Not one, but two memoirs by lesbians have come out recently that weave together stories of food, family, and personal growth. Like two dishes at a well-planned meal, each has its own flavor, and they complement each other well. A third new memoir, though not food-related, adds yet another flavor with the tale of a lesbian couple facing the ups and downs of infertility during the height of California’s marriage equality battle.
Elissa Altman’s Poor Man’s Feast is a luscious love story by a food writer and cookbook editor whose blog of the same name won the prestigious James Beard Award in 2012 for Individual Food Blog. Food is Altman’s life—she has worked at New York’s famed Dean & Deluca gourmet grocery, trained at the Peter Kump Cooking School in that city, and been the food editor for a now-defunct dotcom.
When the born-and-bred New Yorker falls in love with a woman in rural Connecticut, however, she finds her relationship to food evolves as well. Altman, who grew up thinking food was best when “fancy” or “tall” and that vegetables were, at best, an afterthought, discovers the joys of fresh, simple, homegrown food as she also discovers how to build a life with someone who shares her love of food, but comes at it from a different perspective.
As she narrates the story of her deepening relationship, Altman also reflects back, telling us of growing up with a father who loved fine dining but a mother who was a model and singer and hated to eat. She shows us how so many of our childhood memories are bound up with memories of food—and how so many of our patterns, food-related and otherwise, persist throughout our lives. There is much to savor here, including recipes of some of her favorite dishes.
For Candace Walsh, author of Licking the Spoon, food forms a metaphor and delineator for her personal life. Walsh begins before the beginning, with the stories and foods of her Cuban and Greek grandparents, and leads us through her childhood and young adulthood, failed relationships, struggling career as a writer and editor, drug and bulimia problems, marriage and parenthood with a man, and finally, divorce and falling in love with a woman. It is a coming-of-age story broadly speaking more than a coming-out story per se, placing her coming out in the context of her whole life’s path.
From the “poverty pea soup” of her college days to the meals she cooks to impress potential lovers, then for husband and children, food reflects not only her financial, but also her emotional state. She, too, includes recipes for the reader.
Walsh’s book is particularly notable for being a lesbian mom memoir of a different sort than we usually see. Instead of two already-partnered women deciding to try and get pregnant, we see a woman who is already a mom deciding to come out. The history of out lesbian parents began this way, back in the 1970s, and still continues in force, according to the latest demographic statistics. Licking the Spoon is a reminder that we still take on the mantle of an LGBT parent in a variety of ways. The book isn’t primarily “about” being a lesbian mom—the “mom” part comes late and the “lesbian” part later—but it nevertheless adds to the small canon of memoirs that explore how LGBT people arrive at parenthood.
In a more traditional “lesbians have a baby” vein, Cheryl Dumesnil’s Love Song for Baby X is a memoir of biological family creation in the style of Harlan Aizley's Buying Dad, Andrea Askowitz' My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy, Amie Klempnauer Miller’s She Looks Just Like You, and Sarah Kate Ellis and Kristen Henderson’s Times Two. Fertility problems are a factor in each of these books, although Dumesnil makes it more of a focal point than the others. Her tale does not have the neurotic humor of Aizley and Askowitz, but it is far from somber, and shows her background as an award-winning poet in its careful details, metaphors, and self-reflections.
While Dumesnil’s struggle with infertility provides the main theme of the book, the marriage equality fight in California—and her role as participant, chronicler, and media subject—also looms large. It would be a shame, however, if only LGBT people read her work. Any person who has experienced infertility will find much that resonates—and those who are still hesitant about letting same-sex couples marry may find the interwoven stories sway them.
The most refreshing thing about all three of the above books, however, is that they contain absolutely no angst about coming out or being lesbian. Even in Walsh’s book, where coming out is a key turning point, there is little trauma or soul-searching about it. Walsh delves into the brave new world of lesbian dating, and while she finds much that is different, dives into it like she would into a new recipe: uncertain of how it will turn out, but enjoying the process of creation and discovery.
Not that angst-filled stories don’t have their place. But in a world where so many books and news reports deal with the “issues” of being LGBT, it’s also nice to see stories of LGBT people where their issues have less to do with being LGBT, and more to do with being human.
Altman will be at Harvard Book Store in Cambridge on Friday, April 12, at 7:00 p.m.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), an award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBT parents.