Delancey book cover“There were many moments early on when I wondered if it wouldn’t be better to be eaten alive by a wild animal than to show up for work. But in the midst of those hours, there was one that I always loved. It begins around 3:30 pm, when the servers set up the dining room. They set the tables, light the votives, and fill the water glasses. On the surface, it seems pretty mundane….But…for that hour, the room has this calm, consistent thrum to it, a sort of potential energy that feels peaceful and reassuring. I looked forward to it every day, and I still do.” Delancey

Delancey is a funny, beautifully written memoir about the founding of a wood-fired pizza restaurant in Seattle. It would make an excellent holiday present for readers who appreciate good food and frank, inspiring accounts of what it takes to start a business from scratch.

I loved Delancey because I grew up in our family’s floral shop, and the book is an authentic depiction of what it takes to establish and run a small business – the successes as well as the moments of despair when you question whether all the effort and sacrifice is worth it. Molly Wizenberg is frank and honest about the good and the bad. She is the author of the hugely popular blog Orangette, as well as another memoir, A Homemade Life. Orangette is one of my favorite blogs; Molly depicts her everyday life of cooking at home (recipes included), raising a daughter, and running Delancey with her husband, Brandon.

In the memoir, I especially enjoyed Molly’s descriptions of how Brandon developed and perfected their pizza recipes and the day-in, day-out routines and rituals of running a restaurant. They reminded me of days in the flower shop that began at the crack of dawn and sometimes ended after midnight, especially during the holidays.

Molly writes about the behind-the-scenes drama in the life of Delancey, but she also beautifully depicts her search for meaning in what she and Brandon are building. After the adrenaline of inspiration began to wear off, Molly got off the treadmill for a bit to take stock.

Here is one of my favorite parts, when Molly travels to London, dines with friends at the River Cafe and has an epiphany:

“…we watched the lunch crew set up their staff meal, a buffet along the bar. They filled their plates and began to stream past us to a lawn next to the patio, where they sat together, at least twenty of them, to eat. They smiled and gestured and leaned into each other, and the whole scene was eminently civilized, idyllic, the kind of vignette you find in an MFK Fisher essay about a restaurant in the French countryside in the first half of the last century. I couldn’t stop staring at them, watching the way they were with each other, the way they clearly enjoyed being there…These people, I thought, are making something here. ….These people know, and they care, that what they’re making is beautiful. They aren’t just going through the motions; they’re going after it. It was spectacular to watch: calm, precise, quietly exuberant.”

Oh, and, by the way, Molly includes twenty recipes for simple, homemade food she, Brandon, and their daughter June eat at home. This is a yummy, inspiring memoir.

Tasting Home – Judith Newton on writing memoir

Tasting Home book coverI’ve been reading Judith Newton’s  Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen.

I was curious about how Judith so successfully conquered new territory by authoring a memoir, having spent her career writing for academic audiences. My background as a marketing communications writer has been both a help and a hindrance when it comes to memoir and other personally expressive writing.

If you are a writer who wants to try new forms or reach new audiences, you may find Judith’s insights helpful.  And if you simply want to read more fine food memoir collections, Judith has some excellent suggestions.

In your acknowledgements you mention having to transition from writing academic texts to writing memoir. Can you comment about some of these challenges and how you overcame them?

When you write as an academic,  you are writing defensively.  It’s customary to begin a book by outlining  the arguments of other works on the subject. You then situate your own argument in relation to those of other works and point out how your own says something better or new. You’re always aware of how others might criticize your argument and you’re careful to defend yourself against that.  It’s a competitive culture and some people are downright mean.

Judith NewtonWriting a memoir requires a different emotional orientation.  The idea is to open yourself up, to share private stories with your public, and  to engage with readers on an emotional level. I had to imagine a non-academic audience to write like that and, even then, writing the memoir sometimes felt like jumping into free fall off a cliff.   Taking classes was helpful with this.  I often imagined my audience as the other people in the class.

I did read other memoir writers. M.F.K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me was a big influence because it conveyed a great deal about the emotional hungers that are fed in cooking for, and dining with, others.  Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate implicitly connects food to politics, which is something  I wanted to do. In Like Water cooking for, and eating with, others is what sustains women and men, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and politically as well.  Mollie Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life, which, among other food memoirs, combines personal vignettes with recipes, supplied a model for the form.Like Water for Chocolate

I had to learn how to write differently as well.  Although I made a habit of including personal stories in my academic writing,  those stories were an addition to, or comment on, the argument I was advancing.  I had to learn how to sustain a personal story for the length of a book, how to give it a narrative arc, how to write scenes, develop characters, write dialogue, use imagery and all the rest.  I took classes to do this (at U.C. Extension and Osher Lifelong Learning), and I really believe in classes for the instruction and for the community they give you.  I needed that community support.  (I also loved being a student rather than the teacher!)  I made a conscious decision to go into my classes feeling open to criticism because insightful criticism is a writer’s gold.  I wanted to experience, in a full way, whatever the class brought.

Your Life as StoryI can remember feeling that Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird was incredibly liberating and comforting.  Two other really helpful books were Tristine Rainer’s Your Life as Story and Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing.  I especially like Rainer’s book and think that people who write screenplays have a lot to teach us.

If there are food memoirs and cookbooks you’ve especially enjoyed, let us know in the comments below.

Judith Newton is Professor Emerita in Women and Gender Studies at U.C. Davis. While at U.C. Davis she directed the Women and Gender Studies program for eight years and the Consortium for Women and Research for four.

Tasting Home is the recipient of a 2013 Independent Publisher Book Award.

In addition to Tasting Home, Judith is the author and co-editor of five works of nonfiction on nineteenth-century British women writers, feminist criticism, women’s history, and men’s movements. Four of these were reprinted by Routledge and the University of Michigan Press in fall 2012. Currently she writes for The Huffington Post.