Memoirs have never been easy to pull off. For starters, no matter how interesting we may personally find our own Pinot Noir-enlivened nights, publishers have long gravitated to those authors who are famous enough to keep those Williams-Sonoma book signing lines out the front door. Even if those memoir proposals from Julia Child before her posthumous movie star days and Ruth Reichl during her Gourmet pinnacle might not have had publishers licking their chops quite like the one for Sarah Palin (we'll refrain from comment), there is still a compelling argument to be made that there was a pre-existing audience for those authors.
Of course anyone whose culinary journey is rife with as many rotten apples as perfect tarte tatins, and who has a writing style that is interesting enough to keep the pages turning could write a culinary memoir. But let's face it, we're talking about crème brûlée, not the State of the Union. Which gets us to A Tiger In The Kitchen, the recently released memoir by 30-something Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan.
Today, we're seeing an impressive — or alarming, depending on how you look at it — number of these food memoirs written by “foodies” who tell essentially the same early adult coming of age story: How some sort of culinary revelation altered their lives. The moment they learned that cayenne pepper is so much more than just a spice. And other weighty issues.
As much as we really want to love books like A Tiger in the Kitchen (Who doesn't love the story of the unknown author getting her big break?), it was difficult to swallow the story of the laid-off Wall Street Journal fashion reporter who rediscovered her Singapore roots and family through cooking. One too many food descriptions feel forced, and then there's that overly familiar story line. We made it halfway through the book before putting it down.
The book is a reminder that unless the author is that rare, beautifully observant food writer who also has an incredible knack for descriptive restraint (David Lebovitz, we're talking about you), a memoir by an unknown author is extremely difficult to write effectively. By its very nature, a memoir fuels our insatiable desire to read about, say, a political or celebrity scandal through the eyes of the person who experienced them, or to simply to read about the journey of truly great contributor to a field, like Child.
To tell a yet-unheard of personal story well requires a truly astounding storyline, and/or someone with a remarkable storytelling ability. Consider Gabrielle Hamilton, the New York chef who had already faced more than a lifetime's share of hurdles by her early 20s (homelessness, thieving, drug addiction, and starvation among them). You turn each page of Blood, Butter and Bones eagerly anticipating another bomb to drop (it does). That Hamilton is one of the most poetic writers we have read in years, and herself comes across as mature beyond her years, certainly sweetens the storyline (check back for that review).
When those elements are missing from an unknown author's memoir, it's impossible not to ask yourself on every page whether you really care about the what-I-ate-for-breakfast flashbacks. As Neil Genzlinger so eloquently summarizes in his hilarious New York Times article, “It's the reader who will need a hug after choking down this orgy of self-congratulation and self-pity. That's what happens when immature writers write memoirs: they don't realize that an ordeal, served up without perspective or perceptiveness, is merely an ordeal.”
And yet we don't blame our memoir frustration on authors like Tan. We're hoping she writes a food reporting book, as that seems to be her strength at this stage in her career. It seems the publishing industry has absolutely no clue what to do with — or how to sell to — the current culinary prose reader. Those tens of thousands of web hits may reveal that yes, we are lapping up a favorite food bloggers' musings on how they rediscovered their mom's lasagna after a personal loss. Does that mean the same writer can sustain our attention for hundreds of pages as they recall similar moments in memoir form? Maybe, but it's a rare talent. As Genzlinger summarizes: Perhaps we can all have “a moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.” Indeed. Ourselves included.