Even though women perform 80% of the meal preparation within their households, fewer than 7% of American restaurants are led by female chefs. This pernicious tendency for women to be seen as behind-the-scenes nurturers — both of their own immediate families and of the egos of the men with whom they work — while men get hailed as gods of food, is just one of the many injustices that Lisa Donovan addresses with anger, honesty, wit and passion in her debut memoir, “Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger.”
A James Beard Award-winning author, Donovan worked as the pastry chef to Tandy Wilson and Sean Brock, two of the South’s most influential contemporary chefs, and — in part thanks to her famed Buttermilk Road pop-up suppers — developed a following in her own right for her bold inclusion of such traditional and often overlooked fare as Church Cakes and pies as the finishing flourishes to fine dining experiences.
But the book opens, wisely, with Donovan in Costa Rica, having deliberately removed herself from the environment where she had struggled so hard to shine. “The industry in which I had spent the last fifteen years making my way had become a markedly [messed up] cast of angry, drunken, ego-driven and deeply sad people,” she writes. “Their marriages were falling apart, their careers hinged on other people’s money, and their restaurants were being run by unqualified, young cooks because the new expectation (and intention) was to be famous, to damn near immortalize yourself. Not to be good.”
From there, she takes the reader back to her origins in a lower-middle-class Southern military family, one that suppressed — with shame and secrecy — their Mexican and Zuni heritage, including her beloved grandmother who “did not have an education above the sixth grade,” a fact which Donovan only learned when she was 40. She also creates a portrait of her adopted city of Nashville and its transformation — while she, her spouse, and kids are living there — from a scrappy place with space for artists and misfits into a gentrified playground for “trust-fund frat boys and too-skinny sorority girls who thought the dumber they sounded, the sexier they were.”
With an impeccable blend of deadpan humor, candor and righteousness, Donovan critiques not only the rampant sexism in haute cuisine, but also the misogyny prevalent in our culture at large, not shying away from depicting her experiences of domestic partner abuse, rape and gender-based pay disparity. Her technique-driven, historically inflected foray into the kitchens of acclaimed restaurants ends up being her roundabout way of finding not only her vocation as a chef, but also as a writer, ultimately repudiating the toxic, unsustainable, male-driven standards wrongly accepted as inevitable in far too many back-of-house milieus.
Donovan chooses to open the book with an epigraph from Ursula K. Le Guin: “We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experiences as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.” Assertive and empowering, Donovan, here, has made a new mountain.
Kathleen Rooney is the author of “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” and “Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey.”
Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger
By: Lisa Donovan.
Publisher: Penguin Press, 308 pages, $28.