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Family Meal by Bryan Washington: Where words fail, food becomes a common language

Like all good food writing, there is a vicarious sensual pleasure in Washington’s work

Family Meal
Author: Bryan Washington
ISBN-13: 978-1838954444
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Guideline Price: £17.99

If Family Meal strikes you as a somewhat unimaginative title for this, acclaimed writer Bryan Washington’s second novel, it is in fact, entirely appropriate. This is a book about food and family; the constant conflict between the pull to the kitchen table, and pull away from home.

The novel shifts perspective between three queer men; one dead, one hurtling along a path of self-destruction, the other putting his own wellbeing aside to care for everyone else. Where words fail between the characters, food becomes a common language. “Characters cooked to centre themselves. They cooked to show their love. They cooked when they were wasted and when they were horny and when they were sunken into themselves”. More importantly, cooking is care.

It would seem conspicuous then, that Cam, reeling after the tragic death of his beloved boyfriend, is struggling with disordered eating. In denying himself food, he is rejecting the care of others.

Washington is a distinctive writer. Like his two previous books – the first a book of interlinked short stories – Family Meal is set in Houston, Texas, and features primarily male queer characters, addressing issues of race, class and broken families. His work is contemporary without feeling explicitly modern. This a world of digital messaging, gender neutral pronouns and “the pandemic”. Terms such as “bottom”, “ofc” and “open” feature without explanation and create a fluid lingua franca.


Like all good food writing, there is a vicarious sensual pleasure in Washington’s work. If Cam buys flowers for his boyfriend purely for their beauty, it might follow that Washington is a proponent of gratifying prose, purely for enjoyment’s sake.

Family Meal is aflush with sex. The act serves to feed connection and addiction, creates and obfuscates intimacy, or serves purely as a means of physical gratification. Intimacy remains a struggle and shows itself more through the character’s actions than their words. Equally, while these characters may initially feel rather acrid to the palette, a covert sweetness reveals itself over time. At the heart, these are good people trying at once to discover what home is, and where they fit within it.

In an otherwise tender and accomplished text, Family Meal is let down only by the third section of the book. It feels like the author diverted the course of the narrative to give us a too-tidy ending. This is a world, it would appear, where neat bows don’t exist. As Cam says, “It just is”.

Brigid O'Dea

Brigid O'Dea, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health