JUNE 15, 2016
THERE IS A MOMENT, in the very best of stories, where you find your self — or the self you wish to be. Those connections are what I discovered in the early pages of Kate Christensen’s How to Cook a Moose: A Culinary Memoir.
Upon introduction, I suspected Christensen and I would be fast friends. I carried on an inner dialogue with her at a rapid clip, admiring her verbal efficiency and the placement of sentiments that landed just so: “I didn’t feel hungry anymore; I felt bilious and exhausted. I longed for a new life, somewhere else, somewhere clean and quiet.” I exhaled. Preach, sister. I resonated with her stories of not fitting in, of dining well on very little — and of falling in love with a place while falling out of love with a partner.
“At the very heart of things,” Christensen writes,
I was wrenchingly lonely with him; no matter how hard I tried to bridge the emotional gulf between us, I was unable to connect deeply with my husband. And I craved this connection so desperately, I finally realized I couldn’t live in a marriage without it.
In the exploration of memoir Why We Write About Ourselves, edited by Meredith Maran, Christensen states: “Finding the universal in the singular, and vice versa, is a challenge and a thrill and, ultimately, a source of tremendous peace.” In that initial journey, retraced here, I saw my own; I felt not only peace but also kinship.
The Editor’s Note that precedes How to Cook a Moose states explicitly that the book was written as a continuation of the M. F. K. Fisher classic How to Cook a Wolf, which takes as its own title Shakespeare’s reference to appetite as “a universal wolf.” Island Port Press’s Senior Editor Genevieve Morgan explains that her goal was to find a contemporary voice that could “help to address current dilemmas — one that didn’t just bemoan our fate, but actually presented some useful advice on what to do, how to keep your sense of humor, and, importantly, what to eat.” This framing raised my expectations to superlative heights.
First published in 1942, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher’s book served as a reflection of both time and place, written as food rationing programs launched in the United States during World War II. “Save wheat, meat, fats, sugar and serve the cause of freedom,” the US Food Administration proclaimed; “Food Is a Weapon … Buy Wisely, Cook Carefully, Eat It All,” wartime posters admonished.
Fisher wrote How to Cook a Wolf in response to such edicts, as a reminder to wartime housewives that the joys and comfort found in food — in both cooking and consumption — transcended budgets and apportionments. She assured readers that efforts that, on the surface, may have felt like deprivation were also opportunities: deep pleasure could be found in humble places — in bread, in ketchup, in cuts of meat that others might discard. For Fisher, culinary delight was both bound to, and distinct from, the offerings on the table. There was not one good way to eat: page after page revealed her steadfast belief that the truest joy — and deepest deliciousness — were found in what we made of whatever fare was on hand.
“Breakfast,” Fisher wrote,
can be toast. It can be piles of toast, generously buttered, and a bowl of honey or jam, and milk for Mortimer and coffee for you. You can be lavish because the meal is so inexpensive. You can have fun, because there is no trotting around with fried eggs and mussy dishes and grease in the pan and a lingeringly unpleasant smell in the air. Or, on cold mornings you can have all you want of hot cereal […] not a pale pabulum made of emasculated wheat, but some brown nutty savorous porridge. Try it with maple syrup and melted butter instead of milk and sugar, once in a while. Or put some raisins or chopped dates in it. It is a sturdy dish, and better than any conventional mélange of tomato juice and toast and this and that and the other, both outside and within you.
The shoes Christensen was tasked to fill — an exploration of joy amid challenge, of eating with what Fisher described as “both grace and gusto” — were cavernous. The challenge to carry on Fisher’s legacy, formidable.
From the onset, Christensen seemed up to the challenge, declaring, “I am not a foodie, I am an eater: I’m hungry.” Christensen explains that she was raised on humble fare — “I’m a girl from Arizona who grew up on hot dogs and Cheerios as well as my mother’s homemade breads and soups” — and that, as she relocated from New York City to Maine (by way of New Hampshire), her exploration of love expanded to both people and place.
Christensen details with reverence the thrill of discovering terroir, from soil to seed, as well as the ways in which those who manage the soil, raise livestock, fish, hunt, and forage embed those ways of being into the foods they lovingly prepare — from donuts and moose jerky, to clam chowder and biscuits.
This journey through rugged landscape, dramatically changing seasons, and tastes of place allowed Christensen to come home to her self, to recognize and reconnect with what was once unfamiliar: “a recognition of something that spoke to the deepest part of my humanity.” Her growing contentedness as she settled into a place defined by integrity and authenticity made me long to return to the Midwest where I had once experienced much the same.
Yet, as the work progressed, I could no longer find myself — or Fisher. How to Cook a Moose is peppered with the erudite: reflections on decadent meals savored with the family of a wealthy ex-boyfriend; recipes for Lobster Thermidor and dog food. The narrative reveals a woman now living in comfort, managing challenges of renovations on a second home — a city home in Portland to accompany her rugged home in the woods — a place where she delights in the delivery of Vietnamese pho and a charming Pilates studio “set on old wood floors next to carved fireplaces with ceramic hearths.”
