“You kinda ran out of the book fair. Are you OK?”
Kim Foster is at my front door. That’s not unusual; we’re neighbors. She comes by to collect our dog when we leave town, and my girlfriend and I feed their family’s chickens and other critters when they go on vacation. I’ve shared meals with Kim’s family; talked comics and pop culture with her husband David; waved to her daughters Lucy, Edie and Desi as they walk their dogs around the neighborhood; built Lego doohickeys with her son Raffi.
But this visit is different. It’s a little weird. Kim’s here so we can talk about her just-published book, The Meth Lunches. We initially agreed to talk at the Las Vegas Book Festival following her panel discussion, but I woke up wrong that day and asked if we could meet on home turf instead. Less than an hour later she knocked at my door, visibly concerned: What’s going on? Can you talk about it?
Foster’s benevolence begins in her marrow. “She’s the most naturally nurturing person that I know,” says her friend, Writer’s Block bookshop co-owner Drew Cohen. If you’re in turmoil, she leans in to help you out of it; if you’ve accomplished something for yourself, she all but lifts you up on her shoulders. It’s a reflexive thing for her, one that often manifests through timeless acts of nurturing: patient, empathetic listening and homecooked food.
The Meth Lunches—a personal memoir that often veers into sharp, engaging journalism—is Foster’s consideration of the ways food impacts behavior, character and community. She writes about the ways that food scarcity changes the chemistry of the brain, especially in children; how the belief that good food is an entitlement reinforces ugly ideas about class; how the jailed improvise more appetizing meals for themselves as an act of self-affirmation and rebellion; how fast food can provide comfort in heartbreaking situations, and much more. Most notably, she writes about methamphetamine—how its users reject the enjoyment of food, while simultaneously perceiving it as central to the lives they lost when they began using.
Foster tells the stories of lives in turmoil, which she assiduously strives to remedy—by stocking a free community pantry during the height of COVID, by providing hands-on help for foster children and their birth parents, by hiring a meth-addicted handyman to build a casita. These stories are, sadly, universal; you’ll find them most anywhere you go. But Foster unearths them in Las Vegas, finding the small, fragile human stories lost behind our city’s blockbuster facade.
“The publishers were focused on this being a national book and not being about the insider Vegas stuff that only pertains to Vegas,” Foster says. “It forced me to really look at our city in the same way that I would look at New York or San Francisco or LA or Detroit. I had to really look at who we are as a community …
“Things are never just one thing, right? Like, things are hard, and beautiful. The whole idea [behind the book] was to talk about the discomfort between those things, and to say to people that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable. It’s okay to not be completely comfortable with the fact that there’s a house on the street that houses eight schizophrenic adults. Maybe you’re uncomfortable with that, and that’s okay. You sit in that uncomfortableness. But they’re your neighbors now, do you know what I mean? It’s on you to embrace them, to go over with some Christmas cookies, to make friends. It’s on us to do that sort of connecting work.”
The first chapter of The Meth Lunches was originally published in Desert Companion as a feature essay. Foster didn’t know the magazine’s editorial staff, and asked Cohen to make an introduction. Cohen is mildly surprised to hear that: “A position that my husband and I have in running the bookstore is that we are sort of people connectors … I don’t remember making that introduction. But if I did, I’m glad.”
She submitted the essay, “The Dysfunction of Food,” to the magazine’s then-deputy editor Scott Dickensheets, who immediately recognized its strength.
“The original version I got was, like, 6,000 words. And we had room for, I think, 4,500,” Dickensheets says. “I have never tweezered a story as much as that one, because it was already so great; it would be easy to ruin it by subtraction. I had to pore over it and oversee every sentence, trying to figure out how I can nibble the tiniest bit away without hurting what she was accomplishing. So, I was fortunate enough to be one of the first people in town to really get a bead on who she was and what she was capable of.”
Oh yeah, almost forgot to mention it: Foster’s prose is pure dynamite. Her dialogue sticks and moves, and her narrative voice is relatable and modest. She swings effortlessly from research to anecdote, from joy to heartbreak. And she punctuates the spaces between them with food descriptions that colorfully explode, Ratatouille-like, in your head. One example from early in chapter 1, now titled “The Care + Feeding of a Drug Addict”:
David and I are eating a pan of Bacalhau No Forno a Portuguesa, salt cod baked on top of thin wafers of potato, onions, peppers, briny olives, blistered cherry tomatoes, and charred lemon halves that gets squirted warm and tart over the fish. We eat and talk about this dude like he isn’t passed out in our backyard.
We talk about firing him.
We talk about what is good for us and what is enabling.
We talk about boundaries. How I struggle with mine. How David has them drawn in great, bold, permanent strokes around him and us.
The essay won her a James Beard Foundation award in 2020. Foster credits that prestigious award with precipitating the writing of The Meth Lunches, but anyone who’s read her long, exquisite social media posts can see that she has several books in her, and probably would have written The Meth Lunches even if “The Dysfunction of Food” had only earned her a pat on the back. Words just spill out of her, uninhibited and true.
For her own part, Foster is quietly amazed this collection of words exists at all.
“I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but I’ve spent a lot of years not being able to write because my anxiety really made it impossible,” she says. “I always knew that I could write well, naturally. And because of that, I didn’t want to go to writers’ groups because I felt like I should be working at a particular level. It was just a confluence of dumbness, you know, thinking that I was better than I was.”
