Fat in Contemporary Autobiographical Writing and Publishing

Donna Lee Brien

Abstract


At a time when almost every human transgression, illness, profession and other personal aspect of life has been chronicled in autobiographical writing (Rak)—in 1998 Zinsser called ours “the age of memoir” (3)—writing about fat is one of the most recent subjects to be addressed in this way. This article surveys a range of contemporary autobiographical texts that are titled with, or revolve around, that powerful and most evocative word, “fat”. Following a number of cultural studies of fat in society (Critser; Gilman, Fat Boys; Fat: A Cultural History; Stearns), this discussion views fat in socio-cultural terms, following Lupton in understanding fat as both “a cultural artefact: a bodily substance or body shape that is given meaning by complex and shifting systems of ideas, practices, emotions, material objects and interpersonal relationships” (i).

Using a case study approach (Gerring; Verschuren), this examination focuses on a range of texts from autobiographical cookbooks and memoirs to novel-length graphic works in order to develop a preliminary taxonomy of these works. In this way, a small sample of work, each of which (described below) explores an aspect (or aspects) of the form is, following Merriam, useful as it allows a richer picture of an under-examined phenomenon to be constructed, and offers “a means of investigating complex social units consisting of multiple variables of potential importance in understanding the phenomenon” (Merriam 50). Although the sample size does not offer generalisable results, the case study method is especially suitable in this context, where the aim is to open up discussion of this form of writing for future research for, as Merriam states, “much can be learned from […] an encounter with the case through the researcher’s narrative description” and “what we learn in a particular case can be transferred to similar situations” (51).

Pro-Fat Autobiographical Writing

Alongside the many hundreds of reduced, low- and no-fat cookbooks and weight loss guides currently in print that offer recipes, meal plans, ingredient replacements and strategies to reduce fat in the diet, there are a handful that promote the consumption of fats, and these all have an autobiographical component. The publication of Jennifer McLagan’s Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes in 2008 by Ten Speed Press—publisher of Mollie Katzen’s groundbreaking and influential vegetarian Moosewood Cookbook in 1974 and an imprint now known for its quality cookbooks (Thelin)—unequivocably addressed that line in the sand often drawn between fat and all things healthy. The four chapter titles of this cookbook— “Butter,” subtitled “Worth It,” “Pork Fat: The King,” “Poultry Fat: Versatile and Good For You,” and, “Beef and Lamb Fats: Overlooked But Tasty”—neatly summarise McLagan’s organising argument: that animal fats not only add an unreplaceable and delicious flavour to foods but are fundamental to our health. Fat polarised readers and critics; it was positively reviewed in prominent publications (Morris; Bhide) and won influential food writing awards, including 2009 James Beard Awards for Single Subject Cookbook and Cookbook of the Year but, due to its rejection of low-fat diets and the research underpinning them, was soon also vehemently criticised, to the point where the book was often described in the media as “controversial” (see Smith).

McLagan’s text, while including historical, scientific and gastronomic data and detail, is also an outspokenly personal treatise, chronicling her sensual and emotional responses to this ingredient. “I love fat,” she begins, continuing, “Whether it’s a slice of foie gras terrine, its layer of yellow fat melting at the edges […] hot bacon fat […] wilting a plate of pungent greens into submission […] or a piece of crunchy pork crackling […] I love the way it feels in my mouth, and I love its many tastes” (1). Her text is, indeed, memoir as gastronomy / gastronomy as memoir, and this cookbook, therefore, an example of the “memoir with recipes” subgenre (Brien et al.). It appears to be this aspect – her highly personal and, therein, persuasive (Weitin) plea for the value of fats – that galvanised critics and readers.

Molly Chester and Sandy Schrecengost’s Back to Butter: A Traditional Foods Cookbook – Nourishing Recipes Inspired by Our Ancestors begins with its authors’ memoirs (illness, undertaking culinary school training, buying and running a farm) to lend weight to their argument to utilise fats widely in cookery. Its first chapter, “Fats and Oils,” features the familiar butter, which it describes as “the friendly fat” (22), then moves to the more reviled pork lard “Grandma’s superfood” (22) and, nowadays quite rarely described as an ingredient, beef tallow. Grit Magazine’s Lard: The Lost Art of Cooking with Your Grandmother’s Secret Ingredient utilises the rhetoric that fat, and in this case, lard, is a traditional and therefore foundational ingredient in good cookery. This text draws on its publisher’s, Grit Magazine (published since 1882 in various formats), long history of including auto/biographical “inspirational stories” (Teller) to lend persuasive power to its argument.

One of the most polarising of fats in health and current media discourse is butter, as was seen recently in debate over what was seen as its excessive use in the MasterChef Australia television series (see, Heart Foundation; Phillipov). It is perhaps not surprising, then, that butter is the single fat inspiring the most autobiographical writing in this mode. Rosie Daykin’s Butter Baked Goods: Nostalgic Recipes from a Little Neighborhood Bakery is, for example, typical of a small number of cookbooks that extend the link between baking and nostalgia to argue that butter is the superlative ingredient for baking. There are also entire cookbooks dedicated to making flavoured butters (Vaserfirer) and a number that offer guides to making butter and other (fat-based) dairy products at home (Farrell-Kingsley; Hill; Linford).

Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef is typical among chef’s memoirs in using butter prominently although rare in mentioning fat in its title. In this text and other such memoirs, butter is often used as shorthand for describing a food that is rich but also wholesomely delicious. Hamilton relates childhood memories of “all butter shortcakes” (10), and her mother and sister “cutting butter into flour and sugar” for scones (15), radishes eaten with butter (21), sautéing sage in butter to dress homemade ravoli (253), and eggs fried in browned butter (245). Some of Hamilton’s most telling references to butter present it as an staple, natural food as, for instance, when she describes “sliced bread with butter and granulated sugar” (37) as one of her family’s favourite desserts, and lists butter among the everyday foodstuffs that taste superior when stored at room temperature instead of refrigerated—thereby moving butter from taboo (Gwynne describes a similar process of the normalisation of sexual “perversion” in erotic memoir).

Like this text, memoirs that could be described as arguing “for” fat as a substance are largely by chefs or other food writers who extol, like McLagan and Hamilton, the value of fat as both food and flavouring, and propose that it has a key role in both ordinary/family and gourmet cookery. In this context, despite plant-based fats such as coconut oil being much lauded in nutritional and other health-related discourse, the fat written about in these texts is usually animal-based. An exception to this is olive oil, although this is never described in the book’s title as a “fat” (see, for instance, Drinkwater’s series of memoirs about life on an olive farm in France) and is, therefore, out of the scope of this discussion.

Memoirs of Being Fat

The majority of the other memoirs with the word “fat” in their titles are about being fat. Narratives on this topic, and their authors’ feelings about this, began to be published as a sub-set of autobiographical memoir in the 2000s. The first decade of the new millennium saw a number of such memoirs by female writers including Judith Moore’s Fat Girl (published in 2005), Jen Lancaster’s Such a Pretty Fat: One Narcissist’s Quest to Discover If Her Life Makes Her Ass Look Big, or Why Pie Is Not the Answer, and Stephanie Klein’s Moose: A Memoir (both published in 2008) and Jennifer Joyne’s Designated Fat Girl in 2010. These were followed into the new decade by texts such as Celia Rivenbark’s bestselling 2011 You Don’t Sweat Much for a Fat Girl, and all attracted significant mainstream readerships. Journalist Vicki Allan pulled no punches when she labelled these works the “fat memoir” and, although Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson’s influential categorisation of 60 genres of life writing does not include this description, they do recognise eating disorder and weight-loss narratives. Some scholarly interest followed (Linder; Halloran), with Mitchell linking this production to feminism’s promotion of the power of the micro-narrative and the recognition that the autobiographical narrative was “a way of situating the self politically” (65).

