I fell in love with Kate Christensen’s fiction for the smart but deeply flawed characters, the vibrant settings, the good old-fashioned plot twists and, of course, the prose, once described by Janelle Brown in the San Francisco Chronicle as “visceral and poetic, like being bludgeoned with an exquisitely painted sledgehammer.” Always in the mix, lusciously omnipresent, was food and booze, flavoring the titles (In The Drink, The Epicure’s Lament) and served generously through the scenes. There was no doubt the author was deeply involved with eating and drinking.
In 2012, I was delighted to find her essay “How To Cook A Clam” in The New York Times Book Review. This extremely charming narrative recipe gave a storyteller’s spin to food writing, and turned out to be an amuse-bouche for the 2013 memoir, Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites, a moody, wide-ranging, emotionally and culinarily intense saga that took readers from Christensen’s early childhood in Berkeley, Calif., to her current residence in Maine, with many stops, and soups, between, including a particularly memorable potage called “Dark Night of the Soul.”
The next year I got a call from Kirkus Reviews asking me to be a judge of its new $50,000 Kirkus Prize for fiction, a pot five times greater than either the Pulitzer or the National Book Award. The same 50K would be given to a nonfiction and a young-adult author, and each winner would be picked by a committee of three, a bookseller, a critic and an author. For fiction, I was told, I would be the critic, the bookseller was Stephanie Valdez of the Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, and the fiction writer was Kate Christensen. My inner fan-girl let out a tiny shriek.
After months of three-way conference calls, Christensen, Valdez and I met at the prize ceremony in Austin. Serious margaritas, Mexican food and talk about books ensued. Kate told us about the new book she was writing, called How To Cook A Moose, for a small-press publisher in Maine. The title was a play on MFK Fisher’s “How to Cook a Wolf,” about cooking in hard economic times, and the story was an extension of the very brief happy ending of Blue Plate, about living and eating in Maine.
“It’s a book about happiness and settledness and finding my place,” says Christensen, “after that earlier book about upheaval, heartbreak and coming of age. I instinctively felt that I had a second memoir in me, but this one would be less personal and emotional, more about discovering how to live a contented, meaningful and happy life, and beyond that, what this place I’ve landed in is: its history, its food, its people, its geography and landscape and weather.”
Reading How To Cook A Moose is a contact high, a bit like mainlining somebody else’s endorphins—the author is so in love with Maine, with her twenty-years-younger soulmate/boyfriend, with her new house and her new town and everything about it. Not to mention the food. I was ready to pack up and move by about page five. In lieu of that, I made the Black Kettle Farm Vegetable Stew on page 258 and sent Christensen a list of questions.
So…what did you have for dinner last night?
I’m so happy that you asked that, because for once, it wasn’t a slap-up cupboard supper made by me out of whatever’s on hand. We splurged last night and took ourselves out to Petite Jacqueline, our favorite corner bistro, which happens to be three blocks from our house, and sat at the bar. We shared a dozen briny Damariscotta oysters. Then Brendan ordered a green salad and a gruyere cheeseburger and frites, and I had a butter lettuce salad with marinated thin strips of summer squash and buttermilk dressing, and then a rich, large, very fresh duck egg perfectly cooked in butter, ringed with buttery vegetables: little mushroom caps, fresh-shucked peas, corn, and pearl onions. For dessert, we shared a mousse au chocolat. It was all very festive.
I have to confess, I was sort of hoping to catch you out eating a can of gluten-free Spaghetti-Os or something, but that meal is as perfect as the ones you describe in your book. The restaurant scene in Portland sounds pretty amazing.
Our joke is that Portland has only two of anything, but they’re both good. So the range of choice isn’t like a bigger city’s, and you can’t get good cheap Indian or Korean food anywhere (that I know of) (at least not yet). In a place this small, everyone’s watching one another, everyone’s interconnected. There’s a lot of pride in Maine. Chefs are on their toes, for the most part, and when they’re not, they hear about it.
