In the opening pages of his candid and moving memoir, “Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression,” David Leite reveals his most fervent wish as a child: “I wanted to be blonde and blue-eyed and have a last name like Stevens or Nelson. I wanted a one-story house for just my parents and me, with a sunken living room and brick fireplaces and famous paintings hanging over the mantels. And I desperately wanted that swinging kitchen door, the kind with a round window like they have on ships. I wanted so much.”
Instead Leite grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts, in one of the largest Portuguese communities in the country, in a multi-family house he shared with his parents, grandparents, godparents, and his cousin. And he was neither blonde nor blue-eyed.
“As a kid, I fantasized about becoming a star,” Leite recalls. “I waited for photographers to discover me, striking various poses, sitting erect and cross-legged, sometimes slouching, or standing against a wall, my hands in my pockets, waiting for the inevitable pop of flashbulbs. I would be cast in the sequel to ‘The Sound of Music’ or I would become the seventh kid on ‘The Brady Bunch’.”
After high school Leite went to Rochester Institute of Technology and majored in communication design, eventually entering Carnegie Mellon where he studied acting. He did eventually make the big leap to New York and although he did get cast in several commercials, the road to stardom came to a dead end. But that turned out to be a good thing. He went on to the world of advertising where he wrote copy for some of the most prestigious agencies at the time.
“It was really a fluke,” Leite recalls. “I had a roommate who was in the business and suggested that I try my hand at writing advertising copy. I found my first job in a small agency and moved on from there.”
Even though he forged a successful career, Leite still was still wrestling with the issues he had as a teenager: insecurity, acceptance of his sexuality, and coping with his bouts of depression.
Much of Leite’s early life had revolved around family but he had not yet visited Portugal. When his grandmother, who he called Vo or Vovo, died, he began to realize how important it was to preserve family history.
“When my grandmother passed, her recipes went with her,” Leite says. “There was a sense of part of my heritage being gone, so I started videotaping my mother and my aunt as they were cooking. It wasn’t so much the recipes as the stories that went along with them. I wanted to recreate as many recipes as I could as a way of staying connected to my grandmother. The unexpected result was I fell in love with Portuguese food and culture — something I’d been running from since I was a kid.”
Leite decided to have a try at writing a piece about food and family history and after submitting query letters to various publications, the piece was accepted by The New York Times. And that was the impetus for his first book, “The Portuguese Table: Exciting Flavors from Europe’s Western Coast,” which is dedicated to his Vovo. The book has become a classic and the definitive book on Portuguese cooking and was awarded the International Association of Culinary Professionals First Book/Julia Child Award.
Food became Leite’s passion. Although he still suffered from bouts of depression, and consulted with various medical professionals, he had found his calling, going on to create the award-winning website, www.leitesculinaria.com. Here, he offers articles, columns, in-depth interviews, essays, and, of course, recipes.
While Leite is now at the top of his game, the ride has not been easy for him. Even though he came out as a gay man and found great happiness with his husband Alan, the frustration caused by his depression and the inability of professionals to properly diagnose his condition were still taking their toll on him. Happily though, after 23 years of hell and four therapists Leite identified his bipolar disorder.
“Bipolar disorder with childhood onset is what they decided. Perversely I was relieved, happy even, that finally I could put a name to all of this.”
Which brings us to his new book “Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression.” In it Leite reveals the traumas and challenges of childhood, his search for the answers about his sexuality and living with his bipolar condition. Throughout, there is humor and compassion, as well advice for those with the same issues.
“The original idea was to do a book of essays, humorous and food-related. Around the same time I was thinking about the concept I posted an essay called “Bipolar Disorder and Julia Child My Therapist” on my website. In it I described how, as a kid, watching Julia Child’s food show rescued me. She was a 30-minute reprieve from all my anguish and insecurities. I discussed my depression and the solutions I’d found. It was the most popular blog on the site and I realized that I was on to something. That’s when I decided the book would be a real memoir.”
And real it is. Leite began by writing down every memory from his childhood, putting each one on an index card and then arranging them in order.
“I eliminated the ones I thought were not relevant. Since I come from a food background, that would be one theme, but I knew I had to deal with being gay and bipolar.”
It was a tremendously brave thing to do — reveal your own personal history as well as that of your family.
“I sat my parents down and explained what I was about to do,” Leite says. “My mother was especially nervous, sure that she would come off as being the most awful mother.” (She doesn’t.) “But they both felt that if what I was going to write would help others, then I should do it. I also told Alan and a few other people who would be in the book and they were all fine with it.”
It took two years to write the book — the title of which comes from a nickname Leite’s mother had for him. While his parents have not read the book yet, Leite has every reason to be proud of what he’s produced — a searingly honestly book about believing in oneself and not succumbing to despair. As with everything Leite does, it’s presented with great sincerity and a dash of humor.