Soft-Boiled Wonderland

Antony Nagelmann

Soft-boiled eggs make their first of several appearances in the opening paragraph of Kate Christensen’s memoir Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites (Doubleday, $27). The scene is Berkeley, California, in the 1960s, sometime in the third year of the author’s life, at the family breakfast table. Sun streams in; Christensen’s beautiful young mother and baby sister are also present; the eggs, cooked to perfection by her mother and mixed up with pieces of buttered toast, are “so good, we’d lick the bowls clean.”

Then disaster shatters the morning idyll, in the form of Christensen’s father, who will go on to alternately appeal to and repel her for the next several decades, as ne’er-do-well fathers have a habit of doing. As he gets up to leave, her mother asks him to stay a little longer before going to work, and suddenly, Christensen writes, “something seemed to snap in his head. Instead of either walking out or staying to help my mother, he leaped at her and began punching her in a silent knot of rage. . . . He slammed his fist into her chest and stomach. He pulled her hair. He seemed to want to hurt her badly.” By the time it’s over, Christensen is staring, stunned, at the sorry, symbolic remains on the table: “eggshells, the toast crumbs, the empty, yolk-streaked bowls.” It’s an indelible image.

Christensen has a gift for rich, evocative writing about cooking and eating. Since 2011 she’s had a blog more or less devoted to their conjoined role in her life, which she mentions in the introduction to Blue Plate Special as having been the incubator for the book. But even before I started reading her entries there, I’d read enough of her novels—The Epicure’s Lament, In the Drink, The Astral, to name a few—to know that she’s long been, if not a food writer, a writer profoundly concerned with food. As she said in one of her earliest blog posts, “I’m always disappointed by novels in which the characters don’t eat. Fiction without food is like fiction without dialogue.”

So it was not surprising to find that the boiled eggs she describes to such effect at the start of Blue Plate Special show up on the blog as well. The difference—and it is a significant one—is that they come up in a far less menacing context, casually dropped into a post about preparing for a drive from New Hampshire to New York to celebrate Christmas with loved ones, with no backstory and a quick, cheerful description as “a favorite childhood breakfast that’s cozy and great on winter mornings.” None of the food stories on the blog, in fact, hint much at the wild, difficult territory Christensen has traversed. That is the job of Blue Plate Special: not only to record and describe the many meals of Christensen’s life in abundant detail, but to fill in the gaps between them. In some cases, knowing more about what was happening while the dishes were consumed gives the food—whether it was good, bad, or indifferent—a wholly different aspect, while in others it serves simply to mark Christensen’s progress in more terrestrial ways. The soft-boiled eggs show up again in the final words of the book, and the nearly fifty-year journey from one bowl to the other is a story of, yes, the indulgence and suppression of various appetites, but also of the cycles of loss and discovery. If parts of the tale, too, are a little indulgent, the memoir more than makes up for this in other ways.

From Berkeley, Christensen (who at the time went by Laurie Johansen—Kate was her middle name and Christensen came later, when her first stepfather adopted her) and her family moved on, without her father, to Arizona. Her mother struggled to support her three little girls, feeding them “simple, homey” meals—the blue-plate specials of the title—many of their ingredients purchased with food stamps. Little Laurie, meanwhile, had already discovered her vocation: “The absolute greatest pleasure I knew . . . was to eat along with characters in books I was reading, or to write about characters who ate what I wished I could be eating.”

From a stoic, somewhat oddball childhood, Christensen emerged into adolescence with a vengeance while her family moved around the state of Arizona and eventually crumbled around her. One of her sisters left home, essentially for good, to study dance. Her mother became a struggling psychologist and as her latest marriage hit the skids, left her eldest daughter to launch “myself into womanhood alone.” Christensen’s first love was, naturally, a boy who “smelled like warm toast.” He did not reciprocate, even after she wrote an entire novel in his honor involving a murder, a kidnapping, and—she was thirteen—an evil band teacher. In it she made sure to list every item her heroine ordered at the diner after all the action was over, because “writing about food gave me a sense of heady power that was in some ways even better than eating the forbidden items in real life.”

