Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger by Lisa Donovan

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Is it a mistaken perception that people who run, own, or work in high end restaurants are more likely than a person successful in some other endeavor to write a book about it? Books in this category that occur to me begin with George Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris (those kitchens were disgustingly dirty), to Alice Waters’ writing about Chez Panisse, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, Gabriel Hamilton’s Blood, Bones and Butter, and my personal favorite in this genre, Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires and Tender at the Bone. Though I hadn’t heard of this writer or the Nashville restaurants she writes about, I didn’t hesitate to listen to this book. It was a good choice. She is the reader of the book, and I very much liked her voice, both the words themselves and her delivery. I can’t say I’ve ever heard an audiobook reader come to tears, but it was so touching to hear her speak of the birth of her son with such emotion.

It was throughout a deeply personal book about her unusual life story (so far, that is, as she’s only 42 years old). She writes in detail about the most private events, some lovely:  the birth of her son and her beloved husband, some horrifying:  the abuse and rape she suffered at the hands of a boyfriend. While her storytelling is mesmerizing, it’s her experience in the high end restaurant world that makes this a book people want to buy. She skewers the bad boy famous chefs whose kitchens are toxic for everyone, especially women. And she lays a lot of blame on the owners who are trying to squeeze out every penny in profit for themselves or are trust fund twits who spend thousands on decor while the pastry chef makes $15.00 an hour.

She talks about how her “barely middle class” family ate when she was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s.

My mother was a natural born hostess and we were her favorite guests. Fried baloney finger sandwiches with toothpicks on the sidewalk outside during the summer? Check. Frozen watermelon balls floating in ice cold Sprite? Check. Stouffer’s French bread pepperoni pizza cut into sixths and served on a chips and dip tray with Ranch dressing in the bowl while my friends and I watched Labyrinth? Check. Oreo cookies dipped in white chocolate bark? Check. Peanut butter saltines dipped in regular chocolate bark? Check. Check. Check.

She says that she had been horrified at her mother buying Little Debbie cakes for her son, and recognized how easy it is to be pretentious when your parents are likely doing their best, “regardless of what your ungrateful ass thinks.”

The dessert for a dinner she had at Chez Panisse was a fresh apricot.

I started to babble about apricots in general. I could not find words other than, Why doesn’t this taste like shit? Apricots do not grow properly in the South, and therefore taste like mealy ass, if I were to bother to imagine what mealy ass tastes like. I never understood their appeal and never had to worry about it because, well, we had peaches and having never been out West before, I just assumed that people who liked apricots had never had a good peach and were suffering through their best idea of what delicious was.

There’s much more I’ not touching on, but what a delicious, peach-like book this is.

Lisa Donovan, Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger, Penguin Press, 2020, 291 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the public library and from Amazon.

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