Here’s a beaut of a sentence, one of many, from Lisa Donovan’s new memoir, Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger: “[I]f someone values you only when you’re about to walk out the door, you should definitely keep walking.”
Donovan is a celebrated southern pastry chef. Because I’m not a foodie, I didn’t know that before I picked up her memoir, which is in the M.F.K. Fisher/Ruth Reichl tradition of a woman making sense of her life through her passion for food — or in Donovan’s case — specifically for baking. Along the way, Donovan, who was born into a mixed-race, working-class, military family, somehow summoned up the strength to walk out of a lot of doors.
When she was barely out of high school, Donovan became pregnant by an abusive boyfriend. For the sake of her infant son, she caved to family pressure to give the relationship another try. Donovan moved in with her baby’s father for a few months, was beaten and raped by him, and just managed to escape with her son to her parents’ house.
A few years later, Donovan landed a job teaching art at a conservative private girls school in Nashville. As an unwed single mother, Donovan was lectured by the school’s headmaster about what “a bad influence” she’d be on the girls. She also found out during the school year that she was vastly underpaid compared to comparable male teachers.
Before she walked out that door, Donovan took her art class, full of girls blinkered by family wealth, on a field trip to the faculty parking lot, where she showed her students the used and dented cars of their teachers as exhibit A of how the other 95 percent of people in the world lives.
And, most publicly, Donovan walked out the door of Husk, a restaurant founded by celebrity southern chef Sean Brock, because she found the atmosphere of that kitchen so toxic and sexist. Even though Donovan was receiving acclaim for her work as de-facto executive pastry chef, when she asked for the official title — and the raise that went with it — she was told she’d have to essentially fire one of the female pastry cooks working under her to get the money.
Here’s another beaut of a sentence from Donovan — in fact, a couple of them — that hone in on the danger to women (particularly in the food industry) of contenting themselves with gratitude and praise from men for their work, in lieu of professional recognition:
Women are revered straight into abjection, useful only as a totem of inspiration. When we go to make … work our own, we are unable to survive in the industry the men built, the one they sell our wares within.
I’m making Donovan sound like a natural-born badass, always self-possessed enough to know when it’s time to fight or take flight. But that’s not how she comes off in this memoir, which chronicles her hard-won, decades-long, two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back messy process of coming to own her worth. Donovan also began to see the legions of women who never got credit for their culinary inventions and skill — among them, her own Mexican and Appalachian ancestors, as well as the enslaved people and domestic workers whose traditions form the foundation of Southern cooking.
Donovan is such a vivid writer — smart, raunchy, vulnerable and funny — that if her vaunted caramel cakes and sugar pies are half as good as her prose, well, I’d be open to even giving that signature buttermilk whipped cream she tops her desserts with a try. There’s a fabulous scene early on where Donovan recalls fighting to walk through a door this time. It’s the door of a college classroom where a sculpture class is about to begin. The young professor (who, by the way, will become Donovan’s husband) doesn’t want to let her in because the students will be doing welding and Donovan is toting along her nursing infant son.
As the professor becomes more of an obstacle, Donovan gets angrier, fantasizing about educating this guy about what it’s like to have certain female body parts welded together again after “squeezing [out] a nine-pound baby.” Unfortunately, that’s as specific as I can be about the robust and salty language that infuses this entire memoir.
Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger is about the multiple hungers that Donovan has been driven to satisfy in her life — for wonderful food, certainly, but also for love and community and for gratifying work that can support a family. It’s not too much to hope for, is it? But as, Donovan chronicles, it can take women a while to muster up the sense of self to know they can do more than just hope.