A Memoir of Food and Longing
By Christine S. O’Brien
260 pp. St. Martin’s. $28.99.
O’Brien’s father is Edgar Scherick, a celebrated producer of television and film. Her mother, Carol, slips from one identity to another, but always ambitiously: The Missouri farm girl morphs into a Miss America pageant finalist, the upper-class New York wife rebels and becomes a natural food devotee. O’Brien and her brothers live in the Dakota and trick-or-treat along the building’s forbidding hallways, getting Tootsie Pops from Lauren Bacall. This is one version of a 20th-century fairy tale.
The fable has a dark side. O’Brien’s father is given to terrifying outbursts of anger when under stress, which is often. Her mother suffers from a series of health problems, which she begins managing with food. Embarking on a lifetime of restrictive diets, Carol decides that her family will come along for the ride. Soon the children are put on “The Program” by an unlicensed doctor whose Mafioso clients keep watch on the street lest he be jailed. From then on, the kids are sustained — barely — by blended salads, celery juice, egg yolks and the occasional handful of nuts.
It’s remarkable how little anger O’Brien conveys in relating her mother’s disordered approach to eating. The children follow Carol’s instructions more or less obediently, despite being divided from normal society by their inability to enjoy simple treats. When O’Brien caves and eats a Ho Ho, she’s horrified at having “erased my hard work and all the purity” she had worked for. Perfection seems to be the price of her mother’s affection, an exchange that will have lifelong repercussions for O’Brien’s relationship to food.
The story drags at times. O’Brien’s father seems always to be “whiny” and “high-pitched” when on the verge of rage. Reading about a diet of puréed vegetables is almost as tiresome as living on one. But O’Brien describes her unusual childhood with loving generosity. She captures her father’s vulnerability and creative brilliance, and recognizes her mother’s pioneering, seeking spirit. After all, this was a woman who embraced Ayurveda, meditation and co-op shopping long before they became mainstream. The family’s story is one of renunciation, but not, ultimately, one of hunger.
Notes on Life, Love, and Food
By Ann Hood
232 pp. Norton. $24.95.
Hood’s essays are like hot chocolate, cozy and warm. Her collection of meditations on food and life touches the big themes: grief for a brother and a small child gone suddenly, two divorces and the end of a grand affair. Still, Hood describes them with the easy intimacy of a friend, confessing her foibles as she stirs a pot of red sauce. The recipes closing each chapter hint that every heartache can be soothed by the deft application of cheese and carbohydrates.