Take Big Bites
by Linda Ellerbee
Reviewed by Erin Rhoda
I first began reading Take Big Bites by Linda Ellerbee, quite appropriately, in a small café in Waterville, Maine. While I was not eating a gourmet meal, like many of those described in Ellerbee’s book, and while I was not traveling in a distant land, I was doing what Ellerbee does well: simply sipping tea and reveling in April’s sunlight—that is, enjoying life. I chuckled to myself as I read about a Texas specialty called Frito Pie, made by a French chef in New York City. The customers at the table next to my elbow tried not to crane their necks too obviously to read the title on the cover of the book.
Linda Ellerbee is a journalist, a producer, and a best-selling author. She is also a mother, a Texan, a liberal, a daughter, and an outspoken, independent woman. Take Big Bites is a memoir about food and travel and includes original recipes and photographs, but it is also about something deeper: memory and the connectedness of people across age, race, culture, history, gender, and all those other boundaries. Food and travel are the vehicles for her humorous and honest stories about cancer, marriage, poverty, hypocrisy, politics, drinking, raising children, and growing old. She enjoys anise and lime soup in Vietnam, becomes entranced by caviar on a yacht in New York City, eats the sexiest lunch ever in France, and hands out oranges to kids in Afghanistan, traveling the world and savoring its food—and most importantly, its people.
Each chapter in Take Big Bites is an ingredient in the main dish—perhaps Superfresh Cold Cream-of-Tomato Watermelon Soup?—of Ellerbee’s life. Some chapters are sweet; others are tinged with bitter sadness; still others are soothing, sexy, or hard to swallow; all are colorful, and they combine to create a delicious whole. For example, take “No Shit, There I Was…,” a chapter where Ellerbee goes on a two-week rafting trip in the Grand Canyon with Outward Bound. It’s a tale of treacherous waters, losing fears, and coming to know herself through the people on her journey, especially a seventy-year old woman who learns what it’s like to do something for the last time. Ellerbee’s soberness is balanced by her witticism, however, which is evident when she eats an entire bowl of hot sauce meant for twenty-one people, which she thought was soup.
Ellerbee continues to juxtapose powerful emotion and humor. Her chapter “Whatever You Do…Don’t,” tells the tale of her first time traveling abroad in a foreign country at the age of eighteen. She lands in La Paz, Bolivia, promptly loses all her belongings at the airport, and is assigned by a Bolivian church to live with missionaries in Altiplano, a plateau with drastic temperature fluctuations, to convert the people to Protestantism. Ellerbee responds to the situation, remembering:
The missionaries were nice people, I thought, although I also thought there was too much preaching and too little doing…I was stuck giving Protestant lessons to the Aymara, who listened politely, mentally scratching their heads. Most Indians already had been converted from their native religion to Roman Catholicism. Now we were telling them to give up Catholicism for another kind of Christianity…One of my assignments was to teach the Aymara to sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” in Spanish, a language neither they nor I spoke or understood very well. When I tried to explain the words, they thought I wanted them to take up arms, leave their crops to rot in the fields, and march off to shoot people (53-54).
She has an eagle eye for injustice and absurdity, but she also finds the humor in what are often dire circumstances. For example, after her time in Altiplano, she is sent to the Bolivian jungle, called the Yungas, to work in a leper colony. She describes the harrowing bus ride to get there:
I found a place to curl up in what passed for the aisle. My fellow passengers did what you might do on a bus driven by a maniac determined to bring you closer to God by flinging his vehicle off a high mountain curve—they got drunk. After too many swigs of chicha, a fiery home brew made from fermented corn, a large fellow standing above me opened his fly and peed on what he probably thought was a lump of clothes piled at his feet. Drinking chicha, it turned out, was not as awful as wearing it (57-58).
Throughout the book, Ellerbee crafts her stories with cleverness, candor, and wisdom. She speaks of seeing the world through different prisms, of visiting old places to find the shape of old dreams, of defiance, and of needing something to struggle through in order to survive. This is obviously not just a book about food and travel but a commentary on the truer things in life: “Sometimes in life, if you’re lucky, you are allowed to understand you are where you most want to be at that moment” (44). For Ellerbee, she is in Italy with Don Alfonso and Livia, enjoying the company of fabulous friends. And for us? Perhaps we are asking those people at the nearby table to join us, breaking down the walls of strangers, so we can read them an excerpt from a particularly scrumptious book.
Ellerbee, Linda. Take Big Bites. New York: G.P. Putnam’s
ISBN: 0-399-15268-7. $24.95 (hardback).