Tabitha Blankenbiller is the author of Eats of Eden: A Foodoir, published by Alternating Currents Press in March 2018. It’s a collection of personal essays, each ending with a recipe. It’s also a coming-of-age story, charting the author’s parallel development as writer, cook, and human. We follow her ambitions and dreams of perfection—at her desk, in the kitchen, and in the realm of friendship and marriage. We cheer her on as if she were our best friend. Because it feels like she is. Sarah Einstein says, “Reading Eats of Eden is like having a delicious leisurely lunch with a smart, insightful friend.” Melissa Grunow says, “Blankenbiller has packaged longing, self-doubt, body image, and love for others and food into fun and fulfilling narrative recipes for living an authentic life.” I agree. She is our companion and our guide.
But it’s the writing that makes the work so distinctive. The style is a pop-culture-infused tour de force, bubbling over with effervescence and longing. It is breathless, over-the-top, and achingly open hearted.
I met Tabitha at Pacific University, when we were both studying in the MFA program. She was our featured graduation speaker and even then we knew she would speak for us all. If you can’t see yourself in her book, you’re not really looking.
We conducted the interview over e-mail, talking about some of my favorite topics: how to write memoir if your family isn’t dysfunctional, how to find joy in failure, and how to make the best sandwich on the planet.
It’s been fascinating for me to experience this book in bits and pieces while it was being written and then, when it was finally done, to read the whole thing. I had a little apprehension, thinking it might not be as suspenseful or fresh to me as it would be to new readers, but that wasn’t true at all. The sum is much greater than the parts. I was moved by the climax in the penultimate chapter and by the wisdom of the resolution. By the end, we realize all the narrative threads have been moving towards this heartfelt and self-aware conclusion. The book reads as if you’re on a journey of discovery and we, the readers, are your traveling partners.
I had so much fear going into the final draft that the book lacked excitement. Maybe because, at that point, I had known for so long what I finally realized in those last couple of essays.
That’s part of why revision is so hard. When you’re writing the first draft, you’re making discoveries. But then by the time you’re working on the final draft your epiphanies are no longer new to you but you have to make them still feel new for the reader. Which you do.
Your comments are whiskey to the nerves.
It takes a leap of faith to start writing a book without knowing what you’ll find out. How did you think the book would end, when you first started?
I saw a couple of possibilities, as in, I either finished the novel I set out at the beginning to write or I didn’t.
Because, in part, it’s a memoir about trying to write a novel.
Right. I didn’t know that my estranged friendship would play as much of a role as it ended up playing, since I didn’t think the content of the novel I was attempting to write (about that friendship) was consequential, and this was a book about food and writing. When Alternating Current contracted with me to write the book, I had only written a few food-and-writing column essays for them, which span the length of time from when I was waiting for an agent’s feedback at Crater Lake to setting my goal of finishing a novel in one year at Oktoberfest. My goals, my writing, and the world have changed dramatically since then. I actually went to France!
Instead of just fantasizing about cooking in Julia Child’s kitchen.
And also, the book ends mere months before the 2016 election, and I went through a huge crisis of confidence over whether this book should exist in the world now. I tried adding an epilogue that I wrote last January, which was basically the same rambling and terrified Facebook post we’ve all put up and been subsequently unfriended by our right-wing relatives. It took me another year to realize that not every book is going to be a roadmap on how to upheave the current administration, and we do need books that show us how to find joy amidst failure, disappointment, and fear. That isn’t a small thing. That isn’t an unnecessary thing.
But the book was conceived, as you say, before we needed it as much as we do now. What’s the origin story? I love the feeling that we are along for the ride, that the action is unfolding as we’re reading. How did you manage that?
The meta-unfolding is very real! This book was conceived and arranged just as I was starting to work in earnest on Emily and Julia, so you get to see me lose out on an agent In Real Time! I don’t know how I managed that. It’s magnificent to think that perhaps I did pull it off after all. I heavily edited the book over a week this past April, when I rented a little cabin at Silver Falls State Park. The weather was atrocious and raccoons came and ransacked my cooler, so I didn’t have much to do except for make a nest of blankets and work through the manuscript word by word. That was where I was able to come back with more distance, and shape those sort of this-just-happened essays into more objective, finished pieces. I’m (still) working full-time, so it’s hard for me to dedicate stretches of time to editing sprawling drafts like this. I think that was the biggest challenge for me, the time and the dedication, which is something that comes up quite a bit throughout the finished book.
