Eats of Eden
By Tabitha Blankenbiller
Alternating Current Press, 2018
201 pgs, $14.99
Reviewed by Rachel Wooley
New from Alternating Current Press, Eats of Eden: A Foodoir by Tabitha Blankenbiller is a collection of essays, formatted so that a relevant recipe follows each of the short passages. As you might have guessed from the book’s title, Blakenbiller talks a lot about food, particularly good food, but she also talks a lot about writing.
The collection follows (roughly) the year that Blankenbiller gave herself to work on a novel, starting with an essay on the writing retreat where the idea first emerged. In subsequent essays, she gives consideration to creating the right working conditions, searching for motivation, actually committing words to the page, and trying (sometimes succeeding, and sometimes failing) to get that writing published. While other writers in particular will find much to relate to in these essays, it’s also a book for anyone who pursues creative endeavors or strives to be productive and “make your life actually matter” beyond the day job.
Blankenbiller isn’t expressly trying to inspire other writers, or to explain her process; instead, she talks about what it’s like trying to be a writer while the rest of your life is happening (and sometimes getting in the way.) She struggles with spending her days “in a cubicle that feels like an adult play pen I’ve been plunked into for eight hours of daycare.” She describes reading the social media posts of her full-time-writer friends and the transcripts of other writers’ routines, which feature “schedule details [that are] like porn” to someone who puts together PowerPoint slides in an office all day. This isn’t, in other words, a collection of essays from someone who’s “made it”; she’s still in the trenches, striving towards something better, one paragraph at a time. (Although with this debut publication, one could argue that she has indeed made it, or at least is on her way.)
This is also a book for people who love food. Blankenbiller uses food as a framework for giving her life context: all this writing (or trying to) isn’t happening in a vacuum, after all. She shares meaningful life experiences here too, and food is one of the ways we humans commemorate occasions, right?
One essay, for example, talks about meeting up with an old friend in Seattle to go see Beyoncé in concert during her “Lemonade” tour. Blankenbiller made a “Lemonade Pie” to celebrate the occasion, and she shared the recipe (along with a hilarious anecdote about her first failed attempt at making a lemon meringue pie from scratch). The essay, which features Blankenbiller’s wonderful sense of humor (a humor that shines through in small comments and observations without seeming like it’s trying too hard), isn’t just about seeing Queen Bey, but also that moment when you realize you’ve grown out of the person you thought you were, or might someday become.
Blankenbiller’s love of cooking really comes across in this book. The included recipes range in complexity from mix-it-up-in-a-bowl-and-stick-it-in-the-oven to chop-and-sauté-and-time-just-right recipes with a dozen or more ingredients. The recipes are linked, either directly or thematically, with the preceding essays and are worth reading even if you don’t plan to try them out. See, for example, “Hate Lasagna,” the recipe following the essay “I Am Not Going to France.” Blankenbiller’s husband Matt tells her she has to forego a writing retreat to Julia Child’s (expensive) Parisian home; the recipe that follows is for the dinner she made that evening and features the conversation they had sitting down to eat. According to Matt, it “isn’t a lasagna you made with love… it’s poisoned with hate” (though apparently he liked it enough that they were able to “bridge the chasm” between them and their differing views on financial expenditures, at least for the evening).
Throughout this year in Blankenbiller’s life-told-through-essays, there’s plenty of reflection on times past, too. Again, there’s nothing prescriptive here, just the rich examples from a life lived by someone who wants to make the most of it. Even if you’re not a writer or an artist, just about everybody can relate to the struggle between doing something productive and binge-watching the rest of that new season on Netflix.
Eats of Eden is a book about seeking the balance between pursuing a dream and finding happiness in what you’ve already got. It’s also about figuring out when to hold on and when to let go – of relationships, of failed projects, of things that don’t fit who you are anymore (will that novel manuscript ever reach completion? Maybe not. But maybe it doesn’t need to, now that she’s found her voice in essay form). These pieces feel current and relevant, smart and self-aware. Blankenbiller’s delightfully conversational tone makes it feel like you’re getting a good story from a friend rather than being handed authoritative “life lessons” from above. She’s still figuring things out, along with the rest of us.
Except when it comes to the food – Blakenbiller has that part figured out, and she’s sharing that wisdom gladly.