By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
Prepare one large stack of index cards, each containing the memory of a significant life event, its date and the author’s age at the time in one corner. Arrange the cards in chronological order. Mix in three themes — food, love and bipolar disorder — and stir gently. Skim off those cards that don’t blend well, and serve with humor, courage and poignant epiphany.
This is the recipe for “Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love and Manic Depression” (Dey Street Books, 2017), by cookbook author David Leite, creator of the website Leite’s Culinaria, and a three-time James Beard Award winner.
Leite’s coming-of-age story is an exquisite balancing act between sometimes gut-wrenching honesty and a tenderness toward his readers that protects them from the gory details. Not enough so, though, for his Azorean immigrant parents — parents often being a writer’s most avid fans and critics.
“They do not want to read it,” Leite said. “My parents are very, very old fashioned. I told them that I say the F word 20-something times, and my mom said, ‘Why do you have to do that? Can you not do that?’ And I said, ‘Ma, that’s the way I talk.’ What my mom does, without reading it, is hand it out to every person she knows, including the pastor of her church.
“They don’t want to relive the pain,” Leite continued, “and they don’t want to know in an intimate way the pain they didn’t see.”
And pain is a constant companion in “Notes on a Banana,” but Leite tempers the distress and chaos of coming to terms with his homosexuality and his bipolar disorder with a brilliant sense of humor, keen insight, and moments of inspired description that make the memoir a valuable resource for anyone touched by the disorder, sometimes referred to as “manic depression.”
The book has made Leite a celebrity beyond the avid followers of his culinary website and cookbook, “The New Portuguese Table.”
He’ll be the guest speaker at the International Bipolar Foundation’s 10th anniversary fundraiser: Starry Night — The Fusion of Creativity and Culinary Genius. The event is Sept. 28 at Liberty Station.
“I love it when people write me and say they’ve gotten something out of the book, or tell me they’ve given it to someone,” Leite said. “It’s a book of insights for parents. It could create a lot of compassion and a lot of empathy. Sometimes kids don’t have the verbal skills — I tried early on to describe what was going on with me, but it only got me so far. It’s a great book for parents to read because it really follows someone from very early on, all the way through adulthood. It can help a parent have an inside look.”
It is inside looks that draw many readers to memoirs, and Leite’s other two themes, food and love, are vivid and moving in his telling.
He sets the scene for an annual cassoulet dinner party, and the reader can feel the burlap table runners, smell the duck legs, “heady, rich, like spice cake, but with the unmistakable bite of garlic and the calming stroke of bay leaves.”
Love — of family, biological and acquired — is pervasive in “Notes on a Banana.” Banana, the nickname Leite’s parents gave him, serves as a conduit of love. Leite’s mother inscribed his school lunch bananas with caring notes: “Have a good day! We love you! God bless!!” The words might have felt futile to the author at the time, but it is love that has sustained him and allowed the reader to benefit from his book.
Read it or not, Leite has some wise and valuable words for children who are struggling and their parents:
To young people: “Never stop talking about how you feel. Talk about how you feel to anyone who will listen. Nowadays with the internet, seek out as many services as you possibly can. They weren’t around when I was young. But the most important thing is never stop talking and never stop finding creative ways to say what you are feeling — and you might have to say the same thing 15 different ways before someone hears you.
“And for parents of those children, catch it early, catch it well and never stop loving.”
—Kit-Bacon Gressitt formerly wrote for the North County Times. She currently writes commentary and essays on her blog ExcuseMeImWriting.com and is a founding editor of WritersResist.com. She also hosts Fallbrook’s monthly Writers Read authors series and open mic. Reach her at email@example.com.