In those ramp-up years, Foster wrote three novels that she locked away without sharing them; she calls them “my master’s program,” the hands-on learning she needed.
“I became very practiced at it,” she says. “But emotionally, I couldn’t be the frontperson for a book. I couldn’t take the attention and the anxiety around people criticizing it. … When we moved out here to Vegas, like eight years ago, I said to myself, it’s a new place. This is not New York City; it’s smaller. You know, like baby steps; you could do something here.”
Though she doesn’t say it, it sure feels like writing The Meth Lunches gave Foster the confidence to actually publish The Meth Lunches. She took the writer who wasn’t wholly confident in her work and revised her out of the story in rewrites. Perhaps unknowingly, she alludes to that process in the finished book, when she confesses that some of her early, unformed opinions of people and situations evolved between drafts—in part because she’d written them down and considered them. She caught herself saying the wrong things, called herself out on them, and kept the receipts.
“I think her self-awareness is her greatest strength, because she is writing about issues in which her own privilege and position is potentially implicated. I think she’s good at being aware of that, and it makes for a more complicated, interesting and nuanced narrative because she is talking about her own feelings and her own relationship to the situations she finds herself in,” Cohen says. “For instance, with the community pantry [chapter], she doesn’t just write, ‘Oh, it’s so great. I’m such a good person. I started a pantry in my front yard.’ She grapples with the mixed feelings that she has in dealing with the complicated characters that she helps, and it makes for a much richer book as a result.”
“People get into writing for a lot of reasons. For people like me, it’s the music of the words; that’s why I do it. But she is just like she wants to communicate very directly and with no bulls**t, and I think there’s a tremendous value in that,” Dickensheets says. “There are plenty of writers, me included, for whom irony is an essential part of the toolkit, if not the toolbox. But Kim has no ironic distance. I think that’s enormously valuable when you do the kind of work that she does.”
It’s a reflection of who I am as a writer that I once believed that a lack of ironic distance was something you could cultivate in yourself—that you could somehow get over yourself in favor of cozying up to your subject. But in reading The Meth Lunches, I was reminded that a lack of ironic distance isn’t a writerly trait. It’s a trait belonging to the empathetic, who just happen to be able to write damn well.
And now that the book is out there, Foster is directing a lot of that empathy at herself.
“If could do it all over, I’d stress a lot less. I’d be like, just f**king write,” Foster says. Then she changes tack, saying, “You know, I have a therapist just for my book launch. I’ve been going to her for a year. Just to manage the terror of the exposure.”
“That’s actually brilliant,” I say.
“I went and got a Xanax prescription, in case I needed it to get through the talks. I have all these coping strategies in place, because it’s a really hard thing for me and I didn’t want it to be. I knew it would be painful, but I didn’t want it to be, like, utterly awful and painful. I wanted to really be able to meet the book. I knew the book was decent, and I wanted to be able, as a person, to meet the quality of the book. The problem was never the writing. The problem was me.”
I haven’t talked much about Kim Foster’s day-to-day life. I’d rather you read The Meth Lunches and hear directly it from the source, but suffice it to say, her days are packed. She cooks up dinners for hundreds of hungry locals at a go. She engages in community work almost nonstop. Her oldest children, Edie and Lucy, are fast becoming young adults; her younger adoptive children, Desi and Raffi, were born into households decimated by substance abuse, and often struggle with deep-seeded hurts they can’t reconcile or explain.
She was able to complete the book only by narrowing her focus to a pinpoint.
“I had to rid of everything. I wasn’t a very good friend. I just had to go, ‘For a year, life is just gonna be book and family, book and family, book and family, and I’m just going to eat it,” she says.
Now, with The Meth Lunches out in the world, Foster is still invested with the energy and focus she drew on to write it, but her big picture has changed somewhat. Having delivered an arguably definitive book on food inequality, her interest in food writing has waned, and she’s thinking about taking on some of the challenges she bookmarked over the past decade.
“I’ve been working with moms who have lost their kids in the foster care system,” she says. “I’m probably going to become a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) volunteer to work with the court system and represent kids, probably teens. And I’d like to write about the system of child removal, but to do it in a complex way that’s not about saying, ‘Everybody who works for Child Protective Services is bad and every biological parent should have their kids.’
“For me, it’s about the system,” she says. “The system we have in place isn’t good enough. It doesn’t always function in the way that we need it to as a city or as a community. So, the idea is to sort of see how we can make changes. For instance, now there’s a real focus in Clark County to really make sure that kids go to family members. People are doing the right things, but it’s still a disordered system. And in other places, the systems are even more disordered. You can write about a system like the one we have here in Las Vegas and still touch on the truth of other places.”
In the meantime, we have The Meth Lunches to digest. We can discuss its unflinching appraisals of the Valley’s weekly-stay hotels, neighborhood supermarkets, school lunches, mental health resources and sagging, frayed social net. We can take on its raw truths about ignorance and privilege and relish its hard-earned moments of hope and redemption. But most importantly, we can borrow on, and share, its empathy. We can ask our neighbors if they’re OK.
“We’re just all doing the best we possibly can,” she says, “helping to bring change that ripples upward.”
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