Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong and Childhood Food Memories

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong and Childhood Food Memories

January 30, 2020 55 By William Morgan


Goodbye Vitamin is the debut novel from
Rachael Khong that isn’t about eggs, and I should probably explain. Rachel, up until
recently, was the executive editor for the now shuttered magazine Lucky Peach
that married food and writing and was funded in part by David Chang of
Momofuku fame. There she helped pen the cookbook All About Eggs: Everything We
Know About the World’s Most Important Food. So technically this is her second
book. But anyway Goodbye Vitamin we meet 30 year old Rachel Young. She’s in the
process of moving to her new apartment with her fiance Joel and on the day of
the move, surrounded by her boxes, in an empty apartment she finds out that Joel
is not in fact moving into the apartment with her and will be staying at their
old place with his new girlfriend. Harsh. So she leaves San Francisco, goes to Los
Angeles to spend Christmas with her family where she finds out that her father is
exhibiting the early signs of Alzheimer’s. He’s already been let go
from his history job at the nearby college due to some erratic behavior and
her mom has asked her to stick around for a year to help out. Now I know this
sounds like a barrel of laughs so far but stick with me here. Goodbye Vitamin
isn’t about the break-up, it’s not even a Lifetime channel movie about Alzheimer’s.
Khong doesn’t dwell, she doesn’t get mired in the maudlin or seized by sentiment.
She works with the light touch. She’s just taking note and it’s proven to be
the most favorite of my books in the strange confluence of books that feature
women in their late twenties early thirties just trying to figure their
shit out. They’re all caught in a great big in between, not quite established
career-wise, and navigating relationships, their personal ambitions, as well as the
expectations of their parents. Goodbye Vitamin is written in fragments, these
tiny vignettes that are held together in a diary format that provides just enough
cohesion for me to latch on to unlike Weike Wang’s Chemistry that felt
scattered and fragmented. And I’m halfway through Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy
which is proving the funniest of the three. Lockwood has got a distinct knack
for a turn of phrase that just floors me every time but Goodbye Vitamin is in
that Goldilocks zone. It’s just a year in the life and there’s no real beginning,
there’s no real end, there’s no tidy resolution. It’s
just this keyhole in which to view a life and this curtailed view produces this
gem-like story that is as warm and familiar as your mom’s cooking. Given
Khong’s history it’s natural that food play a part.
Food can invoke memories of childhood and home. Ruth in the story enjoys peanuts
and ranch dressing, and later on over tumblers of vodka, has carrots dipped in
sugar. Now neither which i’ve ever heard of but frankly I’m a little surprised
by the number of you that have never heard or even had poutine which hardly
seems exotic to us here in Southern Ontario. We have restaurants devoted to the
variations of poutine. We sell places that serve Newfie fries, which are fries
covered in stuffing, covered in gravy and of course my latest obsession is
shawarma poutine which is fries, cheese curds, gravy, chicken shawarma covered
in garlic sauce, shwarma sauce, and Sriracha. It sounds
like an abomination but believe me it is fantastic. All of this talk of food gets
me thinking about the food that reminds me of my childhood. There seems to be
this trend towards fat and chocolate. I remember growing up loving toast
slathered in butter that I would dip in my hot chocolate. My wife used to take
white bread, slather it in margarine and put chocolate sprinkles on it. A mutual
friend of ours’ mother took it to its most horrible extreme. While she was
pregnant used to love Mars bars dredged in butter. But she was always that little
bit extra. What about you guys? Are there foods that remind you of your childhood
or home I’d love to know in the comments below. One more. More of a nod to my
Korean background. I remember standing around her kitchen island which was a
dishwasher topped with a wooden top and we’d have cold ham hocks
dipped in gochujang and served with raw garlic and it was so so good. I digress the book
isn’t about food. Khong here is exploring the idea of memory. After a
breakup with Joel, Ruth thinks about how their memories veer off in different
directions. As she puts it: “I realized I could remember something and he could
remember something different. And if we built up a store of separate memories how
would that work, and would that be okay? And the answer of course, in the end, was
no.” Ruth is recording present moments in her diary which bookends nicely to the
memories her father had jotted down when Ruth was a
child in this old notebook that he hands over to Ruth at the beginning of the
year. In them he writes: “Today we went over to your mother’s friend’s house for
dinner. We’d ask you to be polite so you said ‘No more please.It’s horrible, thank
you.'” Or you were distressed because your pair of gloves had gone missing.
When I asked you for a description you said ‘They’re sort of shaped like my
hands.'” These are contrasted with Ruth recording moments with her father in the
present: “Today you held your open hand out and I shook the pills into it same
as every day. Fish oil, magnesium, Vitamins D and C and A, ginkgo biloba. ‘Hello water’ you said holding the glass against the moonlight and shaking the
pills like they were dice you were ready to roll in your other hand.
‘Goodbye vitamin.'” It’s this tone that pervades the book, duly noting
contending with her father’s alcoholism and philandering and how that destroyed
her younger brother who witnessed the worst of it while Ruth was off in
college and how their memories of their father differ as a result and then the
perspective of their mother who lived through all of us and still stayed by
his side and why that is. It’s like heavy stuff but lightly done, maybe
frustratingly so for some people, but it struck just the right tone for me. And
then there’s this note Ruth finds among her father’s observations. “Today I
thought of what I would give to have time to stop here. You’re out of my
league. I’m waiting for the day you’re going to leave me. I’d give all the money
I’ve got, my entire set of teeth, that special Silver Dollar your grandfather
gave me and said would be worth three hundred thousand by the time you’re in
college. Any of it, all of it, just to keep you here.” With the daughter heading off
to university in a few short days this above all else just slayed me. I mean I’m
thinking about the distant past, projecting to this unknown future, and
realizing I am anchored here in the moment and there are no answers here
just moments followed by more moments. And this is the swirling epi-center
of the book. I mean my wife and I have no idea what September is going to bring as
empty nesters. This channel may have to segue and focusing on gardening, jigsaw
puzzles, and complaining about my aching joints but we’ll see what fall brings. In
the meantime I’m serious, I do want to know what you remember eating as
child. What invokes childhood memories as far as food goes. Love to know in the
comments below, but in the meantime I hope you have all a great week of
reading and we’ll talk to you soon. Bye.