Barrelhouse Reviews: Starvation Mode by Elissa Washuta

Reviewed by Hillary Moses Mohaupt


Future Tense Books


Memoir is meant to allow memories to marinate amongst the broader experiences of the writer’s readers. There’s no shortage of memoirs about eating disorders and coming of age despite difficult odds. Divided into three unequal parts, Starvation Mode is less about disorder and more about creating order from the unruly and otherwise uncontrollable forces that fight to determine what makes a woman. The book satisfies both readers of creative nonfiction and those who crave unconventional narrative styles. The recipe yields small portions, but the book packs the protein punch of a dish much heartier than just fifty pages.


Starvation Mode

Serves 2-3 

There are days that call for long novels, homemade cookies, hot cups of tea, and cozy blankets, and then there days—weeks, even; whole periods in our lives—that call for memoirs that might bend the genre but definitely don’t mince words. For those times, there are books like Elissa Washuta’s slender Starvation Mode, which will make you hungry for more prose that manages to balance self-reflective ruminations, sharp observations about the complex and contradictory modern world, and the sheer, unashamed bravery sometimes required to survive it.

Serve this book with a searing sense of camaraderie with the writer, who demonstrates a remarkable capacity to reduce excess material down to a basic pastry crust packed with fleshy filling. 


1 cup sliced onions
½ cup shortening
1 pound round steak, cubed (or a vegetarian substitute)
¼ cup flour
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon ginger
2 teaspoons salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
2 ½ cups boiling water
2 cups diced raw potatoes


1 cup sifted flour
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup shortening (or butter or, if you must, lard)
1 egg, jostled just enough to combine the white and yolk


1. Start by making a list of rules you have, as a girl, then as a woman, learned to follow when it comes to eating. Some of these are rules dictated by Western civilization or by parents who thought they were doing their best. Others are self-imposed rules created in order to have some order in your life. Infuse this list with a hint of humor, a half-cup of skepticism, and the shrewdness that comes from the passage of just enough time to understand that you both have and have not changed.  

2 A. Divide the book into three parts: the first part detailing the rules defining your relationship with food and your body; the second describing the lies offered by magazines, the media, and the Catholic Church, that shaped your adolescence; and the third reconciling the past with the present. Assemble carefully. 

2 B. Write using simple, straight-shooting sentences and paragraphs composed of delicious compound phases, with just enough food-based metaphors to provide a through line across all three parts of the book. 

3. Incorporate into the batter an unhealthy relationship with a boyfriend so that the themes of food and love and are evenly distributed. 

4. When the circumstances of your life change thanks to emergency surgery, set down more rules that make it more difficult to extricate yourself from the mess by yourself. Hire a sous-chef to help sort this out—first a psychiatrist you call The Giver, who seasons your mental health too liberally with benzodiazepines, then a doctor you dub The Regulator, who prescribes pills that cause weight gain. Don’t over-handle this dough, which will just cause gluten to form and make the narrative too sticky to chew.  

5. Move your narrative seamlessly from New Jersey to the Pacific Northwest, where you have always wanted to live, because it is far from your childhood home in the Mid-Atlantic and different and the geographical jump allows you to pull back the camera enough to gain a different perspective.

6. Add, to taste, enough details about your family’s ethnic and cultural background, and about the pressures of being a smart teenage girl, to give the book a complex flavor profile. 

7. Acknowledge the “slant-truths” of memoir. Recognize that you are shaping this story for your reader, offering intimate details that might be uncomfortable—as much for you as for the reader.  

8. Write for other young women who are old millennials, stuck in the Oregon Trail generation in which we remember puffy Disney VHS tape cases, Barbie dolls with removable limbs, all those YM magazines that targeted us too early for diets and sex advice for pleasing a man when we were not quite ready to put away Disney and the dolls. This is our story, too.


Test Kitchen Tip No. 103: Switching Modes

Elissa Washuta’s memoir is framed by rules. These rules clue the reader into her changing sense of self, how she rationalizes progressively less rational thoughts in a life that’s slipping through her fingers. Other rules illustrate how she comes to make sense of herself as both the framer and the protagonist of this story. For Washuta, food offers a way to understand her body and her body in the world. In Starvation Mode, she gives herself permission not to be defined by the prescriptive literature of teen magazines, the Bible, and diet books. In doing so, she reminds us that living, like cooking, is both a science and an art, something to measure, prepare, and simmer, according to our own tastes.


Hillary Moses Mohaupt is a listmaker: she’s a writer, pie-baker, and misplaced Midwesterner in the Mid-Atlantic. She’s the social media editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and she’s one half of the Screen Sirens, a podcast about women and social justice in classic Hollywood films. Follow her on Twitter at @_greyseasky_.