Elissa Altman can write you an appetizing culinary scene, but she’d really rather not. While it’s true she wrote about the glories of home cooking in her James Beard Award-winning blog and first book, Poor Man’s Feast, her new memoir finds her more interested in the sensation of wrongness: the clothes that aren’t you, the culture that doesn’t welcome you, the country that pushed you out or the one that only reluctantly lets you in, and—the most visceral of all these examples—the food you shouldn’t have eaten. Altman covers all this ground with humor, verve, and compassion, but it would be a mistake to think Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw is a story about refusal and regret. It is not. Treyf is about the seeking that never really abates.—Michelle Wildgen
Michelle Wildgen: One of my favorite recurring descriptions in here is of your fashion choices, or maybe I should say, the fashion choices made for you. Can you talk a bit about this, and the role clothes play in telling this story?
Elissa Altman: Fashion was a tool in Treyf. My parents had a natural affinity for fashion and polar opposite senses of style. To my father the conservative traditions of Brooks Brothers and J Press represented Cheever-esque safety, formality, and an American, WASPY tradition that he was not born to but grasped for. My mother, on the other hand, possessed — and still possesses; she’s almost 81 now and only stopped modeling twelve or so years ago — a rebellious, edgy fashion sensibility: she has always paired very high style together with low and pulled it off. Yet my father loved to dress her as the idyllic, cool Katherine Hepburn he was desperate for her to be. Ultimately, it didn’t stick: for her, fashion is all about attention and sex, not Harris tweed.
When their marriage started to fail, my parents wielded clothes against each other via me: deposited in my father’s care on Saturdays in the 1970s while my mother worked as a model, I was hauled around to places like the original Abercrombie & Fitch, the boy’s department at Brooks’ Brothers, and Kaufman’s riding shop. By the time we picked my mother up, I looked like I was going yachting or fox hunting. My father almost always preferred dressing me in boys’ clothes — he said they were better made — which, of course, infuriated my hyper-heterosexual mother, who responded by putting me in elastic tube tops and see-through voile blouses just as I was beginning to go through a particularly sulky, spotty, busty puberty. I felt like I was in drag, although I had no words for it. To this day, my mother is sure that I am a lesbian because my father made me wear boy’s clothes; I always have to remind her that at eight, I was in love with Susan Dey, and not David Cassidy. It had nothing to do with Brooks’ Brothers. Although I do like a good suit and wingtips.
MW: There is also a lot of, shall we say, physical discomfort in here—people eating things and regretting it. Was it ever hard to write about food in such an uncomfortable way, that maybe rebels against expectations for a completely delicious culinary memoir rather than something more complex?
EA: Writing about food is not that different than writing about any other sense experience, like sex, and always depicting it as yummy sanitizes, homogenizes, and de-humanizes it. I’m interested in the things that leave a strange taste, that make me squirm, that force me to think about what sustenance really is.
Everyone knows what good food and good food experience looks like; I want to talk about the mistakes, the faux pas, the cultural and practical blunders. I distinctly remember my maternal grandmother cutting herself when she sliced potatoes into the Hungarian goulash she knew I loved; her soul, and her blood, were in what she cooked for me. I thought about taking that section out of the story, but it would have been a mistake: it was representative of the sheer ferocity with which she nurtured me, queasy-making or not.
Treyf is the story of a tribe yearning for home; it’s about three generations on the outside looking in. There’s a certain bitterness that comes along with that sense of constant displacement, and in my life, it was expressed at the table. When I was eleven my paternal grandmother tried to feed me a boiled calf’s brain — plain, on a plate, like we were in a laboratory — the day after I saw Young Frankenstein. Borscht tastes to me like mud, like death, like the sorrow that enveloped us at my grandparents’ apartment when everyone switched languages so I couldn’t understand them, but I knew they were talking about the family who stayed behind and were murdered in the Holocaust. To this day, I can’t be in the same room with it; it’s the food of doom.
MW: Your first memoir, Poor Man’s Feast, deals with (among other things) love and food. This one seems to delve into tougher territory— familial stresses, belonging or the lack thereof, in particular. Can you talk about moving from one subject or tone to the other? How did the processes compare for you as a writer, as a person delving into your past?
EA: In Poor Man’s Feast, food and love were catalysts; one transformed the other, and that was the primary thread running through what was essentially a very linear story. But Treyf is more cyclical; it’s about appearances, the tug of the past on the present, about religion and sex and violation, and the human compulsion to find sustenance and acceptance in a world to which one has only been tentatively invited.
The narrative in Poor Man’s Feast was generated by food — the actual cooking of it as opposed to the eating of it. There was a very clear beginning, middle, and end from the outset, and I always had a strong sense of how it was going to unfold on the page. At the time I wrote it, my wife and I had been together for twelve years, my mother-in-law was still alive, my father, who figures heavily in that book as a food mentor, had passed ten years earlier; I was still very connected to his family.
Between the time I was starting Treyf, my extended family structure was in utter chaos; my connection to the people who had been my anchors had vaporized. I dealt with the grief the only way I knew how — by writing my way through it. Where there is sorrow and loss there is a natural hunger for nurturing and safety. And that is what the book is about at its core.
The lightness that pervaded Poor Man’s Feast was no longer there, and it wouldn’t have been appropriate or authentic. Which is not to say that there aren’t moments of humor in it, but Treyf is a much more complicated story, written from a very different place and at a time when I was feeling like I’d just stepped off a ship — wobbly, a little nauseous. It was only when I finished the first draft that I realized that I, like every person in the book, was searching for my place in the world, and for a tribe that I had lost.
