the museum of americana

a literary review

Interview with Tabitha Blankenbiller

Reviews/Interviews Editor Ann Beman interviews Tabitha Blankenbiller about Eats of Eden, her pop culture memoir in essays that combines nostalgia with cooking while addressing such themes as forgiveness, friendship, and falling on your face and getting up anyway.

Which authors and what books are your foodoir inspirations?

I read Ruth Reichl’s memoir Tender at the Bone early on in grad school, which is a masterclass in gracefully writing about food in a way that doesn’t lose any literary integrity. I’m also a big fan of the writing style in the Smitten Kitchen blog and cookbooks, which is warm and conversational, but not too plucky or cloying. I admire food writing that’s irreverent but doesn’t fall into being precious or gimmicky, which is what you’ll find most times you click on a perfect cupcake picture on Pinterest. This all comes down on the fact that, essentially, I just want to be Samantha Irby.
 
Cooking and writing both require ritual. What are your favorite rituals surrounding cooking and writing?

I don’t consider myself to be either exceptionally organized or tidy, but I can’t cook or write in a mess. When I was growing up and would convince my mom to let me into the kitchen for any kind of cooking project, simple kid’s stuff like chocolate chip cookies or cheese dip, she instilled one non-negotiable rule: clean as you go. I may not be as great as my mom at utilizing my downtime while something bakes or marinates to load up the dishwasher (that’s such a great time to Tweet, after all), but I try to keep the used spices back up in the counter and the dusting of flour from festering. And I absolutely cannot start cooking something with dirty dishes in the sink. I need a clean canvas.
 
Same thing goes for writing; our spare bedroom doubles as my writing room and I have it set up just so with all of my favorite decorations and talisman perfect in their spots. Their arrangements are familiar and create this garden of memories and images that help guide me into a productive headspace. If anything is in disarray, I can’t work in there. Like right now I’ve got luggage for a weekend trip spread all over the guest bed, and so I’m sitting here on the living room couch typing, because I’d rather make do in another space that’s fine and in order than my favorite space that’s out of whack.
 
My favorite in the book is the Teriyaki Meatballs essay, but I also loved “I Am Not Going to France.” If there were a “GoKickMe” campaign to raise funds for Tabitha Blankenbiller’s discretionary travel fund, where would you want to go? What are your top 3 dream locales for food and travel? 

Thank you! I love to hear which essays people preferred, because the answers have varied so wildly. You’re the first person that’s mentioned Teriyaki Meatballs to me, even though that was the piece I’m most proud of, and was the most difficult to bring together. I have to admit that in the year after I finished the first draft of the manuscript, I did indeed go to France (and Munich!), so at least that’s out of the way. My sights are currently set on Tokyo and Kyoto, as I’ve been obsessed with Japan for most of my life. My husband Matt has had the opportunity to go a few times in the last year for work, and he’s been bringing me back pieces of fake food and dishes that adorn the windows of Japanese restaurants as examples of the menu—there’s this exquisite art to capturing the ephemeral warmth of udon broth and fresh glean of sashimi in immortal materials. I want to touch everything faux and consume all that’s true.
 
If you’re going to be super-generous and give me three though, I’ve got this fantasy of spending weeks and weeks making my way through India and taking every cooking class offered. Sticking my nose into every market. Then abandon me on an island in Greece and let me live out my days with cute baby goats that will grow up and bless me with feta.
 
Let’s talk about the Americana angle — how does it apply to you and this book?

I know the subtitle says “A Foodoir,” but in my head and heart, it’s a pop culture memoir. I grew up in the golden age of blogs, where I informally learned the power of voice during the summer afternoons I spent as a bored office intern reading Defamer, Gawker, and Television Without Pity. Once I got to college, I fell in love with the film and restaurant reviews in the alternative papers you could pick up anywhere in Portland: the Willamette Week and Portland Mercury. Sure, they were snarky, but they were also hilarious and smart, not wanting to recommend where or what to consume, but working to craft a persona around what they preferred (and what they panned). They were remarkably personal and unlike anything I’d been assigned in English class. Our curriculum was heavy in Shakespeare and Hawthorne, but once they finally let a few women onto the tenure track I was introduced to Susan Orlean and Cheryl Strayed. I saw on the page, finally, who I wanted to be.
 
And when it came to writing about my life, I can’t do it without Titanic or Beyonce or Sailor Moon or Ina Garten or Great British Baking Show. They’re the stories and sounds that shaped my personality, and the details that anchor and remind me who I was. Writing about food—it’s so pop iconic! We all have our favorite brands and iconography that we love or brings us back. It’s in the vintage cookbooks I snag from my mom’s house, and the thrill I feel when that giant In-N-Out arrow crests on an I-5 horizon.
 
It occurs to me that your typewriter and other ‘props,’ as you call them in the first essay, are classic pieces of Americana. Talk about your connection with these pieces.

I collect so. Many. Things. It’s a problem, and I blame my dad. He’s a lifelong memorabilia enthusiast: sports cards, autographs, game giveaways, the original Seattle Sounders field logo signs. He’s also a big wine collector and has a giant collection of aging cult cabernets in a cellar he built beneath my parents’ house. When I was a kid and we went on a family road trip to Disneyland, he’d stop at the vineyards in Sonoma and Santa Barbara and meet the winemakers he’d been corresponding with for years (irritating my mom to no end, by the way).
 
So speaking of, I am addicted to Disneyana. The shit I bought with my allowance when I was a child. The nicer shit I put on my credit card as a grown-ass woman. The things my parents have amassed over the years and no longer want cluttering the garage. Treasures I stalk on eBay that periodically appear on our doorstep to my poor husband’s confusion and dismay. I pepper it around my day job cubicle and moonlight writing desk. Joining the souvenirs from my favorite place in the states are all of my Starbucks You Are Here mugs, exclusively from places I’ve actually visited (airport layovers don’t count!). They were recently discontinued, so I have to pay resellers’ markup to keep them up. I have mugs from all the places I’ve got lined up to visit this year hidden under the bed (I can’t open them until I actually get there!). Collections have a lot of rules. It’s how they keep their hold on you.
 
Are there recipes that missed the cut of the book?

My favorite fried chicken! It was originally this fried chicken kit you could buy at Williams-Sonoma from a restaurant in New York, but after a season it was discontinued. I emailed the restaurant to see if maybe I could order the kit direct from them, since it was the best I’d ever tasted, and the chef emailed me back that they didn’t manufacture the premade kit anymore but she was happy to share her own recipe. It’s spicy and spectacular, and goes perfectly with all my favorite sides that didn’t make the book, like Hatch chile macaroni and cheese.
 
What about your ordering process in the book? Some of these essays existed on their own, right? Did you write around these essays, with them as anchors? What was your process with this book in general? 

The book started as a series of short food-and-writing columns that appeared in The Coil, which were well-received (funny how you write something pithy about food and a hundred more people like it than the existential crisis essay you spend six months agonizing and writing). The publisher, Alternating Current, emailed and asked if I’d be willing to write a book based on them. So yes, they sort of anchored the idea of the book, which was attempting to write a novel in the course of a year. The essays that grew around those originals were a kind of real-time experience of grappling with that novel project, and how I was inspired (and escaped from) that process. I kept them roughly chronological, since that made the most sense, so they mostly appear as they occurred with a few shifts here and there to bump one theme against another, or contrast one idea against its adversary.
 
This book is very of-the-minute, a wonderful snapshot of today’s culture. But then you hark back to Titanic and 1912 with Steerage Split Pea Soup. Let’s flash forward. What message do you hope transcends this moment? If someone were to read this in 20 (or 106) years, what do you hope their takeaway will be? What would be this era’s Steerage Split Pea Soup?

I hope they’d find a universality in the struggle to live and maintain a life while also creating art. This isn’t a new problem. Even though we tend to look back on some imagined “golden age” of writing with expense account lunches and fat publishing contracts, this has never been an easy or stable endeavor. People have always had to find a way to balance their relationships and obligations with their compulsion to write (or paint, or make music, or whatever). Aside from that upper echelon of people fortunate enough to win the lottery of a super lucrative contract or—gasp!—some kind of job that pays them to do what they were born to do, we’re all just putting in our timecards until we can get to the actual work (or fretting over not doing the actual work).
 
And let’s be real, the Steerage Pea Soup of 2124 is definitely going to be avocado grain bowls, the last luxury for the hustling millennial.
 
Do you write with music playing? if so, what are you writing to?

Yes! I have to have music, but I can’t have anything with lyrics. Lyrics are way too distracting. Orchestrated soundtracks are the name of the game. The Leftovers soundtrack by Max Richter is my forever stand-by because it’s beautiful, brooding, and reminds me of one of my favorite shows of all time (CARRIE COON!!!). “November” was Richter’s original work that he based the series music around, and I could listen to that on loop until the day I die. It’s everything I feel about the world. The Westworld soundtrack is a good alternate (I love “Dr. Ford”), but it can get noisy. Same with the soundtrack to Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Philip Glass’s tracks for The Hours are good, when they’re not turning comatose. When all else fails, all the pop instrumentals from Vitamin String Quartet will do the trick.
 
If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?

Loads of Sia, the entire Fiona Apple canon, and “Loser” by Garfunkel and Oates.
 
What are you working on now? 
I’m working on an essay collection about my most beloved place on earth—second star to the right, and straight on til Orange County.
 

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Tabitha Blankenbiller grew up in Washington State and currently lives outside of Portland, Oregon. She graduated from the Pacific University MFA in Writing program in 2012 and has written essays for Electric Lit, The Rumpus, Bustle, Catapult, Hobart, Brevity, and other venues, and has been anthologized in the Not My President and All That Glitters collections. Her home is populated by her husband Matt, her cats Max and Mehitabel, and her prized dual oven, Doubles.