Leite, David. “Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression”, Dey Street, 2017.
A Candid Memoir
One of the wonderful advantages of being a reviewer is that it opens me to books I perhaps would never have read. I have, until now, read very few books about food so reading “Notes on a Banana” was a complete revelation to me. David Leite keeps the website Culinaria and has been universally lauded as a chef but that is not what this memoir is about. Rather it is a look at a man who happens to be a chef and who now shares with us his candid story about family, food, mental illness, and sexual identity.
Leite was born into a family of Azorean immigrants and he grew up in the 1960s in a Catholic, blue-collar Portuguese home in Fall River, Massachusetts where food and the family really mattered. As a child he was a dreamer with determination, imagination and a flair for the dramatic. His mother nicknamed him “Banana” and called him as such. Leite dreamt of living in a middle-class house with a swinging kitchen door and fell in love with everything French and this he attributes to his Portuguese and French-Canadian godmother. He struggled with being a manic depressive and it seemed that the only way he found a sense of relief was through food— learning about it, watching Julia Child cook and his own cooking for others. In this book we read of his young years and self-acceptance and how he turned his love of food into a career that has brought him many awards. He writes of the people who helped to shape him and his career and at the ups and downs he encountered.
David had a wonderful childhood that was the stuff of sitcoms but no one knew was he was struggling with the frightening mood swings as part of hid bipolar disorder. He found relief and comfort in food, watching reruns of Julia Child, and, later as an adult, cooking for others. It was only when he was in his mid-thirties and after years of searching that he finally uncovered the truth about himself, receive proper medical treatment allowing him to heal. As we read, we are with him through his highs and lows of his life and this is what pulled me into the book and his life. We are with him when he bids farewell to his Portuguese heritage and begins his quest to be a star and when he tries to straighten himself out sexually through Aesthetic Realism, a cult in downtown Manhattan. We are there as he goes to war against his dark and we share the love that he shares with Alan (“The One”), his partner.
He very bravely writes of the rejection he experienced because he is gay. Leite went on to become a writer, cookbook author, and web publisher. What I love here is that Leite never loses site of how he got to where he is and as we read, we see that he returns to his family and this keeps him grounded.
There is so much to enjoy here and I feel that I know David Leite now. Through his writing, he has become my friend. I am sure that this has to do with his braveness to speak out on mental disorder and sexuality. There were times that I laughed aloud as I read and there were times when I held back tears. This is what a memoir should be.