by Martha F. Barkley
The ability to touch a complete stranger with a plate of food, to feed them and awaken their senses while filling them up with joy it's an intimacy that you can't help craving. It's an intimacy that can only be made with food a reason why restaurants can be so enchantingly addictive.
The Lost Kitchen is a thriving small restaurant, seating 40 guests only, in nearby Freedom, Maine in the middle of nowhere, yet known around the world. Talk to anyone who has had a meal cooked by Erin French, author of this autobiography, and you will be envious of her dinner delights.
At first, I thought this book was all about food and recipes, but I kept reading. Reservations for meals became so very problematic because of the volume of telephone calls that Erin French tried an original idea, just like every recipe she has developed through a lifetime of loving cooking for family and friends.
"Postmarking a postcard on April 1 and sending it off to Freedom," was the simple idea where the lottery-style drawing of post card winners for a phone call scheduling of dinner seating. "It felt personal and honest…no redial, no exhaustion, no rushing." It also revived the little post office in Freedom.
I am surprised how open and personal the author is about her problems she experienced beginning as early as age five. Eating that warm crunchy doughnut at her dad's restaurant revealed a world where her father seemed happy and her grandpa whistled in the kitchen. Prior to that her dad was not happy at home, during those all important formative years.
The daily struggles of her mom to dance around her dad's drinking and the differences with her sister are portrayed in great detail. Her story is so very extraordinary, that sometimes I read almost too much about the intricate difficulties. I Neve Promised You a Rose Garden is the dark classic which came to mind.
With every turn there were problems except when she began to experience the joy in her dad's small, greasy spoon restaurant. Erin French learned quickly but had scars on her arms from kitchen burns. She helped in the long hours of early morning prep for breakfast until late at night, cleaning and driving the drunks home, including her dad. One drunk was over thirty miles of driving after her long hours of labor.
Her dad took advantage of her. She escaped his rule by attending college in Boston even though she had earned a complete scholarship at the Orono campus of the University of Maine. I loved that her mother supported this decision by tearing up the Orono offer and not telling her husband. "He was brutally honest that the cost of tuition for a year at Northeastern was as much as a brand new Harley- Davidson,…" and Erin would drive the Harley drunks home week after week from her dad's restaurant.
A pregnancy without the town boyfriend marrying her drove Erin's dad nuts. Dropping out of college after two years. The family loving her son Jaime, such a beautiful name for her son, "I love you" in French. Marrying later, with her husband adopting Jaime and running a restaurant in Belfast with full capacity seating. Living over the restaurant gave Erin the stairway she wanted to give her son Jaime attentions anytime in spite of tension with her husband.
A heart wrenching divorce with two days of incarceration due to medications prescribed by a doctor for years of anxiety. Erin's aunt taking her to the airport for rehab somewhere. Separation from her son Jaime and the pain of her husband's keeping her son from her, even preventing phone calls.
Amidst all the trauma, I was struck for her one allowed phone call that she did not call her mother, the one person who probably saved her life. Instead, she called the Belfast restaurant to make sure the staff was running her successful business smoothly without her. She had trained them well and cooked ahead for her weeks of rehab.
I will not spill the beans about the rest of the story of desperately missing her son. Throughout she constantly refers to foods and the warmth provided. Even that delicious meatloaf the family enjoyed at home despite the drunkenness of her dad. He lovingly shares his secret meatloaf concoction, so look for his recipe revealed in Finding Freedom. Yes, lots of cooking ideas in these chapters, even from her dad's business.
Many freshly picked herbs and flowers from the field provide beauty and taste at her table. Making homes for her husband and Jaime, creating restaurant warmth and beauty are delved into with lots of labor, love and creativity. I wonder if the cover and back photo of a flowery table are a bit over the top? What do you think?
The poison ivy chapter is a riot. It made me itch my brown moth rash. Trailing a Streamline renovated trailer around Maine for catered suppers was intriguing. I wish she still did that, and we could have a community meal at the gazebo area. Read this heartbreaking story with victory in her world famous restaurant not too far from here.
I saw a television segment this summer on PBS showing the small cottages her husband built for pandemic servings offering social distancing last year. What a great innovation as Erin French also added more local products to her business, yet keeping it small.
I googled the distance from Belgrade to Freedom, about 35 miles and gas may cost $35. The meal is expensive, with wine from her mother's advice in the cellar added, so be prepared for a feast that apparently is worth every ten dollars. Walking from the parking lot to the renovated old mill is charming with the rushing waters nearby as music for your sit down meal of only 40 special dinner guests. Women rule this business with the exception of one husband who is the dependable dish washer. Bless his heart!
Erin French even thanks her estranged dad at the end of this memoir. "You may never read this, but without you I'm not sure who I would be. Thank you for introducing me to the kitchen. I found my life's passion standing at the stove, and it's all because of you."
The dedication means a lot to me: "For the women of the Lost Kitchen…my lost sisters. Your grace, grit, and everlasting love keep lifting me up." They are a happy bunch and waltz around you as you eat, serving gracefully. No rushing the meal since the guests have all evening together, course after unique course and toasts to each other's pure enjoyment.
How far she has come from "I would inch forward to live because I had one small, sweet, kind, and gentle ten-year-old reason to, and that one reason alone was more than enough." Brava to Erin French for sharing her life decisions and battle with doctor-prescribed drugs. Maybe one reader will find solace in her story.
Give this book to the special cook in your life. Share this memoir with a troubled friend. Read it for your own enlightenment about how incarcerated people are treated and how rehab can make a difference.
Erin French does not claim to be a chef because she never went to school to learn gourmet cooking. Instead she learned from an early age in her dad's restaurant, working in the grill line to put out plate after plate to a hungry bunch in Freedom. Now she serves different dishes, developed over her lifetime, back home once again in Freedom, Maine.
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