Life's a Batch 

Who are you, really? The answer is on your plate.

As far back as you can remember, you loved to eat certain things and hated to eat other things. As you fretted in your high chair, terrycloth bib snug around your neck, your mother marveled that you scarfed puréed yams while refusing even to taste mashed peas. Time marched on, finding you and your best friend exactly alike in every way except that she craved mayonnaise and you could barely look at it without heaving. Love hot sauce, hate coconut. Love marshmallows, hate milk. By the time you grow up, your chowtime partialities are a profile as personal and inescapable as fingerprints -- but more fun, like astrology or enneagrams.

Even so, it feels a bit retro to call attention to these partialities: Shouldn't grown-ups classify themselves according to grown-up criteria -- politics, say, or genderization? Right, but that would mean disowning at least one out of five senses. In his stunning memoir Toast, award-winning London Observer food columnist Nigel Slater proves that life is nothing less than a long series of meals. In a kidney-and-custard-scented tumult of short, sharply drawn scenes, Slater recounts bread-and-butter breakfasts at which his inept but loving mother "slathers soft yellow fat onto thinly sliced white pap"; sickbed lunches at which she "tried to woo me back to health with something that bore an uncanny resemblance to what was coming out of either end of me at the time: cream of chicken, cream of vegetable, or, in a spectacularly thoughtless moment, oxtail"; and other epiphanies of love, hate, grief, and petty jealousy, such as the backyard picnic at which schoolboy Slater toys with a disliked slice of canned ham until his stormy father "reaches across the table, picks up my plate ... and chucks it across the lawn. ... I get up from the table and run upstairs to my bedroom. I close the door, lie facedown on the bed, and wait."

In his preface to the book's American edition, Slater notes that as an earnestly private man he was reluctant to write a memoir. This admission sets you up to expect a shallow, callow, evasive narrative -- far from the actual product, which goes for the gut with the speed and accuracy of a boning knife. Food is not mere metaphor here but palpable fact. A lamb chop signals the end of a life. Expertly baked meringues seduce but also menace.

The American edition includes a glossary. "Soldiers" is British for toast cut into strips; "mince" is hamburger; but the myriad brand-name cookies, candies, mixes, and condiments mentioned in the text aren't defined. So ... Arctic Roll is what? Curly Wurlys taste how? Whatever sensual images you can't conjure up are lost in translation. For all its universalities, Toast is a tale -- as Slater's is a life -- framed by the foods available to middle-class British boys circa 1960 onward. Any food-as-memory book is a cultural travelogue, with its own implied solidarities: "We all like canned apricots," he affirms.

For San Francisco State professor Jeffery Paul Chan -- whose novel Eat Everything Before You Die: A Chinaman in the Counterculture follows unlucky-in-love Christopher Columbus Wong through rebellions and relationships in hippie-era Chinatown, Berkeley, and Beijing -- food is a definer of personalities, a bridge between disparate kinfolk, and a funhouse-mirror image appearing one way to Chan's Chinese-American characters and another to their non-Asian companions. Contemplating his family's fondness for chicken feet and fish eyeballs, Christopher muses half-sarcastically about "the pioneers who blazed the omnivorous path Chinese immigrants followed, picking the spicy bits from shimmering pools of tepid sauces, catsup of brown bean, fermented red bean, fat fingers of bean cheese." His "white American wife -- red hair, pale skin ... an authentic nose" -- struggles not to embarrass herself during her first Chinese-restaurant meal with his family, and alludes to food as she confesses: "Oh, God, Chris, I hate my white-flour complexion."

Cuckolded, searching for a sense of self, Christopher veers with hit-and-miss lyricism in and out of self-loathing in the shifting shadows of his gay gourmand brother, efficient elderly aunt, and an uncle whose "squavering voice was sweet to me in that offal stink of memory."

To say that aliment is a recurring motif in Asian-American writing would be an understatement. Who could forget The Woman Warrior's hungry-ghost and monkey-brain scenes, or the The Joy Luck Club's mah-jongg feasts? San Francisco playwright Frank Chin, who coedited the seminal 1974 anthology Aiiieeeee! with Jeffery Chan, has raised hackles by accusing Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, David Henry Hwang, and others of overexoticizing and even faking -- that's his word for it -- aspects of Chinese culture in order to awe non-Asian readers. Chin coined the term "food pornography" to describe his colleagues' self-conscious eating scenes.

The title of Terry Del Bene's Donner Party Cookbook begs for belly laughs, but Wild West scholar Del Bene has a commendable goal: to put real names and faces on those unlucky travelers -- Truckee Lake was no place to be in the blizzardy winter of 1846 -- and reprieve them from their status as perennial joke fodder.

He does this via careful descriptions of the setting in which the story unfolded. For better or worse, hundreds of thousands headed westward on emigrant trails, walking twelve to twenty miles a day alongside the covered wagons that, contrary to Hollywood myth, served to transport goods, not passengers. "A wagon train was its own society," Del Bene writes. One in ten emigrants died en route.

The lard-heavy recipes reprinted here bespeak hardship and resourcefulness: gruel, scrapple, hardtack, hash, roasted elk, buffalo tongue. This is what the Donner Party ate, and thus who they were, before they got snowed in, ran out of supplies, and began to cook each other's corpses. "Perhaps the fascination in this matter comes from our own lack of experience with what it is to be truly hungry," Del Bene muses. "The Donner Party certainly had no recipes for human flesh at the start of their journey." Nevertheless, given the culinary customs of the time, he allows that "organs, such as brains, probably were stewed or roasted."

Irish punk rocker Niall McGuirk went vegan in 1984, "at around the time when many others were doing so as Morrissey had encouraged," he recalls in Please Feed Me, alluding to the Smiths' lead singer. "It was only logical to turn vegan." For McGuirk and his friends, dietary purism aligned with the prevailing view of music: i.e., get it out to the people and give it to them straight. With this in mind he launched the Hope collective, whose goal in those heady pre-record-deal days was simply to bring emerging punk bands over from Europe, America, and England: pay their ferry fares, get them gigs at funky Dublin venues, put them up for the night, and ply them with homemade vegan dishes. This book recounts hundreds of those gigs, each one accompanied by a vegan recipe supplied by a band member. The overall effect is that of a scrapbook: patchy in places, but that makes it all the more convincing. Besides, patchiness is punk.

The members of Fugazi, as McGuirk remembers, missed their boat. "There were no mobile phones then, so my Dad drove to the gig to tell us." After the band hit the stage, late, "the PA kept threatening to fall over so we had to station people to just hold the speaker stands up." Inject such scenes with the taste of nutburgers; baked beans; spaghetti in seaweed/tomato paste/peanut butter/Marmite sauce (yes, all that stuff mixed together), and other originals, and you're right back there where things were gritty and funny and sometimes gross, but grand in a way because you were making up everything from scratch, when you needed neither to know how to play guitar nor cook to jump in there and do either one.



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