It’s not hard to see where a statement like that might lead. By the time Christensen was sixteen and attending a Waldorf boarding school in upstate New York, where she had fled to get away from the instability of her family, she had discovered not only the joys of gluttony (her word) but the intoxicating power of self-denial as well. She consumed “meatball subs on long, soft white rolls dripping with meat juice; entire big bags of Doritos; and calzones, those soft bricks of dough encasing melted, oozing white cheese.” Then, when the English teacher whose family she lived with (and for whom she worked to pay her room and board) pointed out her weight gain, she went in the opposite direction. Recalling her stringent lunch of a single carrot and one grapefruit each day, she writes with a kind of desperate sensuality:

I made that carrot last as long as I could. The rule was that I could coat it with as much dressing as would adhere to it, but I couldn’t scoop the oily stuff out of the cup with a spoon or drink it, which was what I wanted to do. I craved the oil; the carrot was my means to getting it, and so I dipped it in and swirled it around and quickly scooped it to my mouth and licked off all the dressing I could and took one tiny bite of carrot.

It was a pattern of bingeing and then abstention that would be repeated as she moved across oceans and through the years, even as her appreciation of food changed and grew. After graduating from high school she went to France, where she had her Julia Child trout-amandine moment eating zucchini, a vegetable she’d previously dreaded but suddenly understood as “some fairylike, delicate thing of palest green, very fresh, with an herblike essence. That zucchini woke me up to the idea that food had possibilities and qualities that I had not suspected.” Meanwhile, back in America, there was more chaos. Her mother, who was in the midst of a breakdown, had moved yet again, with the youngest daughter, to upstate New York. Upon her return, Christensen rode out a year with them, doing what she could to help, before decamping once again, first for Reed College and eventually to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

From there it was on to the writer’s life in New York City, where she drank to excess, “out of my chronic and ongoing sense of self-loathing, to escape myself, to flee the annoying chirpiness of my too clear, too verbal brain.” The eating wasn’t great—her hymn to what I can only imagine was pretty unremarkable, if not awful, chicken noodle soup from a nondescript Manhattan deli may be the best, or even the only, thing ever written in praise of that particular kind of food—but she didn’t much care. She was writing the novel that would become In the Drink on her lunch breaks from a secretarial job, and it had her full attention. She married, had an affair, divorced, and learned again how to cook for one.

Alone, she worked on the novel and waited. The evenings were especially bad. “I became tired of the blue hour,” she writes, “eating everything all by myself . . . and daydreaming about falling in love.” Enter Brendan, with whom she shares that final bowl of soft-boiled eggs in Blue Plate Special, now her partner in a life of enviable contentment that she’s as surprised as anyone to find herself in. She writes frequently about him and their time together in rural New Hampshire and Portland, Maine—and especially about what they cook and eat—on her blog, and by her own assessment she has entered a new phase of her life filled with previously unimaginable peace.

None of which is to say she’s left the past, especially its food, behind. Just as I was finishing this column, word came that Christensen had launched a new foodcentric blog, Food Stuff. I clicked over right away to discover that the first post was about—of course—eggs. It’s composed of the history of the egg, methods of preparation and usage (hard-boiled, mayonnaise, meringues), and then this final little lyric: “Nothing is better for breakfast on a raw, early winter morning than two eggs boiled for six or seven minutes, cut in half and spooned into a bowl and mixed with one piece of buttered toast torn into pieces. The runny yolk soaks into the bread, the just-firm white is easy on the still-sleeping stomach, and the cozy, childlike pleasure of lapping this warm, buttery concoction from a bowl eases you into the day. An egg (or two) is the simplest form of rebirth after a restless night.” There it is—that same meal, carried, through years and experience, to a whole new world. We may eat the same thing over and over, but it’s different every time.

Melanie Rehak is the author of Eating for Beginners (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010). She has written for the New Yorker, the New York Times, Salon, and many other publications, and is at work on a book about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.”