In her memoir composed of essays, Tabitha Blankenbiller worries that she’s not enough even as an abundance surrounds her. An artist, both in the kitchen and on the page, Blankenbiller loves recipes. Especially those that bring comfort to the soul and that represent love to family. But no recipe exists for creating the great American novel, which Blankenbiller dreams of writing, plots to write. This pop culture memoir follows a year of attempting and not succeeding in writing that novel. She seasons her writing with ebullience and snark. Like all of us, she longs to matter, to stay relevant. She indulges. She waxes nostalgic. She lets old-school comfort food nourish her and analog nostalgia buoy her even as she’s desperate to “live up to her [digital] feed.”
Eats of Eden follows a year of laboring to write a novel meant to salve the still-open wounds of a long-lost friendship. In the opening essay, “Cucumber Risotto by the Sea,” she shares the impetus for this collection, born of a writing retreat at which she realizes that not all recipes yield perfection. Perfection shouldn’t even be the goal. Rather, the goal should be to accept “The Thick of It,” to accept that “you have to go through the process and the time to manifest what you want.” Blankenbiller lugs to the retreat a vintage Smith-Corona typewriter gifted by her husband. She describes using the antique machine for the first time: “Through dialing back the pace, forcing myself to think about each word as its permanence tattooed on pulp, something miraculous happened. I focused.” Thus, where the noveling stalls, the essays grappling with this BFF break-up forge ahead. They open into themes of family, marriage, coming-of-age, feminism, self-esteem, and persistence, and they do so with flare and flavor.
For me, the heart of the collection is “Teriyaki Meatballs Reborn,” which continues discussion of her love for props, such as her vintage typewriter, classic cookbooks, and thigh-high stockings. It also details the implosion of the BFF relationship, the lopping of the final ‘F’ for ‘forever,’ and the realization that it’s OK to let that ‘F” go, that “failing once, isn’t failing forever.” Toward the end of the essay, Blankenbiller describes a successful effort with the essay’s titular dish: “It tasted like the sweet and sour of my youth: wildly inauthentic, more comfort than I knew I needed.”
Included at the end of each essay are personally-tested and thematically-linked recipes. These are what you might call the extended dance versions of recipes, worth reading even if you have no intention of cooking the dishes. They fuel the book, just as they’ve fueled the author. For example, instructions for Try Again (and Again) Teriyaki Meatballs follows “Teriyaki Meatballs Reborn,” while Hate Lasagna wraps up “I Am Not Going to France,” in which the author’s sweet husband must quash her hopes for attending a writing retreat staged in Julia Childs’s French cottage. “He took a bite. Then I took one,” she writes in the headnotes. “He forgot I was a spendthrift succubus, and Paris managed to slip out of my periphery in the face of a meticulous-ridiculous dish. The chasm between us bridged for another day.”
So much changes over time — friendships, music, fashion are all fleeting. It’s a struggle to stay relevant. Food, however, is a constant. Tried and true recipes are always relevant. They’re a touchstone. Eats of Eden is a touchstone for right now, a snapshot of today’s culture, a pop culture memoir in essays that’s cooking with gas.