyon where old sea floors have been lifted and twisted into jagged, sky pointing walls. My own way was their way massively reworked. How else do I explain my love of deserts, my fondness for frontiers, my coupling of love, in all its forms, with cooking and with food? It seems true to me that when we enter a kitchen “we bring fathers and mothers and kitchen tables and every meal we have ever eaten.” As with kitchens, so with life.
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