Did you go to summer camp in Freedom, Maine?
And at least two of my students did.
The summer camp in question is Hidden Valley Camp. (No, nothing to do with ranch dressing, as some people claim to believe. But food does play a major role in the powerful memoir I’m reviewing here. It’s one of its two themes, in fact.)
Finding Freedom, by Erin French, is indeed a memoir, but it reads more like a novel than an autobiography. If you look at the image of the cover, you see that the subtitle is A Cook’s Story: Remaking a Life from Scratch, which certainly promises the gastronomic theme. What the cover doesn’t even hint at is the more important theme, the arc of French’s life from working in her abusive father’s diner in rural Maine when she was a pre-teen through her disastrous first marriage to her abusive husband when she was a young adult, including her experiences recovering from her addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs. Sounds like a movie on one of those television channels that I don’t watch, but trust me, it’s compelling and even ties in (somewhat) with the food theme.
French is best known as the founder, owner, and chef (a title she rejects, calling herself a cook as you see on the cover) at The Lost Kitchen, a renowned restaurant in Freedom. (Yes, the irony of the name of the town is dealt with—lightly but explicitly.) The Lost Kitchen has won awards as one of the best restaurants in the world, and your chances of getting a reservation there are close to zero: “applicants” for reservations are picked at random, and only a tiny percentage get in. Sorta like Stanford, you see.
One of the things I loved about Finding Freedom was the prose, which approaches poetry whenever French discusses food. (See below.) Most chefs—at least most well-known ones—seem to have been trained at the Culinary Institute of America or other professional institutions. But French’s training was a combination of autodidacticism and the aforementioned diner. The culinary do-it-yourself attitude extended to related skills, such as building her own tables and rehabbing not only herself but the building housing the restaurant. (I do need to mention that there were two incarnations of The Lost Kitchen. The first, in coastal Belfast (Maine, not Northern Ireland), was lost in an ugly divorce when her husband seized it.)
I promised you a sample of French’s prose, so here is an example of one paragraph: