Winter hadn’t quite released its grip when our Bibliobites group met on an unexpectedly snowy morning. Though two days prior the temperature had hit 60 degrees, on the day of our meeting the snow steadily accumulated outside as we talked (via zoom) about Erin French’s bestselling memoir, Finding Freedom. Ms. French is the owner/chef of The Lost Kitchen in Freedom, ME, which has been consistently named one of the best restaurants in the country. It’s also one of the hardest to get into—reservations are created using a lottery system with over 20,000 postcard entrants annually! But, if we can’t go there, at least we can read about the restaurant and its talented and dedicated chef.
It’s hard to know where to start in summarizing our discussion. There’s so much in this story that’s dramatic and heart-wrenching; her life has had so many twists and turns that if you didn’t know it was true you might think you were reading fiction. And, as with many memoirs, this story hinges on relationships: to family, spouse, child; and of course, food and cooking.
Ms. French had an idyllic, and difficult, childhood in rural Maine. Her father, who owned a local diner, was unstable and verbally abusive. Fixated on having sons, he was perpetually disappointed that his children were girls (“…get over it!”). Despite his disdain for daughters, he had no trouble putting Ms. French to work in the diner beginning at age 12, and by the time she was in high school, she was essentially a full time cook, and often the only cook. And yet, throughout the book, she is steadfast in her appreciation for the direction in which her father inadvertently steered her: she discovered a passion for food and cooking that endured and has sustained her into the present. Our group was amazed at her level of forgiveness towards her dad; she chose how to write about it, and “wrote through a lens of love.” It was “beautiful….she praised what she could.”
Though Ms. French has a sister, we didn’t get a good feel for that relationship. It was clear that they weren’t (and perhaps aren’t) close, but there was “not a good overall picture.” Her mom is depicted as a strong, loving, yet passive presence; a woman who found it difficult to cope with and stand up to her harsh and spiteful husband.
Much of our discussion focused on Ms. French’s husband, Tom. Like her father, Tom was an alcoholic; and though he initially supported her dreams (both financially and emotionally), things began to fall apart when she started to gain acclaim for her small restaurant in Belfast, ME (also called the Lost Kitchen). At that point, their marriage was struggling and Ms. French was developing a raging addiction to alcohol and prescription meds as she tried to keep everything in her life on a semi-even keel. When she finally went to rehab, he closed the successful restaurant, and sold everything in it. Though Ms. French didn’t know it at the time, only Tom legally owned the business. Until he shuttered the restaurant, we were kind of OK with Tom (he’d helped her start the restaurant, adopted her son from a prior relationship, and had stopped drinking), but then “he kicked her when she was down.” It seemed that he wanted to punish her in every way possible, “I’m going to make her miserable,” since she wanted to leave her marriage. We wondered if Ms. French ever really loved him; she “sort of slid into it” and it gave her some security; “she didn’t have a good model growing up.” In addition to destroying her restaurant business, because of her addiction he obtained a court order to prevent her from seeing her son.
To dig yourself out from under addiction, the loss of your livelihood that you had built from scratch, betrayal by your husband, and the forced separation from your child– it’s almost too much to imagine any one human being surviving all of that. And yet she did survive, and start over, both personally and professionally. What saved her? In the book she gives all the credit to her love for her son, and the support of her mother– but we also thought her passion for food and cooking kept her going; “she could envision what she was reaching for.” But even with a strong vision, it took so much hard work, determination, and patience to restart her dream, “I’m in awe of this woman.” Unsurprisingly, this was an emotional and inspirational read for all of us; it “takes a lot of guts to empty your soul [onto the page].” We thought that maybe writing it all down was a form of therapy for her, literally closing the book on some painful chapters.
And speaking of writing, we thought this memoir was well written– it was compelling and moved along at good pace. Ms. French’s honesty was appealing, and her lack of chef-ish ego refreshing. Her lyrical descriptions of food have been widely praised, and we agreed that those accolades were well-deserved. Before Ms. French published her memoir, she did produce a cookbook, appropriately titled The Lost Kitchen. A few of us had paged through this; as with the memoir we enjoyed her writing, and the photography is incredible, both of the food and the restaurant and its surroundings. But, despite Ms. French’s claims of being a plain, no-frills cook, we thought that the food was a bit too “fancy.” As someone pointed out, she sources her incredibly high-quality ingredients hyper-locally, in a way we might not be able to. In many ways, her food is of her specific place, which is a good thing– but it makes it harder to duplicate in another location. Or, maybe we don’t really want to cook her food ourselves, we just want to go to the restaurant! The chances of any of us doing that are quite small, but I’m sure most of us will be sending a postcard to Freedom, Maine on April 1. In the meantime, if you want more Erin French in your life, the audiobook, read by the author, is highly recommended. And, there’s now a TV show about the Lost Kitchen (“a great adjunct”) on Magnolia Network.
When our votes were tallied, we averaged out to a 4.8 (out of a possible 5). That may well be our highest score ever. Seems fitting!
We’ll next meet on Friday, March 25 at 11 AM. This meeting will be in a hybrid format; you may attend in person (in the McCarthy Meeting Room) or via Zoom. Please register for either; zoom link will be sent on the morning of the program. In conjunction with Chelmsford’s One Book title, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong, we’ll be discussing Vietnamese Food Any Day by Andrea Nguyen. Hope to see you then!