No one writes about food and familial relationships in the incredible—and incredibly insightful—way that Elissa Altman does. Here, she shares the path that led to her extraordinary new book, Motherland.
It’s easy to look at Elissa Altman’s career and think she’s wholly defined by the subject of food.
There’s her work in publishing houses, in which—following culinary school—she began as an editorial assistant and rose to the highest echelons of the industry, bringing a slew of cookbooks to market; she has penned innumerable food columns for newspapers; she launched the James Beard Award–winning blog Poor Man’s Feast; she subsequently released the bestselling book of the same name, and other titles with culinary cores.
But just like an optometrist wields a refractor, when you study a writer through different lenses, a more complete portrait begins to emerge—and one of the most striking (and defining) ways to look at Elissa Altman is through her mother.
After all, it’s how she found a fascination with food in the first place. As she has written, “My mother calls my supposed cooking ability the hidden family secret. I call it a form of self-defense—plain and simple—against a family legacy of quick-frozen peas and dried soup mix.”
Altman’s mother is no chef. And she’s the diametric opposite of her daughter in almost every other possible way: Altman’s mother has long adored feminine fashion; Altman long preferred the stylings of her father’s suits and wingtips. Her mother pursued a career in entertainment, being a former TV singer and model; Altman pursued an English degree at Boston University. Her mother sought a mini version of herself in her daughter; Altman took after her father in appearance, demeanor and interests, and longed for a loving 1970s television mom.
As for the things that define writers, they tend to use them as optical devices to visualize and interpret the world at large. Yes, Altman’s work often focuses on food—and food is often used as a means to explore relationships. The past and present. Where we’ve been and where we’re going. And her mother, long a fixture of Altman’s writing, has recently taken center stage in Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing and Longing, which gives us, as readers, a window into Altman’s complex relationship with her, and perhaps insights into our own familial stories.
Moreover, Altman has never shied from tackling the less-than-appetizing sides of food in her writing, approaching the subject in all its brutal honesty, and she takes the same approach when writing about life. And that is what elevates her work to the cathartic and often universal. A recipe is not always just a recipe, and a life story is not always just a life story.
“We are all complicated, challenged beings,” she told For Women Who Roar, “and all of that complexity allows memoir to be what it is at its best: reflective of the human condition, in all its extreme messiness.”
As a complement to this episode of Design Matters, here is a look at Altman’s three most recent—and defining—books.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
Poor Man’s Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire and the Art of Cooking Simple
Say the Critics: “Delightful. … A wealth of food tales about foodies and food phobics, cooks and kitchen disasters, cooking successes and failures—all in clear, pleasing prose. … Poor Man’s Feast deserves a place on the shelf with the finest food writers.” —New York Journal of Books
“Born and raised in New York to a food-phobic mother and a food-fanatical father, Elissa learned early on that fancy is always best. After a childhood spent dining at fine establishments, from Le Pavillon to La Grenouille, she devoted her life to all things gastronomical. She served rare game birds at elaborate dinner parties in an apartment so tiny that the guests couldn’t turn around and bought eight timbale molds while working at Dean & DeLuca, just to make her food tall.
“Then, Elissa met and fell in love with Susan—a frugal, small-town Connecticut Yankee with a devotion to simple living—and it changed her relationship with food, and the people who taught her about it, forever.
“Told with tender and often hilarious honesty, and filled with 26 delicious recipes, Poor Man’s Feast is a tale of finding sustenance and peace in a world of excess and inauthenticity, demonstrating how all our stories are inextricably bound up with how we feed ourselves and those we love.”
Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw
Say the Critics: “Gives eloquent voice to the universal human desire to belong. A poignant and life-affirming family memoir.” —Kirkus Reviews
Official Copy: “Treyf: According to Leviticus, unkosher and prohibited, like lobster, shrimp, pork, fish without scales, the mixing of meat and dairy. Also, imperfect, intolerable, offensive, undesirable, unclean, improper, broken, forbidden, illicit.
“Fans of Augusten Burroughs and Jo Ann Beard will enjoy this kaleidoscopic, universal memoir in which Elissa Altman explores the tradition, religion, family expectations and the forbidden that were the fixed points in her Queens, New York, childhood. Every part of Altman’s youth was laced with contradiction and hope, betrayal and the yearning for acceptance: synagogue on Saturday and Chinese pork ribs on Sunday; bat mitzvahs followed by shrimp-in-lobster-sauce luncheons; her old-country grandparents, whose kindness and love were tied to unspoken rage, and her bell-bottomed neighbors, whose adoring affection hid dark secrets.
“While the suburban promise of The Brady Bunch blared on television, Altman searched for peace and meaning in a world teeming with faith, violence, sex and paradox. Spanning from 1940s wartime Brooklyn to 1970s Queens to present-day rural New England, Treyf captures the collision of youthful cravings and grown-up identities. It is a vivid tale of what it means to come to yourself both in spite and in honor to your past.”
Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing and Longing
Say the Critics: “Rarely has a mother-daughter relationship been excavated with s
uch honesty. Elissa Altman is a beautiful, big-hearted writer who mines her most central subject: her gorgeous, tempestuous, difficult mother, and the terrain of their shared life. The result is a testament to the power of love and family.”—Dani Shapiro, author of Inheritance
Official Copy: “After surviving a traumatic childhood in 1970s New York and young adulthood living in the shadow of her flamboyant mother, Rita, a makeup-addicted former television singer, Elissa Altman has managed to build a very different life, settling in Connecticut with her wife of nearly 20 years. After much time, therapy and wine, Elissa is at last in a healthy place, still orbiting around her mother but keeping far enough away to preserve the stable, independent world she has built as a writer and editor. Then Elissa is confronted with the unthinkable: Rita, whose days are spent as a flâneur, traversing Manhattan from the Clinique counters at Bergdorf to Bloomingdale’s and back again, suffers an incapacitating fall, leaving her completely dependent upon her daughter.
“Now Elissa is forced to finally confront their profound differences, Rita’s yearning for beauty and glamour, her view of the world through her days in the spotlight, and the money that has mysteriously disappeared in the name of preserving youth. To sustain their fragile mother-daughter bond, Elissa must navigate the turbulent waters of their shared lives, the practical challenges of caregiving for someone who refuses to accept it, the tentacles of narcissism, and the mutual, frenetic obsession that has defined their relationship.
“Motherland is a story that touches every home and every life, mapping the ferocity of maternal love, moral obligation, the choices women make about motherhood, and the possibility of healing. Filled with tenderness, wry irreverence and unforgettable characters, it is an exploration of what it means to escape from the shackles of the past only to have to face them all over again.”