Book review: Eat, Live, Love, Die, by Betty Fussell
Before she started writing, Betty Fussell, who’s now over 90, was married to author Paul Fussell. Her marriage and family life, and the problems therein, became the subject of her memoir My Kitchen Wars, which also focused on her divorce and issues of domesticity. She’d started editing some of her husband’s work before embarking on her own writing career, and he didn’t think much of her becoming a writer, calling it “silly”.
It didn’t deter her, and she’s since authored around 20 books, with one in the works, How to Cook a Coyote: A Manual of Survival, about surviving in New York City. After reading her candid takes on life here, written both from younger perspectives and the vantage of time passed, I’m so excited to see what wisdom that one holds.
Fussell’s catalog is mainly food writing, especially food history, with plenty of forays into travel, biography and profiles, entertainment, and humorous life stories with a dose of culture. In addition to several books of food histories (like on corn and beef, detailed histories of which I didn’t realize existed) she’s written extensively about the history of American cooking, a subject I love. “Most of the world, including much of America, didn’t think we had a cookery,” she rightly explains in a James Beard profile, who in the 1950s helped introduce the nuances of American cuisine to the world.
I hate to tell her but many still think we’re little more than fast food and packaged products, but she makes an important point and Beard’s story is an interesting one profiled here. This is worth the read alone for her folksy explorations and celebration of American cooking and its possibilities.
The media and marketing voices of American cooking are noisy but they don’t tell half of it, not even of the cooking of provincial New Jersey, where I have sampled native venison sausage and Concord grape pie and freshly smoked bluefish. In America, there are so many gustatory mouths, so many vernacular voices.
Anyway, while prolifically publishing books, she was also prolifically publishing essays. In 2016, a number of them, spanning decades, were collected in Eat, Live, Love, Die, an eclectic collection primarily of food writing interspersed with life lessons and reflections on travel, relationships, and any number of other topics (not all previously published either). Fussell’s voice is one of experience and the willingness to always learn – in love, work, and worldliness, even as time slips away faster than we reckoned. The straightforward title should indicate what can be expected from her voice.
She’s no-nonsense, with a blunt, jocular tone coming across like that of someone who’s seen and done it all and doesn’t have any damns left to give about decorum or the opinions of others. Even the essays written years ago read that way – it seems she’d always been through too much to bother mincing words. A seasoned traveler with stories of cuisine and culture from around the globe, at age 60 she undertook scaling Machu Picchu. In “The Surviving Galapagos,” she writes, after delightfully detailing this journey: “Looking forward but walking backward, I ended my journey where all journeys should end, at the refreshed center of yourself.”
And if you think you’ve had some tough scrapes in the kitchen, Betty’s got you beat. One raw and evocative essay describes her purchase of a live eel in Chinatown, traveling home with it on the NYC subway as it writhes in its bag against her stomach, and eventually the saga of butchering it in an apartment kitchen. A never-sated appetite for curiosity and adventures, both looking inward and branching outward, run through every story.
She trains her lens often on food as history and what that means to us personally and as a greater culture: “When food is the lens, you can see all the contradictions of self and time right there on your plate. And with each bite, you bite into your past, memories of your family, your tribe, your race, your tree-swinging ancestors. And into your future, your kids’, your country’s, your globe’s.”
If I want to recall a particular time and place, I think not of my love life but of my life in food.
The profiles of several chefs including M.F.K. Fisher, her idol, and the Ethiopian-Swedish Marcus Samuelsson are also beautifully written and revealing, always with her worldly sense of delivering a message. In “Breaking Bread with Africa”, she quotes Samuelsson, making the salient point of what America’s melting pot culture and mobility means for immigrants: “It is America, he believes, that has allowed him to be fully both Ethiopian and Swedish…as he puts it, ‘In Sweden, Einstein would have been a dishwasher.'”
My favorite piece was the bittersweet and lovely “My Daughter the Painter”.
When confronted with my daughter’s portrait just a couple of years later, I finally had to examine my own memories and the images they evoked. I had to ask myself whether I hadn’t worn motherhood as a mask all through my thirties and forties in order to conceal what I really wanted to be – Cinderella permanently at the ball, not back home scrubbing out the fireplace…Beyond infidelity, what I was hiding from everyone was that I didn’t know how to be a mother. I didn’t know what a mother was. So how could I possibly raise a family?
I was surprised by the confessional, self-reflective nature she displays. It’s not that all women of her generation are self-contained, worlds unto themselves – but it was certainly a time of things left unsaid, feminism viewed suspiciously, and deeply entrenched domestic ideals. She’d been through it, embraced and rejected it, and then forged a path completely, unapologetically her own.
The honesty with which she examines her failings and mistakes – marital infidelity, shortcomings as a mother, frank discussions with her kids – surprised me coming from a woman of her age and background. Even just the way she describes it – “all the doors in a houseful of corridors with tightly shut doors flew open at once”, the very imagery counters crafted ideas of wholesome, idyllic 1950s family life.
One thing that comes across about Fussell is that she’ll never be content with the status quo. She loves the kitchen but she won’t be trapped there. She refuses to allow boxed brands and fast food stereotypes to define American cooking. She shines a spotlight on her mistakes, some that are typical of her generation, and creates teaching moments.
One essay, “4-F Food”, starts out discussing gloppy World War II-era college campus food before suddenly delving into the reintegration of young former soldiers on campuses, and how date rape was “an oxymoron” after their experiences abroad. It’s jarring, forthright, and characterizes her funny, nostalgic remembrances intertwined with darker, unsettling life events, often those undiscussed and suffered privately, forcing a difficult reflection. It’s good to see where I was and good to know I’m not there now, she quotes her daughter when helping her clean out a house with its lifetime of possessions.
And for all her directness and toughness, there’s a vulnerable sensitivity in her personal stories. The line, “It was the kind of dress that when it died you wanted to bury it, it carried so much of your life in the fabric” has been running through my mind as I prepare to retire one such dress of my own.
It’s not without flaws – some pieces felt dated or difficult to connect with, or had a tone or topic that appealed less. But on the whole it’s a revealing, thoughtful, wide-ranging collection from a wise and energetic writer I’m discovering much too late. Luckily she doesn’t seem to be finished telling stories yet. 3.5/5