But if you had made one of your cupboard suppers, which unfold like little stories in the book, it probably would have been just as dreamy. Like this one:
We drank tequila on ice with limes while I made a quick semi-succotash of the Earles’ pattypan squash and green-and-orange, knobby, lumpy, richly ripe heirloom tomatoes, chopped and sauteed in olive oil with smoked paprika, Worcestershire sauce, and the tiny bit of old dried thyme left in the glass jar. While it bubbled, I fried four of the eggs we’d just bought. They were so fresh, their yolks were orangey-gold and their whites puffed up a little in the hot oil. I slid them on top of the vegetable stew, two per plate, and we tucked in.
You are such a passionate eater, it would be contagious if I didn’t already have a full-blown case, and I use the term full-blown advisedly. Which reminds me, readers would like to know how you keep your lovely figure.
Well, thanks, but over the years, I put on some brand-new, highly unwelcome weight up here: lack of stress, settled contentment and midlife will do that to a girl, and exercise alone was not combating it. But three months ago, at the beginning of this past summer, I just quit drinking after 30 years of hedonistic indulging. And even though I substituted a newfound chocolate habit for red wine, the weight has all come off, seemingly by magic. So that’s my secret: San Pellegrino water with lemon.
What? YOU quit drinking? The woman who had a cocktail column in the Wall Street Journal? This is serious. No writer, except maybe Hemingway with those damn Negronis, can make me want a drink worse than you. But the funny thing is, I took a break from drinking a couple weeks ago hoping to lose some weight myself, and I was reading your book during this so-far-pretty-short period of sobriety and all its tempting cold white wines and Scotch Club meetings made me very glad I wasn’t planning to quit forever.
Did I say I quit forever?
Okay, as long as we can at least potentially have a margarita next time we meet I think I can stand it. Speaking of abstinence, I think the many people who don’t eat gluten will enjoy the way the issue appears in this book. Usually it’s just part of business as usual, but there a couple of really challenging moments when you’re faced with food too delicious to pass up (Maine), or restaurant staff too inconsiderate to go on living (New York.)
I’m one of those people who’s affected by it, I don’t do it because it’s a fad. Are you kidding? I’d eat the hell out of gluten if I could. When the alternative is to become depressed and bloated, it’s pretty easy to forgo it, especially when there are so many things now that I can eat, including excellent Italian pasta and good sandwich bread and kickass baked goods. I’m not exactly suffering here.
A big component of the book is your visits and interviews with Maine farmers, entrepreneurs, fishermen, and cooks. It’s fun how the reader can kind of see through to how tickled they were by your hero worship.
Flat-out admiration is a great way to get people to tell you things.
A great tip. Write that down, class.
If you’re suspicious and skeptical and judgmental, people tend to clam up. In this case, the feeling was absolutely genuine, which the people I was writing about also sensed. No one was guarded with me because I wasn’t guarded with them. I approached everyone with curiosity and respect and eagerness. “Who are you? What are you doing?” I was like that as a six-year-old, and I evermore shall be.
On the other hand, you’re kind of hard on the hipsters of Brooklyn, now that you’re smitten with the strapping beauties of Maine. They get made fun of for the same flash pickles you so admire when you’re up north!
I think New York can take a bit of ribbing, and after 20 years there, I earned the right. It’s like giving shit to a family member. Hipsters in North Brooklyn, where I lived for most of those 20 years, can be insufferably pretentious about whatever is trendy; they think they’re at the epicenter of cool. I’ve been making fun of this attitude my entire writing life; there is a healthy dose of satirical fun-poking at North Brooklyn hipsters in most of my novels. I watched it all happen, from 1990 to 2010, when I got the hell out of there for good. And via the Internet, I can hear hipsters’ shrieks of delight at their derring-do and awesomeness, LOOK AT ME! I’M MAKING FLASH PICKLES IN MY FLANNEL SHIRT AND BEARD WHILST DRINKING SMALL BATCH BEER AND EATING GARLIC SCAPES AND RAMPS I FORAGED MYSELF! Living in Maine affords me a certain perspective on such trumpeting. People in Maine don’t have that sort of hubris about making flash pickles or foraging for food. They’re poor, and they learned it from their parents, and it’s how people get by. And for the record, they don’t call them “flash pickles” up here. In fact, usually, they pickle things for the long haul.
