The Coil
Published in

The Coil

A Conversation with Tabitha Blankenbiller

Author Tabitha Blankenbiller talks food, recipes, body image, craft, and her debut memoir, Eats of Eden.

TABITHA BLANKENBILLER grew up in Washington State and currently lives outside of Portland, Oregon. She graduated from the Pacific University MFA in Writing program in 2012 and has written essays for Electric Lit, The Rumpus, Bustle, Catapult, Hobart, Brevity, and other venues, and has been anthologized in the Not My President and All That Glitters collections. Her home is populated by her husband Matt, her cats Max and Mehitabel, and her prized dual oven, Doubles.

Eats of Eden is a trip into the memory, into the stomach, and into the heart of every woman. These essays of tasty bites, writing, coming-of-age, family, self-esteem — and above all, overcoming personal odds to live your best life — are complete with mouth-watering recipes and memories that will change your relationship with food forever. From self-identity to love affairs with the sinking of the Titanic to cheese snobbery to reconciling the unanswered questions of a lost friendship, the home-loving socialite at the heart of this memoir dishes and dines on fashion, feminism, fabulousness, and food.

Eats of Eden follows a year of attempting to write a novel, and the daily life, occasional revelations and passions that feed, distract, complicate, and enrich that process — in the author’s case, constant detours into the kitchen. It’s a book about writing, eating, and surviving in the modern west, from literary hustling at the Doug Fir Lounge, to waiting for life-altering emails around a stew-cooking campfire at Crater Lake.

Melissa Grunow: Tabitha, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview! I’m so excited to talk with you about your debut book, Eats of Eden.

Tabitha Blankenbiller: Of course! I can’t believe we’re finally here at the interview portion of the writing process.

Eats of Eden is subtitled “a foodoir.” Can you talk about the origin of this book and what writing a foodoir means to you? How did you decide to write a memoir in this form?

In 2015, I started writing a column series for The Coil — essays that were tied into recipes, with this idea of food and writing being intertwined. Every writer I’ve met has something “else” that keeps her distracted and inspired from the page, whether it’s being a musician, or a photographer, or a tattoo artist. For me, that other thing is cooking, and it’s essential for me to have that other space as both a complement and an escape from the page.

As far as writing in this form, recipes are naturally conversational. They’re written as instructions on how to perform a task, and if they’re written well, they’ll clue you in on the little secrets to make you, and the dish, better. Food and stories intermingling was one of the reasons I loved watching shows like The Barefoot Contessa and Everyday Italian when I was learning how to cook, so to me it was a natural way to talk about the kitchen and life together. To me, they’re inseparable.

Like many women, your relationship to food seems to be a complicated one. You write about issues of body image and joining Weight Watchers three times. Is it possible for women to have a truly healthy relationship with food while endlessly confronted with scrutiny about their bodies?

Sure! Maybe? No. Goddamn it, it’s so complicated. I like to think I’ve come a long way in accepting what my body wants to be (and will never be), and in many ways I have, but I still can’t help feeling like garbage when I go shopping, and I can’t find a dress that fits right. Or I watch slender people order food at a restaurant and eat it so casually, when it’s the sort of thing I can only justify ordering on my birthday (I’m looking at you, In-N-Out Animal Style Double Double).

The nice thing is there’s glimmers of hope going forward, even if I’m never going to shake all the internalized sexism and body-shaming our culture has been so deeply entrenched in. I am so inspired by this current generation of young women and their body-positive initiatives. They are so many miles ahead of the images we saw growing up in the early aughts, when Kate Winslet in Titanic was considered our representative of a “curvy” woman.

Do you see parallels between your writing process and trying out new recipes?