aken together, these memoirs all identify “excess” weight, although the response to this differs. They can be grouped as: narratives of losing weight (see Kuffel; Alley; and many others), struggling to lose weight (most of these books), and/or deciding not to try to lose weight (the smallest number of works overall). Some of these texts display a deeply troubled relationship with food—Moore’s Fat Girl, for instance, could also be characterised as an eating disorder memoir (Brien), detailing her addiction to eating and her extremely poor body image as well as her mother’s unrelenting pressure to lose weight. Elena Levy-Navarro describes the tone of these narratives as “compelled confession” (340), mobilising both the conventional understanding of confession of the narrator “speaking directly and colloquially” to the reader of their sins, failures or foibles (Gill 7), and what she reads as an element of societal coercion in their production. Some of these texts do focus on confessing what can be read as disgusting and wretched behavior (gorging and vomiting, for instance)—Halloran’s “gustatory abject” (27)—which is a feature of the contemporary conceptualisation of confession after Rousseau (Brooks). This is certainly a prominent aspect of current memoir writing that is, simultaneously, condemned by critics (see, for example, Jordan) and popular with readers (O’Neill).

Read in this way, the majority of memoirs about being fat are about being miserable until a slimming regime of some kind has been undertaken and successful. Some of these texts are, indeed, triumphal in tone. Lisa Delaney’s Secrets of a Former Fat Girl is, for instance, clear in the message of its subtitle, How to Lose Two, Four (or More!) Dress Sizes—And Find Yourself Along the Way, that she was “lost” until she became slim. Linden has argued that “female memoir writers frequently describe their fat bodies as diseased and contaminated” (219) and “powerless” (226). Many of these confessional memoirs are moving narratives of shame and self loathing where the memoirist’s sense of self, character, and identity remain somewhat confused and unresolved, whether they lose weight or not, and despite attestations to the contrary.

A sub-set of these memoirs of weight loss are by male authors. While having aspects in common with those by female writers, these can be identified as a sub-set of these memoirs for two reasons. One is the tone of their narratives, which is largely humourous and often ribaldly comic. There is also a sense of the heroic in these works, with male memoirsts frequently mobilising images of battles and adversity. Texts that can be categorised in this way include Toshio Okada’s Sayonara Mr. Fatty: A Geek’s Diet Memoir, Gregg McBride and Joy Bauer’s bestselling Weightless: My Life as a Fat Man and How I Escaped, Fred Anderson’s From Chunk to Hunk: Diary of a Fat Man. As can be seen in their titles, these texts also promise to relate the stratgies, regimes, plans, and secrets that others can follow to, similarly, lose weight. Allen Zadoff’s title makes this explicit: Lessons Learned on the Journey from Fat to Thin. Many of these male memoirists are prompted by a health-related crisis, diagnosis, or realisation. Male body image—a relatively recent topic of enquiry in the eating disorder, psychology, and fashion literature (see, for instance, Bradley et al.)—is also often a surprising motif in these texts, and a theme in common with weight loss memoirs by female authors. Edward Ugel, for instance, opens his memoir, I’m with Fatty: Losing Fifty Pounds in Fifty Miserable Weeks, with “I’m haunted by mirrors … the last thing I want to do is see myself in a mirror or a photograph” (1).

Ugel, as that prominent “miserable” in his subtitle suggests, provides a subtle but revealing variation on this theme of successful weight loss. Ugel (as are all these male memoirists) succeeds in the quest be sets out on but, apparently, despondent almost every moment. While the overall tone of his writing is light and humorous, he laments every missed meal, snack, and mouthful of food he foregoes, explaining that he loves eating, “Food makes me happy … I live to eat. I love to eat at restaurants. I love to cook. I love the social component of eating … I can’t be happy without being a social eater” (3). Like many of these books by male authors, Ugel’s descriptions of the food he loves are mouthwatering—and most especially when describing what he identifies as the fattening foods he loves: Reuben sandwiches dripping with juicy grease, crispy deep friend Chinese snacks, buttery Danish pastries and creamy, rich ice cream. This believable sense of regret is not, however, restricted to male authors. It is also apparent in how Jen Lancaster begins her memoir: “I’m standing in the kitchen folding a softened stick of butter, a cup of warmed sour cream, and a mound of fresh-shaved Parmesan into my world-famous mashed potatoes […] There’s a maple-glazed pot roast browning nicely in the oven and white-chocolate-chip macadamia cookies cooling on a rack farther down the counter. I’ve already sautéed the almonds and am waiting for the green beans to blanch so I can toss the whole lot with yet more butter before serving the meal” (5).

In the above memoirs, both male and female writers recount similar (and expected) strategies: diets, fasts and other weight loss regimes and interventions (calorie counting, colonics, and gastric-banding and -bypass surgery for instance, recur); consulting dieting/health magazines for information and strategies; keeping a food journal; employing expert help in the form of nutritionists, dieticians, and personal trainers; and, joining health clubs/gyms, and taking up various sports.

Alongside these works sit a small number of texts that can be characterised as “non-weight loss memoirs.” These can be read as part of the emerging, and burgeoning, academic field of Fat Studies, which gathers together an extensive literature critical of, and oppositional to, dominant discourses about obesity (Cooper; Rothblum and Solovay; Tomrley and Naylor), and which include works that focus on information backed up with memoir such as self-described “fat activist” (Wann, website) Marilyn Wann’s Fat! So?: Because You Don’t Have to Apologise, which—when published in 1998—followed a print ’zine and a website of the same title. Although certainly in the minority in terms of numbers, these narratives have been very popular with readers and are growing as a sub-genre, with well-known actress Camryn Manheim’s New York Times-bestselling memoir, Wake Up, I'm Fat! (published in 1999) a good example. This memoir chronicles Manheim’s journey from the overweight and teased teenager who finds it a struggle to find friends (a common trope in many weight loss memoirs) to an extremely successful actress.

Like most other types of memoir, there are also niche sub-genres of the “fat memoir.” Cheryl Peck’s Fat Girls and Lawn Chairs recounts a series of stories about her life in the American Midwest as a lesbian “woman of size” (xiv) and could thus be described as a memoir on the subjects of – and is, indeed, catalogued in the Library of Congress as: “Overweight women,” “Lesbians,” and “Three Rivers (Mich[igan]) – Social life and customs”.

Carol Lay’s graphic memoir, The Big Skinny: How I Changed My Fattitude, has a simple diet message – she lost weight by counting calories and exercising every day – and makes a dual claim for value of being based on both her own story and a range of data and tools including: “the latest research on obesity […] psychological tips, nutrition basics, and many useful tools like simplified calorie charts, sample recipes, and menu plans” (qtd. in Lorah). The Big Skinny could, therefore, be characterised with the weight loss memoirs above as a self-help book, but Lay herself describes choosing the graphic form in order to increase its narrative power: to “wrap much of the information in stories […] combining illustrations and story for a double dose of retention in the brain” (qtd. in Lorah). Like many of these books that can fit into multiple categories, she notes that “booksellers don’t know where to file the book – in graphic novels, memoirs, or in the diet section” (qtd. in O’Shea).

Jude Milner’s Fat Free: The Amazing All-True Adventures of Supersize Woman! is another example of how a single memoir (graphic, in this case) can be a hybrid of the categories herein discussed, indicating how difficult it is to neatly categorise human experience. Recounting the author’s numerous struggles with her weight and journey to self-acceptance, Milner at first feels guilty and undertakes a series of diets and regimes, before becoming a “Fat Is Beautiful” activist and, finally, undergoing gastric bypass surgery. Here the narrative trajectory is of empowerment rather than physical transformation, as a thinner (although, importantly, not thin) Milner “exudes confidence and radiates strength” (Story).

Conclusion

While the above has identified a number of ways of attempting to classify autobiographical writing about fat/s, its ultimate aim is, after G. Thomas Couser’s work in relation to other sub-genres of memoir, an attempt to open up life writing for further discussion, rather than set in placed fixed and inflexible categories. Constructing such a preliminary taxonomy aspires to encourage more nuanced discussion of how writers, publishers, critics and readers understand “fat” conceptually as well as more practically and personally. It also aims to support future work in identifying prominent and recurrent (or not) themes, motifs, tropes, and metaphors in memoir and autobiographical texts, and to contribute to the development of a more detailed set of descriptors for discussing and assessing popular autobiographical writing more generally.

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Keywords


creative writing; memoir; food writing



Copyright (c) 2015 Donna Lee Brien

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