Never Eat Your Heart Out

by Judith Moore

1997. 328 pages.

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"Our notion of a foreign meal was La Choy chicken chow mein. We thought canned black olives exotic; if almond slivers were poked into the olives' hollows, we'd likely say, 'What will they think of next?' Garlicky food was exotic (with the exception of garlic bread), as were wines other than Gallo."

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If you're looking for a cozy food memoir worthy of a Merchant-Ivory visual treatment where poetic meals are the heroes and the agents for happy endings, Never Eat Your Heart Out isn't it.

Much as Judith Moore is passionate about food, she's not sentimental about it. She knows food can be an ambivalent offering. In "Adultery" she describes how during her year-long  affair (happiness followed by havoc) she cooked "the most superb dinners of my life" for her family, not to atone for her sins (although she wishes her motivation were that noble) but because she was so happy. Moore's honesty can be startling and disquieting. But I'm glad for it; she honors the complexity of the human spirit.

The essays hopscotch back and forth in time, creating vivid vignettes. Because I was caught up with the life and thoughts of Judith Moore, I felt thrown off track when I ran into an essay on a completely different subject like the one that chronicled the history of the potato. (Because she's such a good writer, she makes potatoes fascinating; I just don't want to read about them here.)

Moore writes how food as can engender feelings of triumph (the first time she prepares dinner for company)...or failure (her inability to get her infant daughter to eat): "Sarah's refusal to eat left me feeling refused." (I'm sure every mother can relate to that.) Her observations of the church pot lucks she took part in when she was a young married are as acute and wry as any scene dissected by Jane Austen: ("A woman who'd tried making, say, something curried that wasn't a hit had to keep smiling while she heard people at the serving tables praise the Frank-and-Three-Bean Bake...")

Moore's is as poetic as she is observant. On the beauty of home-canned goods: "My jars of pickled beets had about them such a stained-glass-window ecclesiastic radiance that ...I wouldn't be surprised to find creatures from a creche scene rise up, gather bundles, and walk out of the jar." I love that image. It's such a surprising one. But it feels right. Even better than right, it feels magical.