The Measure of My Powers: A Memoir of Food, Misery and Paris
Jackie Kai Ellis
Appetite by Random House, 2018
Jackie Kai Ellis’ story should be an inspiring one. Despite a childhood in which her family predicted she would be a failure, she progressed from a designer to a self-employed designer to running a successful baked goods stall at farmers’ markets to the owner of a bricks and mortar bakery that was featured in Bon Apetit… which she then used as a base to become a food and travel writer, creator of bespoke food tours of Paris, and winner of many awards and accolades, both locally in her hometown of Vancouver, and internationally. Nice life, right? But the struggle to get to this point was hard fought, as Ellis suffered from severe depression, anorexia and bulimia, and had to deal with over-bearing parents and a husband who might just make it to the Narcissists Hall of Fame. So why does this story of a bootstrapping young gal trying to find a way to love life not sit more comfortably with me?
Told in an essay-type format that jumps around the timeline of Ellis’ life, we see her develop a love of food and art. The title, The Measure of My Powers, is a play on a series of chapters from M.F.K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me, and quotes from Fisher begin many of Ellis’ chapters. But it feels as if a parallel is attempting to be drawn and despite the setting of Paris and an ultimately unhappy marriage, I don’t really see it. While Ellis knows food, her descriptions of such often feel forced.
However, food is what saves her from her unhappy life, where she can’t get out of bed, starves herself, punches her own face in the shower, and feels trapped by her husband G’s rigid rules about their decor, finances, and lifestyle. It is when she goes to Paris to study pastry that the envelope of darkness falls away from her, even though she still has to contend with G’s lack of enthusiasm for Paris (he spends his days meditating instead of enjoying the city), his gaslighting about their financial arrangements that leaves Jackie fairly screwed, and his disdain for her enjoyment of the experience, regularly telling her to “stop talking about food”. Clearly, the reader can see what Ellis was unable to acknowledge during most of her time with G, but somehow it’s hard to muster sympathy for her, even as she opens her bakery to great success. The stories about defecating herself (Twice! Once leaving the sheets unwashed for someone else to find and clean up!) because of lack of sleep/overwork don’t seem like someone enjoying the achievement of their goals, but rather someone who doesn’t know how to adult particularly well.
I might have liked this more if the essays were chronological. They tended to bounce around in time, often by decades, and this technique didn’t seem to have a real purpose with regards to the overall story. Some of the metaphors, like the whole bit about water, feeling flooded, drowning, etc, as Ellis was working on her bakery, might have been true for her, but felt trite and cliched, and I started to glaze a bit at this point.
The recipes at the end of each chapter were a nice touch, but tended to go on incredibly long with super-detailed instructions and many reference notes that became a bit of a turn-off.
I don’t regret taking the time to read this work, but it felt more like painful self-analysis at many points rather than the story of learning to love life through an appreciation of good food and cooking.