Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Mealy Mouthed

A smart woman cooks and lives to tell about it

By Heather Heilman

NOVEMBER 8, 1999: 

My Kitchen Wars: A Memoir by Betty Fussell (North Point Press), 238 pp., $23

My Kitchen Wars is a memoir of a life spent cooking. In the 1950s and 1960s, Betty Fussell was an academic wife, married to literary scholar-turned-historian Paul Fussell, who attained a degree of literary stardom with the 1975 publication of his book on World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory. Paul Fussell chose an educated, intelligent wife because he wanted a woman he could talk to, someone who was his intellectual near-match. But those were times when gender roles in marriage were rigid and immutably fixed, as was Paul Fussell's conception of the differences between men and women. Betty Fussell writes that after the couple announced their engagement, he gave her a drawerful of socks to darn and shirts to mend.

"I'd married a pigeonholer and a basic pair of pigeonholes became the ground of our running argument for the next thirty years: men were one thing, women another. Their positions in the Great Chain of Being had been fixed by God for all eternity. Read Milton, for chrissake. 'He for God only, she for God in him.'"

What was a smart woman to do? Betty Fussell went to graduate school, studying the "vulgar" and "inferior" genre of drama so as not to compete with her husband. She had two children, even while she and her husband remained grimly determined that babies would not change their lives. She gossiped with other faculty wives. She dabbled in political activism. She had intellectual conversations turned arguments turned bitter verbal battles with her husband. And she cooked.

Betty Fussell chronicles her transformation from a young wife cooking hot dogs and macaroni and cheese for her husband to a Julia Child protégée preparing French cuisine for dinner parties of 200. Cooking was an outlet for frustrated intelligence and creativity. Food is the great leveler. Even above-it-all intellectual husbands have to eat. Cooking is sensual, artistic, and gratifyingly violent.

"Hunger, like lust in action, is savage, extreme, rude, cruel. To satisfy it is to do battle, deploying a full range of artillery -- crushers, scrapers, beaters, roasters, gougers, grinders, to name but a few of the thousand and two implements that line my walls and cram my drawers -- in the daily struggle to turn ingredients into edibles for devouring mouths. Life eats life, and if we are to live, others must die -- just as if we are to love, we must die a little ourselves."

The problem with food is that you eat it and it's gone. After decades in the kitchen, Fussell felt she had little to show for her labors. She began to write -- a biography of comedienne Mabel Normand, restaurant reviews for The New York Times, a cookbook. All the while, her (now ex-) husband insisted she couldn't write and advised her to stick to things she was good at, like cooking.

The truth is Fussell writes very well, and this is a delicious little book, albeit one with a few discordant notes. Her treatment of Paul Fussell sometimes seems like a long-delayed (and possibly well-deserved) act of revenge, as when she relates his fondness for Day-Glo nylon bikini briefs and obsession with shaving his pubic hair that preceded his eventual outing as a lover of college-age boys. She is very funny on the subject of her husband, but whatever he may have been in her life, in the book he sometimes seems not much more than an easy target.

Her children, on the other hand, are barely present in the book. This may be out of concern for their privacy, but after she has confessed her desire to shunt the tedious burdens of motherhood, we have to wonder if she did just that. There are other odd moments when the reader might question the writer's character, as when she mentions in an offhand way that she skipped her father's funeral.

Still, her voice is tough, honest, and self-deprecating. That and sharp, elegant writing excuse a multitude of minor sins.

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