Diane Goodman: The Party Girl Serves up Short Fiction Delicacies
by Jennifer Bannan
by Diane Goodman
Autumn House Press, September 2011
Paperback, 160 pages
Diane Goodman’s third collection of short stories, Party Girls, was published last fall by Autumn House Press. Goodman, a personal chef and caterer, lives and works in Miami Beach. Her work uses the party as an occasion for the exploration of some of our deepest and most difficult to define desires, from the need to impress to the yearning to belong. Like her other books, The Plated Heart and The Genius of Hunger, this collection’s inventive mixture of humor and depth serves up a delicious treat.
Jennifer Bannan: This is your third collection of short stories – all of which have food as a theme. It strikes me that short stories take about as long to read as sitting down to a meal. Do you think that the short story is more like a meal than a novel? Or is there some other reason that stories work best for you?
Diane Goodman: I suppose there is some connection, and yet writing and cooking provide vastly different forms of creative fulfillment for me. Writing is never really finished — every time I give a reading, at the last minute I am crossing words out in my published book and replacing them with ones I think are better. Whereas with cooking, when the food is done, it’s done: I can artfully present the food on a tray, people eat it and it’s over. That balance really works—one pursuit that I can work on indefinitely and the other where I can’t keep putting the fish back in the oven because if I do, I’ll kill it and I can’t ever go back to make it better because it’s been consumed.
I’ve written three never-to-be published novels (they are terrible!). For me, the process was grueling—I lost track of my own characters and my plot(s). . . so I returned to the short story because I love to pack intensity into a smaller framework, versus drawing it out in the hills and valleys of a novel. In a collection of stories, I can use different voices, different points of view, and can benefit from using that connection of food. I can make several different things and bring them together with echoing flavors.
JB: You are a personal chef and caterer. Can you talk about your experiences as a chef and how those have influenced your writing?
DG: When I first moved to Miami, I was an academic and I didn’t know anyone, so beyond work, the only other place I went was to the grocery store: my first book, The Genius of Hunger, I like to say (sort of joking and sort of not) is about lonely women in grocery stores. Of course, what it’s really about is the ways in which we all try to communicate, to be part of a community, because I was alone and alienated here and was trying to find my way. And it really is about how the hunger instinct is genius because it gets you what you need. I read in a food history book about the literal genius of hunger—that primitive men and women discovered new food sources because after eating the same thing over and over again, the hunger instinct propelled them back out into their world to find something else that could satisfy them; I thought this is exactly what happens with emotional hunger too—the instinct propels us to find what we need. Then I gave up teaching and started my catering company and while I really liked the work, I was amazed at how badly I was treated by many of my clients. I was doing this incredibly intimate work—putting all my care into feeding people&mdash:but we were strangers to each other. It took me a while to reconcile that—that I was feeding people, nurturing them, caring about what I made for them, yet so often I was treated like someone who was washing their car instead of someone who was making homemade marinara for their children. So that second book ended up being about service, about what it’s like to be treated as inferior. In The Plated Heart, one of my characters—a plain, overweight personal chef—watches as her boss pulls out old size 4 evening gowns to give to her and the chef says to herself, “I’ve been working in this house for 10 years and she has never even seen me.”
This work is also even more complex when your clients are people who are afraid of food, afraid to get fat, afraid of what people will say if they serve something that is not haute or hip or cutting edge, or something that is perceived as fattening...and when I started thinking about Party Girls, this third book, I found my focus had shifted away from myself and was moving more toward my clients who I began to worry about. It really is impossible to cook for people and not care about them—you feel like you are participating in taking care of people. I would worry about the pressure my clients put on themselves to throw the perfect party. There is such a fascinating, complex psychology attached to throwing a party—a mass, a mess, of insecurities, strategies, hidden agendas...and for the chef it is further complicated: you are a rock star when your clients’ guests rave about the food but you are often a servant while you are preparing it.
JB: So many of your characters seem to feel invisible, or as though they make no impact on the world around them. And yet your stories involve a party (usually with the main character throwing it), with fun and food to be consumed. What is it about get-togethers that stirs feelings of disconnection?
DG: It has a lot to do with expectations (realistic and not so much) about things like gratitude, imposed “fun,” the whole keeping-up-with or surpassing the Joneses...the food world has changed so much and while it’s exciting, it puts a lot of pressure on people who think they need to prove that they are in sync. I think back to when I was much younger and having a dinner party meant having all your friends over, making good food, sitting around eating and drinking and having fun. But now, with all the celebrity chefs and all the focus on local and organic and trends, etc. , there’s an added level of pressure, of trying to impress. This is particularly true with the level of client I have: they have so much more invested in their parties than just having their friends over to have fun. How will they decorate? What will they wear? Is the menu diverse enough to please the vegetarians, the vegans, the non-carb eaters, the gluten-frees, the people who have been to Asia and will know if my Thai rolls are authentic or not, etc. The toll this has taken is evident in the current return to comfort food (albeit upscale versions) where restaurants and cookbooks are featuring meatloaf and macaroni and cheese...I think it’s psychologically fascinating, how food is such a reflection of what we need emotionally. And when celebrity chefs start making upscale versions of retro foods—pot pies, grilled cheese—it gives diet-conscious people the “right” to eat them, whereas before they would never have put something in their mouths that was made with bread and butter and cheese.
JB: What are some other similarities between your writing and your cooking life? And what can you say about all the chefs who have books these days?
DG: Unlike a lot of chefs, I cook the way I write: by myself. My cooking life becomes more collaborative once we are at an event—my business partner does the décor and it is always amazing; I have a chef assistant who is the most creative artistic person I have ever known; we hire waiters and bartenders for every event. This is a very cool thing about catering (versus personal chef-ing): the solitary work moves into this totally collaborative effort and when it goes well, everyone is shining.
So many writers write about food now and so many chefs are writing books (and I don’t just mean cookbooks); there is definitely a lot of crossover. This is at once the great and the terrible thing about the two avenues I’ve pursued: everyone knows how to write and everyone eats so unlike painting or music composition or modern dance, there are a lot of authorities and a lot of critics when it comes to putting words on paper or making a quiche. Writers are writing about cooking and eating; chefs are suddenly writing about themselves and about cooking and eating. But as a writing teacher and a working chef, I also have to say that not all writers are great cooks and not all chefs are great writers. Yet it doesn’t seem to matter—the public can’t get enough.
Jennifer Bannan is the author of Inventing Victor, Carnegie Mellon University Press Series in Short Fiction, 2003. She is at work on a novel. More info at www.jenbannan.com.
April 5, 2012