Tasting Home – Judith Newton on cooking, coming of age, feminism

“…cookbooks were more to me than a reflection of my past. They’d been agents of my recovery – from childhood misery, from profound self-loss, from my fear, even as an adult, that the world would never seem like home. I’d cooked from them to save my life, and I’d succeeded.”

In her newly published memoir, writer and historian Judith Newton looks at her own life and the culture of her time, from the 1940s to the 2000s. Along the way she writes of the cookbooks and cuisine that fed her in body and spirit.

I can’t say enough good things about Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen I just loved it. Judith writes of her difficult early childhood in Compton, California, of coming of age at Stanford and Berkeley in the 1960s, and of her beautiful and haunting relationship with her husband, Dick. I found Judith to be especially eloquent in describing her intellectual and spiritual awakening and continual growth.

As a young girl, I watched the 1960s unfold mostly on television and in newspapers and magazines. Reading Judith’s memoir, for me, was like hearing stories from an older sister who actually lived those events.

And the food! Judith includes childhood recipes inherited from her parents and the land they lived on (Death Valley Date Nut Bread, for example) and recipes from influential and groundbreaking cookbooks of the day, such as Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, et al., and The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne. (Moosewood Cookbook is another classic Judith knows well. See a previous post with an excerpt from Tasting Home.) Throughout her memoir, Judith speaks of the joy, fulfillment, and healing power of cooking and sharing meals with loved ones.

Here is part 1 of an interview with Judith. Watch for part 2 in my next post. Thank you for talking with me and sharing your thoughts with us, Judith!

When I read your comment about cookbooks being an agent of your recovery, I realized I view books and music in the same way. I’m sure many of your readers have had a beloved pastime that got them through tough times. Has reader response to Tasting Home borne this out? Did this theme resonate with those who supported you during the writing process?

Tasting Home book coverYes,  it did!  One woman in my writing group found release in jazz and in singing and  dancing. Another reader, Linda Joy Myers, who is herself a memoirist, writes of how she was sustained by the warmth of a music teacher, by the beauty of music, art, and the Midwestern plains. Several of my old colleagues at Davis found refuge in cooking and understood very well how a kitchen table can lay the groundwork for political community.

How did you come to believe the personal affects the political and society?

My years of teaching women’s studies had made me aware that the private and public spheres are dependent on each other and that the personal always informs the political. Traditionally, for example, women have fed, cared for, educated, and humanized members of their household including men, children, and the old.  This frequently invisible and unpaid labor is essential to having a society at all, and especially one that involves people working in cooperation with each other.

In writing a book that celebrates home cooking as a humanizing and healing kind of work, I  think of myself as carrying on a feminist project—that of giving value to a traditionally female,  often unseen, but essential form of labor, one that the political scientist Janet Flammang, in her book A Taste for Civilization, calls a preparation for civil society itself.

Another feminist project has been to show how political movements also depend on a kind of emotion work.  The sociologist Belinda Robnett,  for example, in her book How Long? How Long? African American Women and the Struggle for Civil Rights, writes about how African American women worked behind the scenes during the Civil Rights Movement, meeting ordinary people, listening to their needs, and building face to face relations of friendship and trust. This emotion work was critical to the success of building a grassroots movement, and is critical to the success of present-day coalition as well. By demonstrating how cooking can bring people into connection with each other, not just in a domestic setting but in a political group as well, Tasting Home continues this project of linking the political to the personal and emotional.

Do you feel this healing through cooking helped you make a more meaningful contribution through your work?

Judith NewtonAbsolutely!  I learned from reading James Baldwin in 1963, the year I joined the Civil Rights Movement,  that a committed political life could and should involve “sensuality.”  “To be sensual,” Baldwin wrote, “is to respect and rejoice in the force of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.”

For me sensuality and joy in life were primarily expressed in food.  Being able to access this joy in a daily way kept me going in every facet of my life and work, making it possible for me to retain the optimism that has informed my politics and my writing.  If I didn’t feel that optimism, I wouldn’t write at all.

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, she is also 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.

The Stories We Tell

Speaking of memoir, this just-released family documentary directed by Sarah Polley looks so tantalizing, and it’s gotten rave reviews. There are a few trailers floating around but I like this one the best:  The Stories We Tell.

Moosewood Days

Cooking from Moosewood…was utopian.      – J. L. Newton

Moosewood Cookbook Cover
J. L. Newton’s well-used copy of the Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen

Just hours after I posted a call for stories and anecdotes about treasured family cookbooks, author J. L. Newton sent me a delightful excerpt from her forthcoming memoir, Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen.

For me, nothing captures the essence of upstate New York’s lush, Finger Lakes farmland and local, fresh produce like the Moosewood cookbooks and the Moosewood Restaurant. I raised my kids on many a Moosewood recipe. Whenever we camped in Taughannock Falls State Park, we’d look forward to a meal at the restaurant in Ithaca.  Our boys always ordered the macaroni and cheese.

A few years back, during a month-long artist-in-residence stay at the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, I enjoyed the home cooking of Judy Barringer, a Moosewood co-founder, who at the time was the Saltonstall chef and cook. Never in my life have I tasted such wonderful vegetarian comfort food. I didn’t know a hamburger made from polenta could taste so good.

So you can see why I was delighted when Judy Newton offered to share Moosewood memories from her “mini-commune” days. Here’s what she had to say:

In the summer of 1985, I was living with three men—-my first husband, Dick, who now had a boyfriend named Ed; my second husband, Max, whom I’d  married with many misgivings the year before; and Nigel, a longtime friend of Max who was doing research in Philadelphia.

A photo shows me sitting with Dick and Max at the table on our deck. Pregnant and wearing striped work overalls, I have long, curly hair. I’m resting my head on my hand and looking pleased, as if paradise had come again.

Dick’s honey-colored mustache droops seductively.  Max has a Jewish Afro and a wide, full beard. Pink flowers float above a green vase in the center of the table, and our plates are full of chicken, rice, and broccoli. It is a plain meal, with few ingredients, which means Max cooked it.

Dick took his recipes from gourment magazines, but Nigel and I had discovered Moosewood Cookbook. On the (separate) nights we cooked that summer, dinner consisted of our garden on a plate.

Excerpt from Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen:

I never looked to Moosewood for two-star recipes. Indeed, many of its dishes squeaked by, in our rating system, with only a star above a check, meaning they were fine for everyday meals but not for guests.  “Swiss Cheese and Mushroom Quiche” fell into this category, though it involved a cup and a half of tangy gruyere cheese. My note in the margin said Julia Child’s version was better. Was it the Moosewood crust, partly whole wheat and made with buttermilk instead of water? Was it that Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking used heavy cream and nutmeg rather than milk and mustard? Was it that the mushrooms in Moosewood were innocent of shallots and Madeira?

Several Moosewood dishes earned only a check above a star, which translated as “not worth the effort.” We assigned “Vegetarian Chili” (with kidney beans, bulgur, celery, carrots, peppers, and tomatoes) to that category. “Don’t bother,” I wrote in the margin.  Was it the tomato juice? Did I under spice?

Going wrong with Moosewood recipes was a drag because they usually called for a ton of ingredients. It was great when the recipes worked because they allowed you to unload a basket of summer produce (after a good deal of chopping) into a single pot.“Vegetable Stroganoff” called for onions, mushrooms, and six cups of broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, zucchini, peppers, and cherry tomatoes.

“Vegetable Stew” featured potatoes, carrots, celery, eggplant, zucchini, broccoli, mushrooms and tomatoes. Both were tasty dishes in the check/star category.

But “Ode to Chang Kung” with its broccoli, mushrooms, bean sprouts, water chestnuts, bamboo, tofu and sesame seeds (plus cashews, scallions, and chopped green peppers on top) came out weird and bland. Was it the quarter cup of something called “taman?”

“Never again!” Nigel wrote at the top of the recipe.

At other times Moosewood recipes, with their cornucopia of ingredients, demanded additions that seemed designed to remind us of their hippie roots. Why else would “Spinach-Rice Casserole” (which featured brown rice, spinach, onion, garlic, eggs, milk and a cup-and-a-half of cheddar cheese) call for tamari and a quarter cup of sunflower seeds?

Why did “Vegetable Stew,” an otherwise straightforward dish, demand molasses? And why did “Broccoli Noodle Casserole” with its decadent three cups of ricotta, one cup of cheddar, and one cup sour cream even bother with wheat germ sprinkled over the top?

But it didn’t matter. I cooked from Moosewood that summer because I liked the idea of it. The book was produced by a collective, and we were a collective too. The restaurant had no “boss,” and despite Max’s alpha personality, our house had no boss either. We rotated shopping, cooking, and washing dishes, which made me feel heady, and slightly guilty, about having such domestic and culinary leisure.

I was also drawn to the Moosewood philosophy of “convenience and economy” which we certainly got to practice since our ingredients came from our garden outside the kitchen door.

Moosewood celebrated “health, lightness, purity,” a trinity I wanted to pursue, and I liked the homemade quality of the book itself – the hand lettering, the sparkly drawings.

Our favorite recipe, “Spinach–Rice Casserole,” was illustrated with a hairy unicorn encountering a large, strange bird. Hand drawn unicorns called attention to the creativity, love, and labor that, often invisibly, go into making the sweetness of the everyday.

Cooking from Moosewood, even with its imperfections, was utopian. Funny how small, utopian practices can make you feel, despite the deepest contradictions, that summer is everlasting and life is good.

Judith Newton’s memoir, Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen, will be published by She Writes Press in February, 2013. Visit her blog at tasting-home.com.

Judith is Professor Emerita in Women and Gender Studies at U.C. Davis. She 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 works will be reprinted as E-Books by Routledge and the University of Michigan Press in the fall of 2012.

More Moosewood

The November/December 2012 issue of Spirituality & Health includes a feature story, “40 Years of Mooosewood.” (Print version only.)  The restaurant is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

Do you have a tried and true Moosewood recipe? Tell us in the comments below.

Do You Have a Treasured Family Cookbook?

Between now and the New Year, my readers and I will be sharing our favorite family cookbooks. Please tell us in the comments below about special cookbooks meaningful to you and your family. Or, send your stories and anecdotes to valoriegracehallinan@gmail.com.