In Eats of Eden you mention an earlier book of personal essays that didn’t get published. It feels as if those essays haven’t disappeared, though. They laid the groundwork for the essays here. Do you have enough distance to see the situation like that, now?
I think that’s true. I wouldn’t call any of my previous books wasted, and that goes all the way back to my undergrad thesis, which peeks in a bit in the chapter Accidental Fire. Honestly, I don’t think I was at a level with my writing skills that justified publishing a book in those older drafts.
I have begrudgingly come around to being relieved that my first book isn’t Confessions of a Lutheran Schoolgirl, or Tilth, or Paper Bag, or Untitled Tabitha Has Body Image Issues Project. Working through all of those old ideas made me a better writer. An advance, no matter how big and gorgeous, isn’t going to make that happen. There’s no shortcut into chops. At least this time, I’m closer.
One of my favorite quotes is, “Matt, who would quietly remind me on occasion, There’s a lot to be happy about. No one in the world is as hard on you are you are.” We all need a Matt to tell us those things, don’t we? Throughout the book, he’s the voice of reason, the straight guy/engineer to your effervescent/artist character. He’s speaking to all of us, like a Greek chorus. You didn’t always take his wisdom to heart, though, did you? Is that part of the evolution from that earlier manuscript to this book?
Maybe. I think it’s been a slow evolution personally to figure out the role he plays in my writing life, since he’s not a writer and he is, frankly, not a reader. When I was younger and high on MFA fumes I thought, there was no way we could go on like this. I was so “new” and “artistic” and he was the same man he’d been when we met. It’s taken many years, and many failures, to understand the value of someone who supports what you’re doing because of the joy and drive they see that it brings to you, not because they necessarily understand what, precisely, you’re doing.
Your mom is another of my favorite characters. Memoir is not known for its positive portrayals of mothers, so yours is so refreshing. Did you have any models for creative nonfiction about functional families?
That’s a tough one! I remember also in those very early MFA days of wishing my family wasn’t so together, that they were a liability. How was I ever going to write a Serious and Literary Memoir with a bunch of people who got along and enjoyed each other’s company and loved each other without weird passive aggressive years-of-buried-resentment-and-hurt dynamics going on? See, when you’re first starting and don’t know what the hell you’re doing, you’re always angling for a shortcut.
Chloe Caldwell writes well about her positive relationships with her parents, and their support, and how it’s factors outside of that warm, loving environment that tear and complicate her life open. Her collection Legs Get Led Astray was one of my earliest influences in figuring out how to put together a more contemporary, essay-like memoir. Aaron Gilbreath in Everything We Don’t Know achieves the same effect. I love both of these books, and writers, and how the message is clear: “hey mom and dad, this isn’t your fault!”
And mom, and dad? None of it’s your fault. Except for the good things. Those are all you.
At a low point in the book, your narrator says, “I was the most mediocre version of all of my selves.” In what way does memoir allow us to see and capture our many different iterations?
I think what’s important about memoir is that it both holds us accountable for our bullshit, but also gives us context for forgiveness. It’s healthy to look back and realize how you were wrong and naïve, but by writing through why you held these beliefs and what your expectations were, and what did or did not force you to change them, that forces you to be empathetic. It demands that you be critical but also understanding, instead of brushing off a previous iteration of yourself with self-depreciation. Yes, we were all stupid in high school and college and our twenties and early thirties and last week, but taking the time to understand that person is a challenge. It forces you to stop squinting, to look your actions and feelings square in the face and ask, why? When you come up with an honest answer, an answer that both holds you accountable and recognizes who and where you were, it helps other people to see themselves in the same way. It’s contagious empathy.
If we want to start making the recipes, which one should we start with? Which is your favorite?
The banh mi! That is my favorite sandwich on the planet, and it’s so freaking easy, but doesn’t taste like it’s easy. It doesn’t have that “fast food” heaviness of many other quick recipes. The fresh, sharp slaw keeps everything lively. It comes together while you’re making Jeopardy! and you can still keep answering the questions right along. I could happily eat it every day for the rest of my life.
Sounds delicious. Like your book.