Review: “Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Identity”

In my 2012 Year in Books post, I mentioned many books from the year in the briefest of terms, one of which was Licking the Spoon by food columnist (read her “Good Taste” articles here) Candace Walsh, which I was in the middle of reading as I wrote about it. I described the book as a memoir about the process of Walsh leaving her husband for a woman. Yet now that I’ve had the time to fully process the whole thing, I have to apologize for this generalization, because as with most generalizations, it now seems a poor descriptor for what this book is actually about.

In fact, if you’re really interested in that sole event, you may be a little disappointed, as it doesn’t happen until the final pages. And while the final chapters devoted to her wife, Laura, and their love are undeniably sweet and satisfying, and while there are hints to her suspected lesbianism speckled throughout the book prior to that point, this isn’t just a story about being a lesbian. And praise be for that.

This is a story about being human. It’s about the complex ties of family, about the sometimes cruel world of childhood and the demons that haunt the people you love the most. It’s about doing all those things you’re supposed to do once you finally escape the bubble of home: the alcohol, the drugs, and the exhausting career building in New York City in your 20s, struggling to find a worthy partner who won’t repeat the faults in your heritage. It’s about trying to love and be loved and finding places where you finally feel right. And yes, eventually, it’s about leaving a marriage for another marriage with someone from another gender. But the reason it’s not all about this is because this isn’t a book about issues; it’s a book about a person. And we are all so much more than just one thing or one act or even one sexuality.

And it’s about food.

I must admit that I was predisposed to like this book from the start, as I am already obsessed with the pathos of food: the familial and historical ties to it, the very much religious traditions and rituals of it, the deep joy and comfort it can bring, along with the hurt that comes with criticism of the food you’ve worked hard on or that you care about, however irrationally. And then there’s our own conflicting relationships with it: eating disorders are in here, too.

Beyond the feelings originating in my stomach, I also loved the culinary threads throughout this book from a reader’s perspective. While I found Walsh’s personal dramas compelling and well told, her prose undoubtedly shines the brightest whenever she’s describing food, whether it’s in the act of cooking of it, the pure admiration of it, or the actual eating of it. These are the moments that flow the easiest, while also being filled with the most tantalizing and lush details. While many of the dishes she describes are beyond my own rudimentary cooking skills and very un-foodie knowledge, I still loved reading every bit of it, believing that I could make these things if I tried (yeah, I probably can’t), as I could practically already taste them from the page. The simpler, more basic meals or items that I actually have consumed also suddenly seemed equally rich and precious, things to be worshipped, from cake to risotto to Thanksgiving dinner. She even makes the pure poverty pea soup that she eats daily at the height of her college bare-bones days sound remarkably delicious at her hand.

Photo courtesy of Candace Walsh’s Pinterest

Food fantasies aside, there’s a lot more to explore in this story, too. Like the best memoirs written by everyday people (and by everyday I mean “not famous,” which is not to mean “not extraordinary”), from the first page on I never felt as if I was reading about a stranger far away from my own reality, but like I was meeting a new friend, sinking into a life that I could see and feel, whose secrets I was being allowed to share. We get to know Candace in a startling honest and open way, a way we don’t often get to enjoy with those who are around us in our “real lives.” While many of the things she writes about are hard (abuse, alcoholism, depression and trauma), this experience itself, the exchange between memoir writer and reader, is warm and comforting, and perhaps the reason why people — everyday people or otherwise — are continually compelled to write about their lives, and other people are equally compelled to read it.

So if you’re feeling exhausted from seeing the same books on everybody’s Best of 2012 lists and are ready to start off 2013 with something new, and particularly if you are also weirdly obsessed with food, Licking the Spoon is very much recommended. And yes, there ARE recipes included! Published by Seal Press, legendary publishers of books by kickass women, you can purchase it at Amazon, Powell’s, or your favorite bookstore. Did I mention she makes her own cake at her gay wedding, and that part of it is inspired by Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey? Spoiler: she does, and it is. Let that sink in for a minute. And then go read — or maybe wander into the kitchen first.