The Splendid Table friend and contributor David Leite has had a rich award-winning career in culinary writing, but it turns out he wasn't always excited about food. For him, food has also been connected to his struggles with his weight, his complicated family life, sexuality, and mental illness, until he realized that feeding (and being fed by) his partner of 24 years could bring him back to his roots. Fellow contributor Shauna Sever talked with Dave about his revealing new memoir, Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love and Manic Depression. [Ed. Note: Bring a taste of Portugal to your dinner table with David’s recipe for Azorean Kale and Bean Soup.]
Shauna Sever: Like a lot of people, I knew of your work, initially, from the food world. When I first picked up this book, I was expecting more of a traditional food memoir, but this is not that.
David Leite: No, it's not.
SS: There are so many more themes intertwined. You begin the book talking about your early childhood memories growing up in Fall River, Massachusetts, as part of a big Portuguese family. Can you tell us a about the family dynamic and the role that food played in your family?
DL: Sure. I was born in 1960. This was the sixties, and it was in one house – we called it a tenement. A tenement, back then, was a three-story house that was three apartments. We had a nice big yard and there was a vegetable garden in back. It was my mother, my father, and myself on the second floor, and my godmother, my godfather, and my cousin Barry on the first floor in the front. On the first floor in back was my grandmother and my grandfather. There were tons of cousins and all these relations that would always come over. My mother, father and I would have our meals – our dinners – but on Sundays, we'd all be together. There'd be nine, 12, 15 people altogether, sometimes the dinners would take place outside in the yard because there wasn't any room. It was always raucous, and, of course, there was tons of Portuguese food being served. There was codfish, rice, sausages and all different foods that we had.
But for me, from a very early age, I didn't want to eat Portuguese food. I didn't see anything about Portuguese food on television. I didn't see us being represented anywhere. I internalized this notion of Portuguese as being bad and Portuguese as not being American. Growing up I just wanted American food. I wanted Betty Crocker cakes with Betty Crocker frosting and anything you saw on television: Spam, Velveeta. Those are the things that I desperately wanted. I turned my nose up at a lot of foods when I was younger.
(Photo: Bob Carey)
SS: You do mention that in the book, calling it "wanting to be American by consumption." You mention some of these foods that gave you that feeling growing up. Why do you feel it was so important to you to separate yourself from your heritage in this way, through food?
DL: When I was very young, there seemed to be a lot of prejudice against the Portuguese coming over. I don't understand why because there were so many Portuguese living there. Maybe the Portuguese were the newest people on the lowest rung, therefore they were being picked on. They would say horrible things like "Portagee,” a very insulting phrase, or "pork chop." I saw the venom with which these invectives were spewed out at my family and other Portuguese families. I internalized that there was something wrong with us, and, up to that point, I didn't know anything but Portuguese. That was the first inkling that there was something different about us, and that embarrassed me.
SS: Later in the book, we learn about your challenges with mental illness for pretty much your entire life, your struggles with your sexuality for a number of years, and your battles with weight and self-image. Through it all, it seems that food was both your savior and a source of great anxiety.
DL: Food played many different roles. In the beginning, it was my nemesis. I wanted to get away from it. Like I said, I wanted all this American food that I saw on television, and when some of the mental illness started showing its face, I was having a lot of anxiety. At 11 and 12 years old, I started having panic attacks. Food was very comforting, and I would eat anything that was given to me. My grandmother and my mother would make anything, and I would eat Portuguese food, American food – anything that was put on the table because it was comfort for me. And then I went through a period where I lost a lot of weight. I was down to 169, but I told everyone 170 because that one pound – secret to me – was the most amazing thing – to know that I actually had a six in my weight – 169. And so, food became the enemy again, and I would not eat. I chose not to eat; I ate very little, and it was very difficult to embrace food. Then I met “The One,” who, in the book, everyone now finds out is Alan, and he turned my head around about food. I slowly began eating more and more. I got into the food world and ate more and more. I became the 180-degree opposite of what I was when I met Alan and became very overweight, which is what I'm struggling with now.
SS: Food seems to be a way to employ all of our senses. We all know that it can equally be stimulating, it can be distracting, it can be about connection. What, of those things – or maybe all of those things – do you feel either helped or made your mental illness more difficult?
DL: One of the things that food, and specifically the act of cooking food, did for me was it calmed me. It centered me; it gave me a point of focus. I say in the book that sometimes just watching butter slump in the pan as it was melting calmed me, and it gave me a sense of purpose. Another role that food played in my life is as a healer. It healed me, not just from consuming it and feeling better, but just the act of preparing it for others. A lot of times, I would cook and not even eat. It was just knowing that I was in the kitchen, and I could take these disparate ingredients and put something together, especially with baking – I love baking – and please others. It somehow gave me a lift, just a bit sometimes, but it would give me a lift. You were talking about the different senses, how sensate and sensual food is – all of that played a role, too. I would get lost in those smells and the sights and the tastes of it. It'd be a diversion momentarily, and sometimes that's all it took to get through the day.
SS: In your mid-thirties, you mention you meet your partner, Alan, whom you call "The One." He's still your One.
DL: Yes, he's still my one. He's still there, almost 24 years.
SS: That's wonderful. And food does play quite a role in your relationship, although I found it very interesting that his food experience with his family growing up was very different from yours. Tell us about that.
