Friday, February 13, 2015

Review: My Kitchen Wars by Betty Fussell

The kitchen is the heart of the home. It's the place where everyone ends up during a party. It's where the family gathers together. But the kitchen can be a battleground too, reflecting the state of the family. In Betty Fussell's memoir, My Kitchen Wars, the noted food writer and cookbook author takes on her early life and long marriage through the lens of food, kitchen tools, and cooking.

Fussell was born in the late 1920s. Her life and the food coming out of the kitchens of her homes, from childhood with a depressed mother and later an unpleasant stepmother, to her marriage to noted historian and author Paul Fussell, mirror the seismic changes that took place in society. From uninspired, rather tasteless meals meant only to provide sustenance to elaborately conceived and executed parties overflowing with gourmet offerings and loosened sexual mores to a more simple and satisfying fare, Fussell uses kitchen utensils to chart a personal and social history. She cooks up a memoir of her own sensual awakening after a puritanical childhood and a marriage fraught with strife.

After escaping her stepmother's strict and priggish household, she marries Paul Fussell, despite early intimations that there will be problems in their marriage. Initially, she behaves just as a good faculty wife is expected to act, hewing to accepted gender roles, performing as the good little woman, throwing parties and entering into the kitchen competitions that seem to be the sole outlet of the women of the time. She and Paul spar even then though, as Betty's desire to be more, to engage herself intellectually like he is doing, something so long denied to her, makes him feel threatened. Through her food writing, she starts to achieve a feminist awakening, desiring to be more than just Paul's support or secretary for his celebrated books. Eventually earning her PhD in English and finding her own writing voice, she does break out of the prison of the kitchen while still celebrating the essence, skill, and importance of the place, its contents, and food.

Fussell is clearly passionate about food, demonstrating a true foodie transformation over the years. Her narrative voice is distinctive but a bit distant as she shares savory tidbits from her life. She doesn't flinch from telling the unsavory bits either, straightforwardly discussing her own long affair, the heavy drinking and shifting mores of the time, unveiling the pettiness of the private academic life, discussing the sexual politics and the frustrating restrictions on women in the 50s and 60s, taking (perhaps deserved) potshots at Paul, and exposing his sexual predilections. Some of this could come off as salacious but it is so matter-of-factly presented that it doesn't. There are some hints of depressing pretentiousness in the writing but mostly what comes across is the awakening of a smart, resilient woman who fights her kitchen wars and ultimately gains her independence through the surprising power of words and food.

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