One last thing—as I was reading the book, I felt sure there was a conflict or a crisis or a dark passage coming, if only for literary reasons. As you say early on, in fact right after the excerpt about the soup kitchen that’s up here on TNB:
As I walked home, I felt yet again that near-melancholy sense of my own luck, my settled happiness. The woman at the shelter had illuminated that for me. The melancholy came from an underlying and very real fear of losing it all. This was the trouble with finding true love and a happy home: It couldn’t last forever. Nothing could. But that was the only trouble with any of it that I could see.
At that point, I wrote in the margin: ‘Foreboding?’ But my fears were unfounded. It’s as if Al Green’s “Love and Happiness,” which is playing when you walk into the best doughnut store in the world, even has gluten-free dark chocolate doughnuts, just keeps playing throughout the book.
Yup. And of course it’s boring to read about happiness. As readers, fed from the get-go on dark, elementally scary children’s stories, we crave something fucked up to happen. But this book was a passion project; I went with happiness as the top note, the melodic leitmotif that is sustained throughout. I broke the rule of plot and arc. And lo, it was fun.
I guess the fucked up part is the lobsters. I was horrified to read about global warming gradually killing them.
Well, there’s your dark side: not in my personal life, at least not at the moment, but everywhere, all around us. And it runs throughout the book like a basso continuo. No matter how happy or unhappy we are, life as we know it on our planet is endangered, and there’s no escape from that. The environment is increasingly fucked up. It’s so much bigger than any one individual life. Yesterday, there was a piece in the Portland Press-Herald by my friend Mary Pols about the fact that mussels, which are called “the people’s seafood,” are mysteriously disappearing from the shores of Maine, cause unknown. All we have left are farmed mussels. The wild shrimp and fish are just about gone. The lobsters will go, too, it’s only a matter of time. And it’s happening in on way or another everywhere on earth.
You’re working on a novel again, right? So excited to hear this, can you spill a bean or two?
I’ve spent the summer working on it, and I’m about 2/3 through the first draft, which means I’m sort of getting there, but I have a lot of work still to do. It’s about a cruise ship. The working title is The Last Cruise. It is not set in Maine, needless to say.
Maine is a writer’s paradise, it seems. You Lily King, Stephen and gang, Bill Roorbach, god knows who else…like BROOKLYN, almost!
I know! But the Brooklyn writer scene frankly terrified me. I’m not scared up here. It feels like a big friendly sandbox. …some other year-round transplants and native writers are Rick Russo, Jessica Anthony, Mary Pols, Genevieve Morgan, Ron Currie, Jr., Monica Wood, Sarah Braunstein, Melissa Coleman, Kathryn Miles, Brock Clarke, Lewis Robinson, Carolyn Chute, Roxana Robinson, Eleanor Morse…the list goes on and on and ON. For such an underpopulated state, there’s a glut of writers, and there’s a good reason for that. There aren’t a lot of distractions, for one thing.
Except breakfast, lunch, and dinner, thank God.
KATE CHRISTENSEN is the author of Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites as well as six previous novels, including The Epicure’s Lament and The Great Man, which won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. She writes about food, drink, sex, life, and books for numerous publications, most recently The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, Elle, Cherry Bombe, Vogue, Food & Wine, The Wall Street Journal, and several anthologies, including Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, edited by Meghan Daum. Christensen lives in Portland, Maine, and the White Mountains, and is currently at work on a new novel, The Last Cruise. Her second memoir, How To Cook A Moose: A Culinary Memoir, is being published by Islandport Press this month.