DL: Growing up for him, when he sat down at the table with his stepfather and his mother, was always fraught with a lot of emotion. There was a lot of anger. His stepfather was a very difficult person, and I didn't know this for quite a while, and then he revealed that to me. I was very surprised because he didn't seem to be scarred by that, as a lot of people would. But what came out of that, because he was always trying to duck out of the table as soon as he was done – he would just slink away so he wouldn't be seen by his stepfather. What that did was cause him to become a diner. He is a diner, and I come from a family of eaters. We eat. We are raucous, we are loud, we eat. Ten minutes after we're done, all the women in our family would clean up the table, and there was no sign that we ever had a meal. All the men were in the backyard sitting on folding chairs waiting for the next meal, and the kids were out in the street playing, getting hungry for the next meal. That's what we did. We just ate meal to meal to meal.
SS: That sounds familiar to me.
DL: And then, Alan comes along, and very early on, I realized we had to dine. At that point, I was still young, thin, and beautiful, eating nothing for dinner except either some pasta with low-calorie sauce or Fiber One cereal. But he had to light candles; he had to play music. It had to be China on the table. I couldn't have the cereal box in front of me and read the back of it like I did when I was a kid. It had to be poured into the bowl, milk had to be poured in, and we sat and talked. When we were done, he would push away, and he would expect us to continue talking, and I'm like, “What? We're going to sit at the table and continue talking? I have things to do. I have a life.” But that's not how he wanted his life to be based upon what his childhood was. We had a lot of grappling of this “diner versus eater” for the early parts of our relationship.
SS: And now, you cook and bake for each other often, calling it "love food."
DL: That's the name we gave the food very early on when we got together because we decided to cook for each other. He had a dish which was roast pork with apples, and I made an apple sour cream pie, and it was our first major meal that we did together. We made for each other. That repetition of that meal, which we made every Sunday for many weeks and then started adding other things to it, became our very first tradition as a couple, which was Sunday supper, which we still have.
Notes on a Banana
by David Leite
SS: There's a very powerful scene in the book I'd love for you to tell us about, where you talk about Alan making a certain cake for you that unearths some strong memories.
DL: Yes. This was my young, thin, and beautiful time. He decided to make a pineapple upside-down cake, and said, "Hey, do you want to lick the bowl?" When I took a swipe of the batter and tasted it, there was this Proustian moment that hurdled me back to my childhood, and I didn't know where. I couldn't place this taste. I picked up the bowl and smelled it. The smell of the butter and the flour all mixed together was so familiar. But I had never baked, and he had never baked for me before. So it wasn't something in our relationship. I called my mom, and I said, “Ma, did you ever bake?” And I knew the answer. She's like, "Come on, Banana! You know that I don't bake, but Vovó did." "Vovó" is "grandmother" in Portuguese. And I'm like, “She did?” She said, "Don't you remember? She used to pull up the chair to the stove, and you would stand on the chair, and you would cook and bake together." And these memories that I had forgotten – I was about 34 years old – just came flooding back to me, and a door was pried open to my past. All of that pushing down my Portuguese heritage, pushing down anything that had to do with my family and food just popped open with that smell and taste and that cake batter. I was enrolled in a baking class two weeks later.
SS: It was such a small thing that changed the course of your life, this waking up to realizing that you had positive food memories. At that point in the book, it really does start to almost have kind of a domino effect, I felt when I was reading it. And you take this trip to Portugal with The One who has you go to your grandmother's house, or the house where your grandmother used to live. Please tell us this story of the hidden oven. I just love this story.
DL: My family – both sides of my family – is from the island of São Miguel in the Azores, which are nine islands about 1,000 miles off the coast of Portugal. We had gone to São Miguel to the town of Maia, which is where my father's family is from. I had heard about this house since I was a kid: dirt floors, rough stone walls, an oven – a wall oven – and a pigsty in the back. Beyond that was the outhouse where the chickens would peck your butt when you did your business. Very rustic, very rural. I wanted to see the house, and it was owned by a cousin of my grandfather. We went and knocked on the door unannounced, and I said, in Portuguese, “I'm David Leite, the son of Emmanuel and Elvira Leite.” And the woman looked at me, and then there was this, "Ay, David!" She hugs me, and she took my head and brought it all the way down to her bosom – and she was about four feet tall – so I was bent way over.
She had us come in, but when I walked in it was a different house. It was this beautiful flooring, and there was this huge-screen television, and in the kitchen, it was all yellow appliances. It was just a modern kitchen. This woman – Elvira – had two daughters who spoke English, and I said, “Is the oven still there – the wall oven?” I had heard stories of how my Grandmother Leite – Vovó Leite – would cook in there, and that's also where they got some of their heat. There's this wonderful tradition in the neighborhood where my grandmother would bake bread, let's say on a Monday, and then someone else's mother would bake it on a Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday. So, when you ran out, you went to the person who baked that day to get a loaf of bread, and you would return that when it was your turn. I'd heard all these stories.
Elvira asked Alan and me to move the stove forward and then move this big, metal plate behind the stove away, and there was the stove. There was the brick oven, the wall oven, and it was an astounding moment for me because I connected with my family in a way that I never did before. I say that if roots could have come out of my feet and burrowed their way into the volcanic soil of that island, they would have because I finally felt that I was where I belonged, and it was an extraordinarily powerful moment for me.
Shauna Sever is the author of three cookbooks (Marshmallow Madness!, Pure Vanilla and Real Sweet). She is the voice behind the baking blog Piece of Cake. She's appeared on the Today show, Food Network, Home and Family, Serious Eats, Chow and Ulive.com. Her writing and recipes have been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, Food and Wine, Bon Appetit, Fine Cooking, Family Circle and USA Weekend.