We carry our stories to the table and to every narrative we read and create. No matter what Fisher feasted on, she savored with humility, authenticity, and humor. The crux of her work was how to prepare and enjoy meals during wartime. Approachable and honest, she recognized both the paradox and necessity of savoring against the backdrop of scarcity. For Fisher, every food held the potential to taste exquisite: scrambled eggs seasoned with “grated cheese, herbs [or] whatnot, if desired,” cracklings, anything that was able to keep the wolf of hunger at bay and transform cooking on a strict budget into a broader celebration of life.
Christensen initially attempts the same, writing, “The wolf is back at the door these days, but this time, he’s howling and hungry for food that’s not only cheap, but also delicious, nourishing, and not unduly harmful to the ecosystem […]” Yet, rather than claiming an ownership of the complexity and challenges of food choices — and a recognition that one in five people in the United States faces food insecurity — her reflections feel less like honesty and more like contradiction. In bemoaning her judgment of the shopping cart, she writes,
I can’t help it. When I see a conveyor belt heading for the cashier loaded with individual, plastic-wrapped high fructose corn syrup-laden, GMO-heavy, processed, corporate-stamped dreck, I blanch like a Victorian maiden aunt whose niece is running out of the house in rouge and a plunging neckline.
Christensen continues down this path, never clarifying what a “sustainable food system” is, but nevertheless acknowledging that every link in the food chain is compromised. She explains that “sustainable” fish comes from compromised waters, while farmed fish has its own problems, too. “Who knows if anything is okay anymore?” she asks as she admits to being both seduced and aghast at the selection at Whole Foods in Portland and the selection of foods that are out of season and shipped from far distances. Yet she concludes this screed with a recipe for “Wicked-Good Lamb Burgers” using lamb shipped from New Zealand rather than any local or regional meat the store may have had.
She reinforces her culinary proclivities through repeated mentions of her gluten sensitivity — saying no to pizza, finding delight in donuts made with potato flour, and, in one passage, demonstrating her commitment to Florence House (the women’s shelter where she briefly served as a volunteer chef) by cooking biscuits made from wheat flour. “I resolved to keep my mouth closed while I made them,” she writes, “try[ing] not to breathe the flour dust […] Toxic, dangerous flour covered my arms up to my elbows, hung in puffs in the air in front of my face.”
Christensen is making food for women who have escaped physical and emotional abuse. She does not have Celiac disease, but gluten, she clarifies, makes her bloated and depressed (as she discovered through an elimination diet in 2002). Despite her challenges, she makes biscuits that the shelter’s residents find delicious. Christensen then returns home to her newly renovated kitchen to roast chicken and whip polenta, unscathed by the “toxic, dangerous” flour.
Fisher — the woman who assures readers, “Eating both well and wholesomely, insofar as it can be done within one’s budget and means, with elegant balance and the occasional indulgent luxury, is an expression of hope and dignity as well as a cause of happiness” — would blanche.
“There is a narrative truth in life that seems quite removed from logic, science, and empirical demonstration,” writes psychologist Dan McAdams in his defining work The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self. We each live them, knowing the truest versions of our selves are not necessarily factual but must feel authentic. In life, the self is both constructed and inevitable. (I can, for example, feign caring about sports for a few minutes but, eventually, my disdain reveals itself as I inevitably shift in my chair and start to glance around the room.) The self on the page, however, is wholly constructed. It is edited to reveal fine points of character, to illuminate cares and values. Anyone who writes with even a hint of self-revelation knows that moment of questioning, of asking, “Is this who I want people to know?” The parts in which we reveal our vulnerability and complexity are often the very best parts, for they enable us to find our selves in the other. It’s what makes our singular stories universal.
Christensen writes of a life absent of considerable tension or challenge: waking up when she desires, writing all day while her younger partner whom she deeply loves — a man with whom she’s “never felt lonely” — does the same, cooking dinner with said man over glasses of wine, walking her dog Dingo through sunrises and sunsets. She presents as her sole challenge — after struggling to renovate her dream home on a budget — “the near-melancholy sense of my own luck, my settled happiness. The melancholy came from an underlying and very real fear of losing it all.” It is what the women at the shelter had reminded her: her love and happiness “couldn’t last forever. Nothing could.”
This idyllic picture belies the life to which Christensen referred in the anthology Why We Write About Ourselves:
My relationship with food has been anything but smooth. In addition to pleasure and joy, I’ve gone through eating disorders, weight swings, hunger, gluttony, alcohol abuse, poverty, and manic loss of appetite. So the memoir had to delve into the darkness […] I wanted to show my life in all its messy complexity, its many ups and downs, without trying to codify or label anything.
How to Cook a Moose offers but a glimpse of this messy, real woman. And when she disappears, her narrative beacon M. F. K. Fisher does, too. As a stand-alone, the book serves up heartfelt reflections on the food history of Maine and insights into the ways we build community, meal by meal. It illuminates, through rich, meaty portraits of the chefs, foragers, fishermen, hunters, and farmers who make up the culinary fabric of the state. As a continuation of the social and culinary classic How to Cook a Wolf, it leaves the reader hungry for more.