“Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw,” by Elissa Altman, NAL/Penguin Random House, 287 pp., $26
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It’s a long-standing family joke that my late Aunt Dorothy, on being served a disappointing treat of frozen yogurt, said: “It’s not very good. And there isn’t enough of it.” Soon after, she posed with her offending dessert, glaring for the camera at the depleted sugar cone in her hand. It was empty almost to the bottom.
Her conflicted response to food is echoed in Elissa Altman’s heartbreaking, yet often funny memoir “Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw.” The follow-up to her first memoir, “Poor Man’s Feast,” about her career as a food writer, “Treyf” looks back at her earliest days as a devoted eater and a savoring, yet sometimes shame-faced snacker: the only child of clashing Jewish parents — one, an assimilated gourmand; the other, an anorexic model — who not only made each other miserable, but who turned family meals into a battleground.
In their 1960s and ’70s home in Forest Hills, Queens, food was at once delicious and dire, and possessed of a weapon-like power. Anything treyf (unkosher) tempted Altman's father — a natty Manhattan ad man, who, despite being the son of an Orthodox cantor, developed a taste for ham — but not her mother, a size 2 beauty, who stayed afloat on a raft of diet white bread, coffee and cigarettes: her secular kashrut of self-denial. When she incinerated her husband’s favorite coat, claiming it stank, he left for two days. The morning after his return, he brought back a retaliatory can of Spam.
Released from its cage, the fatty pork “slid out with a sickening splat onto a gold-banded white plate from my mother’s wedding china,” Altman recalls. Fried up by her father for breakfast, the meat was “salty and bitter and rich; it tasted of spite and fury and betrayal.” Entering the kitchen, her mother dumped the meal. “‘We’re Jews,’ she said, scraping the Spam and eggs directly into the trash,” adding: “‘We don’t leave our children. And we don’t eat dog food.’”
Dysfunction aside, what the couple did do is raise an epicurean who’s able to strike more than one emotional note. Not only does she link sustenance to serious feeling, but she also wrings humor from having hoovered up some high-end eats as a kid. Brought along to a swanky party on the Upper East Side, “I managed,” she writes, to inhale “an entire block of pate de campagne, a bowl of cornichons, and a round of stinking, oozing Epoisses.”
Soon after, she writhes on the host’s bathroom floor, while being comforted by several of his guests: among them, the late comic David Brenner, two hookers with a nylon-string guitar, and “a long-haired man who claimed to be the drummer of Chicago.”
Bok choy ploy
Altman’s early taste for excess recalls Frank Bruni, the former New York Times food critic and author of the memoir “Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater.” As he paints it, in his youth, he resembled a shark: his jaws agape, and seldom closing in on a spread he didn’t swallow. “If the meal Mom served wasn’t to my liking — a rare event — I ate all of it anyway. Food that was only marginally appealing beat no food at all.”
But where “Born Round” treats hunger with a journalistic remove, “Treyf”’ has a more intimate voice, one that’s by turns comic and longing and sad about the family rituals that form — or flounder — around food. In Altman’s case, her clan’s traditions are like the threads of bechamel that get drizzled over lasagna. Handled too roughly, they break.
When her cousins marry, they’re presented with their parents’ silver serving sets, all of them engraved with the pattern of a Greek key. But Altman’s receipt of her folks’ items unfolded differently: “[M]y father handed them over to me unceremoniously when I turned thirty,” she writes, “after I told him I preferred women to men.
“‘No use in waiting anymore, then,’ he said wistfully, stroking the mahogany case” that held the gleaming pieces. “He turned and walked out, leaving me standing alone in the middle of my studio apartment, cradling the purloined box in my arms like an infant.”
Like Bruni, who’s also gay, Altman eventually comes out to all her relatives. But unlike him, she feels starved for a group acceptance that’s put on display, like a buffet, at a traditional life-cycle event. At the thought of being denied the gustatory gesture, she mourns.
"I would never marry a man," she writes, "and the traditional handoff on my assumed wedding day — what I was taught as a child would be a big affair at a country club on Long Island with a tall white multitiered cake and my Aunt Sylvia dancing a Russian sher — would never happen.
“'Who do you think you are, to cheat us out of joy, to break the chain?' Aunt Sylvia whispered to me quietly in her kitchen the Thanksgiving after I came out, when I helped carry in plates from her table.
“'I don’t know,'” I said.
"And I didn’t."
Given the episodic nature of “Treyf,” the family’s harsher interactions are swiftly contained, despite their inevitable, long-term corrosiveness. And thanks to Altman’s talent for tapping into the empathy of the reader, that can feel like a blessing.
But the book’s choppy style also obscures the spur to her mother’s marital wrath. We’re never shown what so fed her distaste for her husband before they finally split. Instead, we see her perform a wifely rage that reads as baffling and untethered, such as when she seemingly uses food to suggest that she’s taken a punch to the jaw.
At their local Chinese restaurant, she fishes a bok choy leaf from her soup, and then pastes it over her smile to ick out the other patrons. “They gasp at her, this bombshell with the blacked-out tooth playacting the ugly girl,” her daughter writes, adding: “This time, she has the last laugh.”
Excerpts from “Treyf” have been posted to Altman’s James Beard Award-winning food blog, and they work splendidly in that setting. Launched in 2008, the online diary that’s eponymous with her first memoir, “Poor Man’s Feast,” often features dreamy, even koan-like musings about edibles, and in a schema that’s composed of discrete entries.
But short-form skills don’t always translate to long-form works, and like an ill-trussed roast chicken, “Treyf” dangles narrative strings that should be tied up. Among them are several — largely off-screen — references to Altman’s wife, Susan, who’s central to her, and yet barely enfleshed in “Treyf” (which ends up shifting desultorily between the author’s childhood, her earlier adulthood and the present).
So, perhaps it’s best to let Altman sum up what “Treyf”’ means to her. “A person can eat treyf; a person can be treyf,” she warns in the prologue, shortly before dubbing herself “the family’s most ardent rule-breaker, and the family’s most certain failure.”
Her outlaw sense is underscored when she leaves, on a darkening Friday, the Connecticut house that she shares with Susan, to haul back from a farm up to 200 pounds of custom-butchered Tamworth hog. “[N]o couple actually needs half an adult pig,” she knows. But her freedom to cook any quantity or kind of meal in their kitchen (“my sanctuary, my refuge, my safe room”), has, she suggests, brought her a sustaining joy.
Still, while chauffeuring the pig, she realizes that it’s Shabbos, and she whispers, “Thy Sabbath has come.” Notwithstanding the self-blessing — and having said of her marital kitchen: “Meals are made here; rules are broken here; new traditions have begun here” — repeating a notion too often can leave some assertions feeling hollow.
Susan Comninos is a New York-based writer who has covered books and authors for The Atlantic Online, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor and Jewish Daily Forward, among others.