My Kitchen Wars
A Memoir
Betty Fussell
(North Point/Farrar, Strauss)
She grew up in California, and wore bobby-sox and penny loafers. She studied slumber parties in college, then went east and studied and married Paul Fussell --- he of The Great War and Modern Memory. She was the typical 1950s wife-to-scholar --- tending the children, typing the manuscripts, wondering if dirty diapers and boiled nursing bottles were appropriate for one who had spent so much time studying Shakespeare, Yeats and Eliot with such enthusiasm.

This, then, is the tale of a brainy woman in a period when brainy women had babies and tended the dishes, making her a proto-Sylvia Plath --- without the suicide. Her story will bring back a hundred poignant (and pointed) memories to those of us who came of age in the time of Eisenhower, Cuba, Kennedy; those of us who lived, too, a smart, frustrating life.

The very words she evokes are so powerful for we who grew out of the Berlin Air-lift, the Bay of Pigs, the mining of Haiphong harbor, Viet-Nam (Fussell organized a mild Viet-Nam Protest called "Negotiation Now"); Julia Child (she did The Art of French Cooking, apparently, page by page --- including every damn one of those ghastly canapés); PhD in English Literature (husband Paul got his at Harvard, in a mere year). And --- her pals: Philip Roth (she knew the first Mrs. Philip Roth --- intimately), writers like Kingsley Amis, Al Alvarez. And talking! Ah, those nights of talk. Candles, wine, good food,, better:

    To us, talk was argument, and a major form of entertainment. We'd been well trained in our grad school boot camps: attack with a thesis, reconnoiter for defense, and regroup for a counterattack.

That was our lives back then, especially for those of us who seemed to have so little effect on the power-mongers of this damnable country. All we had was food and wine and "dinner parties" and talk (and talk and talk) and sometimes, heavy-handed, o so heavy-handed, love. For despite Kinsey, we were most of us quite lousy in the sack, and our partners were bulls in the china-shop, so to speak. Betty confesses to us that she didn't find the truth of passion until late, quite late in life.

All along, Fussell was nuts about good food (she has ended up writing a food column for the New York Times) --- and she was nuts about words. Once, when bored, she taught herself Latin, "translated all of Horace's odes into English for the hell of it, for the pleasure of it, for the sake of sanity when the walls even in this great big beautiful house began to close in on me."

§     §     §

We have here not one but three interwoven tales:

  • Falling in love with food, food lovingly prepared in a country that, at the time, favored Chez-Whiz, Chef Boy-ar-Dee, Wonder Bread and Jello;
  • Living the life of what we used to call "a faculty wife" --- being married to one who, no matter how wonderful his books, was an icebox in the library (and pure chilblains in the sack); and
  • Coming of Age.

Coming of Age! The Bildungsroman. How does a sophisticated college graduate, one who can write the King's English, speak French, and teach herself to translate ancient Latin on a whim, grow up?

Answer: like porcupines making love --- slowly, very slowly. This is a tale of a woman finding out the truth of her womanhood, her body, her mind, her freedom, her independence. As the Pennsylvania Dutch have it, Ve are too soon alt and too late schmart. But it's a great trip for the reader. If nothing else, Fussell's life of writing (first scholarly, then newspaper and magazine journalism), and despite the pill her husband telling her how lousy a writer she was, she has taught herself art and pacing. And we pace alongside her, willingly, from California, to New York and Princeton, to England, France, Germany, India --- in each place, absorbing the best the culture has to offer, immersing ourselves in the food and the life and the talk.

§     §     §

There is something else going on. Pain, for instance. Why could Betty Fussell (in the midst of all this Princeton dinner party good life) be so miserable? Like many of us, she read Livy and Cato and The Canterbury Tales and Hamlet and Donne and The Four Quartets --- but building a working relationship with a love (or a spouse) quite buffaloed us. Why, at times, for no good reason, should she find herself flooded with tears? Why couldn't she, smart --- with all that book learnin' --- figure out the source of the tears, the frantic pace, the hole in the heart? The smarter we are (sometimes) --- the slower we are.

She doesn't figure it out until, after twenty or so years --- with the aid of a shrink --- she comes to know why she sleeps with a cleaver under her pillow. Sometimes, we're so brilliant, it takes us damn near forever to figure out what's going on with those we are with day-to-day. Finally she finds "The Professor" in, what can we say?...a most compromising position:

    I opened the door and turned on the light. There were the Professor and the Student, buck naked, as startled as a pair of deer caught in headlights. The Professor tried drunkenly to explain that it had been to late for the Student to get a bus home, so he was going to spend the night on the living-room sofa. I told the boys to put on their clothes.

It comes clear. "The boys..." We are speaking of The Professor who wrote one of the great books on the pure, loving sexuality of men at war, "Lips made for smiling round an apple." Love in the trenches. Those sensual fingers of bullets penetrating pale skin. Delicate white flesh in the stink of the trenches. Man holding man...

    Children ardent for some desperate glory...
    What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?...
    Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori.

It all comes clear.

§     §     §

Ms. Fussell is an artful writer. For those of her era, some insights come quickly and sweetly. Like what it is like to --- after years of marriage --- to sleep alone:

    I discovered that the Rhode Island maple four-poster we'd bought as a standard double, a margin of which I'd occupied while Paul sprawled, was a mere three-quarter bed. No wonder we were crowded. Now that it was all mine, I filled it with arms and legs spread from end to end and side to side like Leonardo da Vinci's drawing of proportionate man, the measure of all things.

Or, her years as a slave to The Art Of French Cooking, what it is like to be a "Serious Competitive Cook." You had to have a

    copper bowl and wire whisk. You had to have at least one large unlined copper bowl bassine in which to beat egg whites with a wooden-handled balloon whisk fouet, to foam which looked like snot into a shiny white satin mountain. The chemical reaction between copper and albumin was said to produce creamier and airier whites than could be produced in any other way.

There are distractions: the show-off kitchen stuff can get to be a bit of a chore, soufflé au Grand Marnier and Veau Prince Orloff and Charlotte aux pommes do tire one. And she's a snoot --- a pissed-off one, to boot. She may hide behind all those New Yorker circumlocutions, but under all the olive-pitters, double-handled chopping knives and wooden-rim drum sieves there are a pair of poultry shears and boxwood rolling pins for The Professor. Paul Fussell is laid out on the counter, doused in vinaigrette sauce, sprinkled with mushrooms and garlic and --- after being deboned like a capon from the hatchery --- cooked up fine. It's Hubby, Dearest with a provencal accent.

My Kitchen Wars --- silly name! --- is like a good potage with a taste that comes up on one slowly. When Fussell lets herself get into the narrative sweep of a disordered but definitely smart and sybaritic life, it's worth the candle --- especially when, near the end of it all, she turns poetic, reminding us of the other great poet of food, Mary F. K. Fisher:

    To eat and be eaten is a consummation devoutly to be wished in a universe that is all mouth, where black holes have a prodigious appetite for stars and neutrinos are always changing flavors.

Go Home     Subscribe to RALPH     Go Up