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Published: Thursday, 5/8/2008

Food marks occasions - big and small - in one son's life

BY JENNIFER DAY
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

FAIR SHARES FOR ALL: A MEMOIR OF FAMILY AND FOOD. By John Haney. Random House. 279 pages. $26.

John Haney's parents sat down to lunch at a formal restaurant in 1949 and were served slices of melon. In Haney's words, the newly engaged couple was, "reduced ... to perplexity and embarrassment by their ignorance of upper-middle-class foods."

A half-century later, their little boy would grow up to become copy chief for Gourmet magazine. Haney's memoir, Fair Shares for All, is an honest and compulsively readable sketch of his family. Warmly drawn and melancholy in a way that real life is, Haney meanders through the years, sorting out contradictory influences that have left him feeling, if not like a man without a country - he's an Englishman through and through - then a man without a class.

Throughout the memoir, Haney, who lives in the United States but grew up in England, struggles with feeling socially unsettled: As a teenager, he isn't quite at home with the blue-collar blokes in an Air Training Corps squadron he joins, but he feels out of place among his university-bound peers at school, too. His mother, Kitty, had social and intellectual ambitions exceeding her station - ambitions that helped to spur Haney's academic career and plunged the family into debt. Haney's mother pushed him to hang out with well-educated neighbors, but Haney envied the unbridled happiness that seemed to pour out at events hosted by his father's Cockney side of the family.

Haney's brand of food writing is the best kind: Food is used as illustration, cultural markers indicating class and comfort, or lack thereof. He writes about early memories of a spread set out at a wedding hosted by his father's side of the family:

"The food appealed to me as much as the bonhomie, especially the kinds that I had never tried before: the pickled onions (which Dad always bought at Christmas and which Mum, who thought them declasse, refused to touch), the whelks (which I risked when I noticed Rose and Don eating them with the eagerness I always brought to the first-degree murder of Jelly Babies), and the prawns, whose beaded heads and slippery tails I quickly became adept at removing."

Haney's father, Denis, was raised with his siblings in an orphanage after their destitute mother couldn't afford to care for them. The author's empathy is acute, particularly as he recounts one of Denis' stories about vomiting after being fed strawberries and cream by a well-intentioned patron of the orphanage. The way these stories are woven together lends a certain weight to Haney's own childhood memories; wolfing down bacon sandwiches prepared by his father becomes far more than syrupy nostalgia or food fetishism.

Written in the shadow of his parents' deaths, Fair Shares for All raises the gut-wrenching questions people face as they grow up and grow out of their parents' realm of experience. Haney's writing is at times dense, complicated at times by dialect unfamiliar to an American.

And yet, it fits. It somehow expresses the dark lump-in-the-throat of loss and the cold regret of wishing you could fix everything for people you love. It mourns for the safety and simplicity of childhood, when your identity is as much your parents' as your own. Haney gives an impression of a daydream-like thought he had soon after his father's death:

"... I caught a vicarious glimpse and first sight of a corpse going cold, like an overlooked meal, in a cupboard. The corpse of a kind man who was, in his own way, in many ways wise and his wisdoms remind me, whenever I'm swept up in dimly lit outpours of eye-searing linen and crystal, that long before his son maintained a taste for tartares and Clos Blanc de Vougeot, there lived and teethed a little boy who 'quite liked' a kipper and drank pints of cocoa and was partial to poached eggs with buttercup fins and strangely enamored of custard."

Quite liked, indeed.



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