MW: What has been surprising or unexpected about writing this book?
EA: The most surprising thing about writing Treyf was the realization that my memory is largely synesthetic. I’ve always assumed that everyone has crystalline memories of seeing colors and shapes and patterns when they hear certain music, or smell certain smells, or have a particular flavor flood their mouths when they see a certain image, but this is apparently not the case. The clarity of my memory is something that I’ve had to learn to live with over time; it’s not always easy. Some of my shrink friends call it a kind of PTSD: this is how my brain has synthesized extraordinarily intense, and regular, experiences.
Very early on, I assumed that I would be writing the story of an assimilated American Jewish family who liked to break the rules; I also assumed that there might be recipes in it —- publishers love to include recipes in this genre they call “food memoir.” But I realized that it’s not necessarily a Jewish book at all; the assimilation experience is one that is universal — just ask any Muslim, Italian, Polish, or Irish American. We’re all searching for a toehold, and we’re all forced to make decisions about where we are going, culturally, vis a vis where we have been. Nor is it really a food memoir.
When I finished writing Treyf, I was faced with a story that was very different from what I assumed I’d have going in. Which only means that books are organic. Often, writers have little control over them.
MW: What passage of culinary writing first stuck with you as a reader?
EA: I read Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Cooking like a novel before I ever cooked from it.
When I picked up a copy of Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking and read her description of her husband’s beef stew as being “a kind of gray water—rather like the gray, green, greasy Limpopo River in ‘The Elephant’s Child’ by Rudyard Kipling” it changed everything for me: it showed me that it was fair game to be brutally honest about food, even if it was utterly revolting. That one sentence gave me permission to describe food in ways that were less than prim or delicious, like the boiled brain and the borscht.
I also adore Seamus Heaney, who understood that food is both mundane and throbbing with the sensual, like air and dirt. To elevate that in a world of test kitchens and foam — Our shells clacked on the plates. My tongue was a filling estuary, My palate hung with starlight — I mean, my God.
MW: How would you describe your approach to food as a subject? What interests you about it, what doesn’t? Has it changed over your writing life?
EA: It was born out of an innate compulsion to cook, to learn how to feed myself and the people I love because, I suppose, I grew up in a home where food was the source of enormous strife. My father was very connected to it (and was a great cook) and my mother was completely disconnected from it (and was/is a terrible cook). Food and cooking could be a source of great joy and pleasure, and, where my maternal grandmother was concerned, safety. Eventually, as I began to read more about food simply because the writing was so compelling, it became the foundation of life and history for me: we have no greater connection to each other and our collective past than when we’re at the table. But when I was writing Treyf, there were times when I couldn’t bear to pick up a cookbook, to read a food magazine, to boil an egg: I couldn’t even think about nurturing myself. I had to learn to sustain and nurture myself again both in real time, and as my character in the book. And I did that by returning to the works of Deborah Madison, Diana Henry, Jane Grigson, Paula Wolfert, and Judy Rodgers.
There is so much brilliant food writing out there right now that it’s head-spinning: Diana Henry, David Leite, Jeff Koehler, Francis Lam, Kenji Lopez-Alt are all just excellent writers and likely would be in any genre. There’s absolutely room for simple how-to cookbooks and should always be. But the narrative bar has been set very high, and the understanding that food is culture/history/love/war/life feels ubiquitous to me now in a way that it wasn’t even ten years ago. And I am deeply happy for it.
MW: Let’s talk craft! What do you feel you know as a writer now that you didn’t five or ten years ago? What do you next want to learn?
EA: I come from a family of musicians — jazz musicians, singers, classical pianists, violinists, I’m a longtime guitarist — and learning to literally stop and hear each other when we play together is like breathing. We listen for cadence, for pause, for musical structure, for tone change. And for a very long time, I wrote the same way: by listening, by reading my work aloud and paying close attention to voice and sound. When I workshopped with Charlie D’Ambrosio at Tin House, I decided not to abandon that way of working — I couldn’t; I think in musical form — but to use the workshop as a place to experiment with a narrative style that was more taut, and a pace that was slower. Doing this felt completely alien to me, but I learned the importance of nudging myself out of my comfort zone.
Much of what I write takes place in a past at which I was not present; I do this by wrapping the situation in the stories that I was fed like pabulum. When my grandfather goes to Floyd Bennett Airfield to pick up his son — my father — who is flying himself home from wartime service in the Navy, I know that he has cold knish crumbs in his coat pocket because he always did, because my father told me that in the car on their way home, the smell of potato came off my grandfather’s fingertips as he gripped the steering wheel. But this is also something I imagine, and I say so, because I wasn’t there. That, to me, is the greatest challenge of memoir, which is written to revisit what happened, to unravel it, to reveal it from another place.
MW: What question do you wish interviewers or readers would ask you?
EA: The one question that no one ever asks, oddly—it just never seems to come up: who is my greatest literary hero? (Wallace Stegner. Why? I think there is no greater a master of writing difficult characters with compassion.) Also: Do I consider myself a food writer or just a writer? (Just a writer, who spends a lot of time at the table.)
Elissa Altman is the author of the new memoir, Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw, Poor Man’s Feast, and the James Beard Award-winning blog of the same name. ”
Michelle Wildgen is a writer, editor, and teacher in Madison, Wisconsin. In addition to being an executive editor at the literary journal Tin House, Michelle is the author of the novels Bread and Butter: A Novel, But Not For Long and You’re Not You, and the editor of an anthology, Food & Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast.