Anna Rossi grew up in a home where every meal was boiled until the flavor was gone. Now, years later, a gifted cook, she finds her own appetite draining away as her marriage dissolves into blandness. Desperate to hold her lawyer husband's attention for more than five minutes, she convinces him to go on a second honeymoon in New Hampshire - only to find that, in the end, they have nothing left to say to each other.
Taking her six-year-old daughter, Sara, Anna begins a new life as a kitchen assistant in a friend's busy ski-area New Hampshire restaurant. With the help of the critical sous chef, James, Anna begins to rediscover the simple pleasures of a life lived on one's own terms - along with the sweetness of fresh blueberry jam, the salty tang of blue cheese, and the warm, comforting and earthy taste of mushrooms. But just as Anna's appetite begins to make a healthy reappearance, a phone call from her less vibrant past forces her to make an important choice. Anna's decision may change the way she has come to view the world, and have devastating effects on the flavor of her future.
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|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|File size:||3 MB|
About the Author
Hunger is Jane Ward's first novel. A former baker, she lives in Arlington, MA.
Read an Excerpt
By Jane Ward
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2001 Jane Ward
All rights reserved.
Over a congratulatory dinner one evening in early January, surrounded by friends around a comfortable dining table, I look up and find my husband taking a small snooze. His plate rests in front of him the salmon with avocado salsa — his favorite, since the dinner is in his honor — is untouched. He drifted off during a discussion of foreign films playing at the Biograph Theater, and slept through a good deal of the conversation. Our guests, with their eyes, direct my attention to Michael, seated to my left. I turn in my chair, my head bends toward him now, and I stare. How often had I kidded him about being dead on his feet after putting in long hours for years to achieve partnership in his law firm? And here it is: proof.
His lashes are long and thick like a darling young boy's. They cast a shadow over his cheekbones, and I watch his shoulders move up and down in the regular slow breath of sleep. My guests, taking their cue from me, relax as I smile at my husband. They must believe I feel tenderly. I don't; I feel smug. I think, î told you so.
We have Julie and Jim down from Michigan; Barnaby and his second wife, Maddie; my friend from work, Colette, who is a food stylist; and her photographer boyfriend, Tom. Colette and I work together at a food magazine, where I was hired nearly seven years ago as a food analyst for the test kitchen. Most of my day is spent breaking foods down to their basic parts; I analyze everything.
I invited Colette, although she is more my friend than Michael's, simply because I need someone here who shares my interests. Michael's lawyer friends, some like Jim and Julie, whom he's known since day one of law school, talk shop when they congregate — theoretical discussions, comparisons of current cases and clients — thus ignoring the nonlawyers in the bunch, which is usually just me. Then Maddie, too, when she came along. Michael seemed to think we would hit it off, but she is new to the group and difficult to draw out, which makes me diffident around her. Colette, Tom, and I — food stylist, photographer, food scientist — can talk about food and about our work when the conversation around us becomes too exclusive.
Barnaby may be Michael's closest friend. He's been our lawyer for years, and Michael trusts him like a brother. They met at the firm, and their friendship solidified during weekends spent on various Chicago area golf courses. Since his remarriage, Barnaby walks taller and his brow has cleared. He is a happier man to be near. We took a trip or two with Barnaby and his first wife until they began bickering, and the anxiety hung in the air around us like a noxious cloud. At the time I decided I knew how to spot a marriage in distress: by the bickering, the loud and robust arguments each partner would instigate. Now I see how little I truly understood.
Jim and Julie were, with Michael, founding members of their law school study group. The three provided support and coaching during three otherwise cutthroat and competitive years, and they remain a tight, an impenetrable, circle. This is what I think: that they formed a unit while I became the diversion. I feel that Julie hasn't much patience for me or my role in Michael's life. She continues to make much of my past foray into temp work and test labs full of refrigerator dough, my penchant for dark clothes, and the fact that I now only work three days a week.
When we met I was newly married, and she summed me right up.
"Let me get this straight," she said when we were introduced. "You have a degree in food science? What is that exactly? Are you going to be a home ec teacher? I remember in high school, back when the girls took home ec and the boys were shuttled off to shop. Not that I wanted shop, either," she continued, with a glance down at her perfectly French-manicured nails, "but I certainly knew even years ago how sexist it was to stick us automatically in home ec."
"No," I explained, "I'm more of a lab person, a chemist," thinking that "chemist" sounded both understandable and impressive. "A chemist who studies and works with food."
"Well, then, is that what the dough is all about?" she concluded, referring to the night job I held, testing the pH levels of refrigerator dough for a huge food manufacturer. It wasn't much, but I worked diligently, albeit unhappily, during the law school years to keep us paying our rent and eating. She then eyed me for about a minute and turned to someone else presumably more interesting; I was dismissed.
I remember looking at Michael across whatever table we were sitting at — bar, pizza parlor, coffeehouse — while my husband shrugged and rolled his eyes in something like sympathy.
But he craved their company, and their shared experience forged a very strong bond. I thought I'd seen the back of them at graduation, but Jim accepted a job in Grand Rapids, Michael in Chicago, and we got into a twice-yearly routine. So of course when Michael's partnership became official, no question, they were present to share in the celebration.
For our dinner I had diced seedless cucumber, red peppers, plum tomatoes, red onion, and an avocado uniformly; tossed them all together with lime juice, cilantro, salt, and pepper; and then placed a few spoonfuls on each plate. After removing stray bones with my needle-nose pliers, I had brushed a huge, bright orange Pacific salmon fillet with grainy mustard and grilled it quickly, divided it into eight pieces, and set each on top of the salsa. Earlier in the day I had made a potato salad, laced it with a roasted-garlic mayonnaise and some dark green scallions and capers, and turned it out into my best majolica bowl. The table was perfectly set. When our guests arrived, Michael took them to the living room, where they nibbled almonds I had sautéed in butter and sprinkled with sea salt. Michael, the perfect host, poured drinks: white wine, kirs, gin with bitters.
While the others talked, Colette visited me in the kitchen, arm in arm with Tom, who put his fingers into the potato salad for a taste before dinner. He looked at me instantly, like a guilty child, but I smiled and told him, "Go ahead." He groaned with pleasure at the taste, which made me beam. He was about to lick the last bits of dressing from his fingers when Colette said, "Wait." She took his hand, saying, "Let me." And she licked the last morsels from his fingers.
"Anna, that's gorgeous," she crowed. But I turned away, blushing, mumbling my thanks, feeling as if I had intruded on something more intimate than the sharing of food. I was excluded, an outsider, a stranger to whatever it was that had just passed between them. In that moment, my appetite, so fickle lately, fled.
Now, as I watch Michael sleep, conversation temporarily suspended, my smug amusement soon gives way to a familiar, random anger — anger as slippery and as hard to pin down as mercury. Anger slides around within me in oily beads, shooting out in many directions without any single target, and the best I can do is keep chase in an attempt to harness it. I rein in the anger with the voice of reason, the voice I carry with me always, which tells me to keep calm, be quiet, be good, bear up, maintain the appearance of smooth, seamless perfection. I pretend to be content to let him rest on with his eyes closed.
I rise slowly and begin clearing plates, trying to keep the clatter of dishes and silver to a minimum, but I leave Michael's meal at his place in case he is hungry when he wakes. Julie rises after me, stops next to my husband, and seems to consider removing his unfinished meal.
"Wait," I instruct her. "He may want to finish when he wakes up. Why don't you all go into the living room while I get the coffee," I suggest, and I carry dirty dishes to the kitchen with Julie in tow.
"Let me help," she says, lifting a dessert plate and turning it over to see its mark. "Quimper? This must have cost Michael a fortune."
"Actually, it cost me somewhat less than a fortune," I reply.
"Did you get these in France?" she persists.
"Yup. In the Paris flea market. They're used," I feel obliged to qualify.
"Paris." Julie lets the word linger in the air. "You've been quite a few places."
"I guess. Not recently, though, not since Sara was born." I pause to scrape food scraps into the sink.
Julie asks, "Shouldn't we wake him, Anna? I mean, won't he be mortified that we went on without him?"
Let him, I think, for I am not feeling very tenderhearted. Instead I shrug and say, "Michael's been tired lately, but I've never seen him fall asleep at dinner before. I've told him he's overworked."
"The old 'I told you so,' marriage's finest bit of communication?" Julie asks. "What's your opinion? What do you think this spontaneous sleep is all about?"
I recognize from my experience with Michael the buildup of questioning, each question carefully worded to elicit evidence, proof. "I think he's well, if that's what you're asking." I pause, leaning my side against the sink as I set the dishes down and wait for her to get to the point. "Where are you going with this?"
"Do you think Michael's depressed? Has he said anything?"
"Depressed?" I shake my head. "If anyone's going to get to be depressed around here, can I be first in line?" I attempt a smile, but Julie wants no part of my humor.
"Why would you be depressed? I'm serious, Anna, Jim's tired. I am very familiar with tired. Michael looks beyond tired, he looks unhappy."
"Okay, seriously then, he's just finished jumping through hoops for seven grueling years. I'm sure it's catching up with him," I answer.
She lays her hand on my arm, circles my wrist, as I try to finish the task of scraping the dishes under the running water. She turns the water off and makes me stop working. Looking me squarely in the eye, Julie asks, "He's in the middle of celebrating his promotion and he falls asleep, and you won't look any deeper than simple fatigue?" When she puts it this way, I sound both self-centered and blind. Before I can answer, Julie continues, "Can I give you some advice, Anna? I mean, I understand the stresses Michael's under. Jim and I are both in busy firms; we've had to get the kids involved in the routine of day care. But now everyone understands their role, their part in running the family's days successfully." She picks up a coffee cup, rubbing her thumb over the painted folk figures on its outside. "Take the pressure off; let Michael set the pace. Maybe structure your days a little more, then he'll feel you're working with him. Sara won't take up so much of your time, his time. I think," and with this she sets the cup down and clasps her hands behind her back. I see her persuasive, courtroom pose. "I think," she repeats, "Michael could relax if he didn't feel torn between his work and your need to be ... entertained."
I've never considered Julie my friend, but I admire her loyalty to my husband; still, this concern, however touching, burns me, like the incompatible chemicals of an exploding science experiment at my core, burning cold and smoking. Her words, assuming such a personal knowledge of my marriage, a knowledge I apparently don't have, eat away at my flesh until nothing is left but the resentment, frigid and static.
"'Entertained'?" I echo, incredulous. "And 'pressure'?. What pressure do I put on him? I never see him. Have you been talking about me?" I ask suspiciously. "Has Michael told you he feels pressured, or is this just your observation? Are you here as his emissary or his legal counsel?"
Julie holds up her hands, as if calling for a truce. "His friend. I'm here as his friend. He didn't ask me to say anything to you; Jim and I have been there, and we can see all the signs."
Folding my arms across my chest, I drum my fingertips against my upper arms. I look away — at the floor, the sink, the messy countertops, anywhere so she won't see me roll my eyes as I itch for her to finish.
"Oh, for God's sake, Anna," she sighs, "don't get upset. This isn't personal, and you know what I mean. The man is obviously torn between needing to spend time at work and the pressure he feels to be at home. If you let him know you're not quite so needy, he could relax. I just thought I could help my friend."
"'Needy'?. So you think I should stop pressuring Michael to spend so much time with his wife and daughter?" I ask angrily. "Do you have any idea how much he's home now? Or how littleI actually say about it? He comes home most nights at nine and continues to work after dinner, and I've said nothing. I'm not a nag."
"I'm trying to be helpful." Julie lowers her voice, reminding me as she does of my guests down the hall and my husband asleep in the next room. "If you'd stop being childish and think about it," she continues, "you'd see I was right. You don't have to say a word, it's evident in all your superhuman efforts. Take this dinner for instance." With a broad sweep of her arm, she gestures back to the dining room and then around the kitchen, pointing out the traces of our meal scattered across the counter.
"What about dinner?"
"You never relax, you're out in the kitchen all night making one thing after the next. It all has to be just right, look just perfect. It's as if you're trying to anticipate Michael's every last whim. It's overwhelming, Anna, it's claustrophobic. Took at me, notice me,' you seem to say," and she waves her hand in front of my face like an eager student at the front of the class. "No one can live with this kind of pressure."
Breathing deeply, I answer, "I won't apologize for Sara needing her father around, and when I see my husband I'd kind of like him to stay awake."
"Exactly," Julie answers, sounding relieved, as if I've finally gotten her point. "We just see different ways to achieve that goal. If you push him, if you keep waving your hands in his face, so to speak, he'll just retreat even further. My advice? Relax, back off, make your own days, and Sara's, as full as you can. Okay?" she asks, patting me on the shoulder. She reaches for the stack of dessert plates and coffee cups. "Jim and I will put out the dessert dishes in the living room, so why don't you go wake Michael?" she suggests as she walks from the kitchen.
Before she gets too far away I am tempted to wrest the dishes from her, drop them, and watch the slivered shards scatter across my kitchen floor. The satisfying crash would mimic the chaos in my head, yield a sound as fragmented as my anger. But I know I won't; she's touched a nerve, finally, come a bit too close to a very basic truth. Look at me, notice me, the attitudes of an attention-starved child, my dinners the equivalent of standing on my head. Humbled like the child I once was, I accept the reproach because doing so is in my nature. I can continue to bend and bend until I've prostrated myself; I'm revisiting old territory.
I lie on my back on the grass beneath the cherry tree in my backyard. My knees are bent and I have a book lying facedown on them. August is not cooling off, but the grass under the tree is damp and shaded. Behind me my mother's forsythia stands thick and green in front of the fence. It has long since shed its flowers, yellow and starlike; in the spring I cut some branches without Mother's permission along with some shimmering pussy willow, wrapped the ends in wet newspaper, and gave them to my next-door neighbor, Mrs. Klein.
I like spring best because the most interesting things happen: Leaf and flower buds appear; my friend's chickens hatch chicks that feel like ticking yellow clocks in my small hands; my father lets me dig in the wet soil by flashlight for nightcrawlers, which he takes with him in a bucket when he fishes. Summer is too hot, and I often find myself on my back seeking shade, like today, when I am also escaping the airless quiet of the house. I have little to do; most of my friends are away with their families. My mother has closeted herself upstairs, leaving me to amuse myself.
I began visiting my next-door neighbor in the spring, and I think I will see her today. My neighbor, Mrs. Klein, is dying. She has cancer, something that makes her thin and weak. Her hair falls out, and she wears a wig. She doesn't mind that her hair has fallen out, she tells me; many Jewish women shave their heads on purpose and then wear wigs. She says she likes to pretend it is Orthodoxy and not chemotherapy that is responsible for the lack of hair. I have seen her without her wig. Almost completely bald, she has some wisps of light brown hair remaining on a silvery scalp. Her head is not round like the circles I draw on figures in my art class drawings, but oval and elongated.
When I visit, usually her husband is at work. Her two children, older than I, are away at camp —"music camp," she's told me proudly. While we are in the house together she lets me try food that eager relatives and friends from her temple bring to tempt her appetite. "It's no use, Anna," she sighs, "I don't keep anything down." My mother often wonders why I am not very hungry at lunchtime. I never tell her I have filled up on noodle puddings, some savory, others sweet with raisins; kasha with bow-tie pasta; grainy chopped liver and cold slices of brisket. I develop quite a taste for the cold root vegetables served with the meat. To me it is all very exotic. When Mrs. Klein tells me she is tired I go home, but she always thanks me for the pleasure of my company.
Excerpted from Hunger by Jane Ward. Copyright © 2001 Jane Ward. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPART ONE Proofs,
PART TWO The Man Who Ate with His Hands,
PART THREE Learning to Eat,
PART FOUR The Lone Wolf,
PART FIVE Mise en Place,
PART SIX Hunger,
PART SEVEN Gifts of Food,