There's a difficult scene in toward the beginning of Candace Walsh's memoir, Licking The Spoon, where five-year-old Walsh is essentially force-fed her dinner amidst tears, gagging, and vomit. This particularly heartbreaking image propelled me back to my own memories of sitting at my childhood dinner table, locked in a fierce battle between myself, my father, and food. Walsh's tantalizing descriptions of both the recipes and people in her life help pull the reader into a story that's a perfect mix of memoir and indulgent foodie read. I spoke with Walsh about the challenges of writing a memoir, the notion of choosing our own families, and the erotic potential of food.
What compelled you to write a memoir in your forties? It's a relatively young age.
CANDACE WALSH: I was very influenced by Anais Nin, who kept a diary her entire life. I also kept a diary from childhood through my early twenties. I saw that I had lots of material. I had a consciousness of the narrative as it unfolded. It seemed to have an arc. I also didn't want to wait because I felt like the story elements were fresh in my mind now, in a way that they wouldn't be when I was, say, 65.
There's that axiom that can be seen as a curse: "May you live in interesting times." I had to overcome a lot of challenges. My parents were young and didn't have their acts together. There was a lot of addiction, rage, dysfunction, sadness and pain in my family during my childhood. But at the same time, as I grew up, the culture was shifting. People started telling the truth about their experiences, instead of keeping silent and perpetuating them. There have also been so many epic civil rights gains for gay people in the last 20 years. So I felt that I had a personal story to tell which highlights the relationship between those dynamics.
Why focus on food as the thread that weaves the memoir together?
Food can be abused, can be something used to control people. It is also the thing that keeps us alive and brings great joy. Food revealed itself to be a place of comfort, creativity, and personal growth for me and for the matriarchs in my family. It was a thread of nurture and love. It continues to be.
So my journey was to re-orient myself with food so that it was not toxic, not related to eating-disordered behavior, not something I used to be oppressive to my children. It is something that I make choices about to give myself the best self-care, and also, sensory gratification. I also love the social aspects of food: entertaining, talking to other foodies, sharing the enthusiasm over a cookbook or a restaurant.
So much about writing about food seems to lend itself to the erotic. And, in some parts of the book, you definitely went there unabashedly. Did you enjoy that part of it?
For many people, the sensations of enjoying a delicious bite of food are also as heady as a wonderful kiss or caress. For me, they're in the same emotional territory. I love playing with those energies in my writing, while also being careful not to inadvertently parody it by going over the top. I don't want to seem like "The Lovers" skit on Saturday Night Live.
Our society tends to have a strange relationship to literary erotica. I wonder if couching it in familiar, foodie terms makes it more—pardon the pun—palatable?
Maybe it disarms the Puritan impulses we all carry with us. Our country is not Puritan about being gluttonous, the way the French are. What a funny inversion.
How did it feel to revisit certain parts of your life in such detail? Did you struggle with how writing this would be received by family and friends mentioned within? Especially past lovers.
I was conscious about it. I left so much out! I would prefer it if I wrote this book and not one person got upset about it, but that's not the book I had to write. I refuse to write an innocuous book, which keeps certain people in their comfort zones, but helps and edifies nobody.
There are the quotes we memoirists cling to, like the one by Annie Lamott about how if people don't want you to write bad things about them, they should have treated you better. I am writing for posterity. I do think that if the book helps future generations, it outweighs the discomfort of people who happened to be in my life and be part of formative experiences.
There's a cluster of family members who are mad at me because I mused that my Cuban great grandmother looked like she had some African heritage. How disappointing that they would feel like it was acceptable to be racist in that manner. There are the people who are mad at me for stuff I expected them to be mad at me about, there are people who aren't mad at the stuff I expected them to be mad about, and there are people who are mad about stuff I never would have imagined that they'd be mad about. It's one of those things.
In terms of the past lovers, I did leave out so much to protect them, I gave them fake names, and they're not currently friends of mine, so I didn't feel like I had to walk on eggshells. Some material is too rich to embargo!
The older I get, the more I value the family I have chosen and continue to choose. I adore the kin who can meet me and be with my truth. But otherwise, biological connections can really be overrated.
There's so much depth to that: "family I have chosen." The book makes it perfectly clear how and why you do that. I think a lot of readers will connect to that intentional family aspect in some way.
I hope so. It's a beautiful thing. Continuing to hope that biological family members will change and come through reminds me of a science experiment with a rat who once got cheese at the end of a particular maze tunnel. That rat ran down the tunnel over and over, but there was no cheese at the end of that tunnel. It's such a gift to self to stop seeking it out down that avenue, and to open oneself up to the abundant love and nurture of an intentional family.
You have both a daughter and a son. Do you see them picking up this book at some point down the road? What do you hope they'll take away from reading your memoir?
I don't want them to read it until they're adults and have perspective about the challenges of being a human being in relationships. But here's what I want them to take away from it: their mother is a flawed individual like everyone is, not perfect or someone who should be on a pedestal. Hopefully that will help them to be kinder to themselves as they go through life.
I also hope that they avoid some of the big mistakes that I made. Especially the ones that have to do with choosing lovers and partners.
Licking The Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family and Identity is out now from Seal Press.