There’s definitely risks and hazards you run into on both occasions. Nothing frustrates me more than when I get an idea in my head on something I want to make, and then it doesn’t turn out right, even though I followed the recipe. This just happened to me a couple weeks ago with a pineapple upside down cake. I was making it as a treat for Matt after he was out of the country for work — dessert is a rarity in our house. When I took the cast iron skillet out of the oven I was dismayed to find that the cake had barely risen at all, and I had little more than a pineapple upside down pancake. I suspect I was overzealous with beating in egg whites, which is always my issue. I have zero chill for egg whites. And the same thing happens with essays. Sometimes, even when you have this fantastic idea in your head, something goes wrong on paper. Or it just doesn’t click with editors when you send it out. Occasionally you can figure out what went awry, and other times that missing finesse eludes you. I would say that is my least favorite part of writing and cooking. It makes me want to set things on fire.

Then again, every so often you randomly pick out a recipe, and it turns out better than you ever would have imagined, better than meals you paid ten times for at a fancy restaurant, and it’s the same deal with writing. You can start word vomiting an email to yourself and it turns into the piece that everyone reads and likes and shares over and over. Almost as if you can’t plan for magic.

Which sucks. I love to plan.

You share many writing struggles throughout the book, particularly in drafting a novel that you described as “a postmortem of a decimated friendship that I was finally garnering enough distance to stare down.” Are you still working on this novel? Has your approach or vision for it changed since writing Eats of Eden?

I’m not working on that novel anymore, no. What I describe in the book is reckoning with the truth of why I was leaning into that subject matter, and now that I’ve worked through that — much of it through writing in both Eats of Eden and the partial novel draft — it doesn’t have a hold on me any longer. And that is beside the simple point that I am a terrible fiction writer. Seriously. That’s just not how my mind works! I’ve always been drawn to nonfiction writing and essays, even when I was still in high school and college. I was obsessed with voice-y movie reviews and personal anecdotes. I don’t have characters and worlds living in my head. I can’t relate to that. I enjoy a good novel, absolutely, but I also enjoy a perfect pair of shoes, and I’m not rushing out to become a cobbler.

Your writing voice is declarative and distinctive, even when writing about self-doubt. One part of your book that I’ve returned to again and again is when you write, “I have a tendency to charge when I should tiptoe. I chase mirages. I believe in myself before I’ve proven a thing.” How do you reconcile feelings of hope with inevitable disappointment in your writing and your life?

That’s a good question! I guess what I’ve learned throughout my life is that you need to find a new depth to your disappointment and despair before you break through into what you want. That’s happened to me in relationships, in my “day job,” and definitely in my writing career. Over and over. While I was writing Eats of Eden, I probably came the closest I’ve ever come to saying, “I can’t do this anymore.” Thinking it wasn’t worth it. Promising my family I’d take a post-book writing hiatus to alleviate their concerns over my mental health. Then, it was finished, and we’re here, and it’s a joy like no other to have your work out in the world like this. It was more difficult, and more worth it, than all those previous versions of myself could have imagined. I keep hoping because the only thing worse than the crush of being rejected is the idea that I’d give up on myself, and this single lifetime I’ve got to chase a dream.

Who are some of your favorite authors to read, and how to do you draw inspiration from them?

I tend to gravitate strongly toward other essayists, since that’s my favorite style of writing. I love the creative, transcendent work that Chelsea Hodson puts out, and I’m dying to get my hands on her new collection. I’ve lurked around Chloe Caldwell’s work for years, and she endlessly surprises and delights me. I’m a huge fan of Aaron Glibreath’s takes on the modern American west. Steve Almond’s essays on our politics and culture are also some of my favorites, and Laura Bogart’s pop culture writing has that uncanny ability of knowing what I’m trying to figure out years before I’ll ever untangle it. Reading their work reminds me to keep looking at the world in an inquisitive way. I enjoy listening to the conversation they’re having with readers, and the world. They inspire me to speak up.

Even though you admit to abhorring this question, I’m going to ask it anyway: Are you working on a book now? If so, can you give us an idea of what it’s about?

I am working on another book, yes! It’s an essay collection centered around my favorite place in the world. I don’t know if I should give away much more than that.

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Literature to change your lightbulb.

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Melissa Grunow

Melissa Grunow

Author of REALIZING RIVER CITY: A MEMOIR (2016) and I DON’T BELONG HERE: ESSAYS (2018), book reviewer, word nerd. www.melissagrunow.com #amwriting

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