The Comfort Food Diaries
CHERRIES JUBILEE AND OTHER DANGEROUS DISHES
“No one knows how Ezra Pound came to be born in Idaho.” That’s something an English professor at the giant magnolia-shaded southern university I attended announced one day during my freshman year. What a ridiculous statement, I thought. Ezra’s parents probably had sex in or around Idaho. The joke about this school, back then at least, was that someone would throw a diploma in your car window if you drove through town. So I thought, Perhaps this man is not a top quality academic.
Decades later, I believe I understand what he was trying to get at: there’s no real logic to where we start out and what we end up with. It’s like cooking. Once you get your ingredients, how you put them together at any given time is up to you. Maybe you have a book of recipes that has been passed down to you, maybe you’re winging it. Either way, it’s your responsibility to create something good, which you must then attempt to parlay into something better, never knowing exactly how things will turn out. It helps to have a high tolerance for disasters, in the kitchen or otherwise.
The place where I came to be born, and the place where I learned
to cook, is Galax, Virginia, population seven thousand, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s hard to imagine my parents doing what Ezra’s did (in Galax, in Idaho, or anywhere), but it happened, and something about my upbringing flung me far away rather than keeping me in the fold.
I ended up in New York City, heaven to me after small-town life, where my first job was at a magazine called Wigwag (the word means “to signal someone home”). A group of upstarts had left the New Yorker magazine to start Wigwag, which ran out of money during an economic downturn and stopped publication a year after I arrived in the city. When a few of them returned to their old jobs, I tagged along and landed at the New Yorker, too, and for almost a decade ended up covering theater plus editing and writing the original Tables for Two column.
My assignment, basically, was to go to the theater (sometimes five times a week), eat in restaurants, and have engrossing conversations with interesting people. I often felt like the luckiest person in the world. Why would I ever leave? I wondered this immediately after I took a job at the Chicago Tribune, despite the fact that they almost doubled my salary, gave me my own restaurant column, and promised I could write on any other topic I wished: the world would be my oyster.
If I was lonely at first, a few years after arriving in Chicago my life had fallen beautifully into place. I loved my job, and I’d met a local engineer who was tall, handsome, funny, wore Brooks Brothers suits, had pale blue eyes, and shaved his face exactly the same way every day. I adored him; I didn’t doubt for a second that he adored me back. Less than a year and a half later, we moved in together to a building a few blocks away from the Tribune’s hulking gothic headquarters and even closer to his firm.
And as great as this man was, he came with an added benefit: a seven-year-old daughter who also had blue eyes. She was as enchanting and lighthearted as a fairy princess, even when she was covered with mud from sliding down a clay embankment in the rain, even with her arms tightly crossed and shoulders up in fury, or when she
had rats’ nests from days of not brushing her long, shiny chestnut-brown hair, just because she was not in the mood. She had an affinity for the natural world that was reciprocated: I once watched her tiptoe extremely close to a deer as if she were indeed a woodland fairy princess; she and the animal stood staring at each other for a long while, as if they were trying to remember where they had met before, until the deer bounded away.
A few months after we met, the Engineer told me I came first in his life. First. Since I had grown up in a family of seven—an exquisitely dysfunctional southern family, in which various members had stopped speaking for years in various convoluted and confusing configurations—you can imagine how alluring that was, in spite of how rushed it seemed. A few months after we’d moved in together, he took me to Tiffany and bought me the prettiest platinum three-diamond Etoile engagement ring. It didn’t seem to matter much when the Tribune laid me off during the recession, along with a lot of other people who had high salaries and a Pulitzer or two. I threw myself into a life of heretofore unthinkable, at least for me, domesticity.
Back when we told the Fairy Princess’s mother, the Co-parent, that we were setting up household together, she had immediately announced plans to take the Fairy Princess away with her to Paris, where she had gotten a job. When she did finally leave for Paris, though, she left her wonderful nine-year-old child in our care. The day the Engineer and I moved in together was the exact day I became an almost full-time stepparent. Previously, when I had thought of the word family, I’d imagine cavemen sitting around a fire chewing on a bone—a human bone. I was afraid of what a family could do. So I had naturally avoided creating one as an act of lonely self-preservation, as well as a service to all humanity.
But I found I absolutely loved it, loved the natural flow of rituals that took over my life: at night, sitting down to a dinner I’d cooked for my little family, bedtime reading (Little House on the Prairie), walking the dog, cleaning up the kitchen, an hour of television with the Engineer on the couch, turning off the glowing living-room
lamps, seeing the moon on Lake Michigan, the stars outside before sleep, feeling the dog jump onto the foot of the bed, then hearing the Engineer’s snoring, taking his reading glasses off and putting them on the nightstand with the folded New Yorker he’d started reading regularly and I’d begun to ignore.
I began to believe in the idea of family and thanking God for mine almost every single day.
• • •
Two and a half years later, I lived through the darkest winter of my life, after the sudden death of Oliver, one of my two brothers. The new family and the life I had loved collapsed into a flat mess like a soufflé after some unthinking person slams the oven door.
I got the news that Oliver had killed himself—a late-night text from my other brother, Michael, who lived in Santa Barbara—while on a culinary and architectural tour of Barcelona, a birthday present from the Engineer. But rather than telling the Engineer right away that my brother was dead, I waited until we’d finished our nightcap at a dark grotto bar, after our local friends had said good night and walked away. Because I didn’t want to spoil the evening.
In Barcelona, I felt curious and connected to something good. I fell in love with the medieval claustrophobic streets, modernist architecture, and murky Catalan mood right away, and I’ve missed what I felt there ever since. The wonder you feel in great foreign cities is easy to confuse with the wonder you feel when you first fall in love with a person you imagine to be great, who seems at the same time to be so strange and novel. I was hoping to feel that way about the Engineer again.
“Don’t come home early. You should finish your trip,” my sister Elaine said, when I finally reached her by phone the next day. “There’s nothing you can do.”
Well, there isn’t now, I recall thinking.
And so it came to pass that we were still in Barcelona two days after I’d heard the awful news. Glass of wine in hand, I was standing in line to eat at Cal Pep, the fabled tapas bar in the hipster Born
district, right around the corner from the contrastingly steadfast twelfth-century church Santa María del Mar, as if nothing had happened at all. La-di-da.
When the Engineer came striding across the cobblestone plaza to meet me, he was wearing the blue-and-white striped scarf I’d tied around his neck that morning along with the rumpled mackintosh I’d given him for his last birthday. He looked so handsome that I kicked up a leg to show off a new pair of shoes he’d bought for me earlier that day.
“New boots!” I said, and then backward I fell, landing flat on my back, like a floor lamp that had been pushed over. Lying there, wondering what had happened and if I’d cracked my head open, I saw the face of my dead brother Oliver: super-pale green eyes the color of beach glass, heavy-lidded and half-closed, blond hair that he cut very short, ham-steak cheeks, and a semipermanent scowl, which would become a radiant smile, but only if you could make him laugh.
A couple from New York finally had to pull me to my feet; they seemed disappointed when I thanked them in English rather than Catalan.
When I stood up, I felt significantly altered, which I attributed to the wine.
Soon, the two of us were installed at the long granite counter at Cal Pep; some tremendous white beans with sausages arrived, then calamari, beautifully flash-fried, followed by a lovely piece of grilled turbot.
When I tried to lift my glass of wine, though, my wrist went limp with pain. I looked down at the pretty food. “I think we should see a doctor,” I said to the Engineer, who’d barely gotten to touch the pa amb tomàque (bread smeared with tomato), a customary snack set down the minute you arrive in Barcelona restaurants.
As the cab banged and bounced its way over cobblestones to the closest Barcelona hospital, the Engineer said, “Why are you crying? Does it hurt, or are you just upset?”
I couldn’t see that it mattered exactly why I was crying. My arm hurt really badly and my brother was dead, and either reason seemed acceptable.
“I don’t know,” I answered.
But I knew. And the truth would begin to buzz around my brain like an insect I could never swat away: while Oliver was completely alone in a hotel room, preparing to say goodbye to the world and everyone and everything in it, I was on British Airways drinking champagne in first class, a fact that would strike me later as a betrayal so incomprehensible that it made me quite sick.
When we got to the hospital, the Engineer was silent as a female doctor who looked like a movie star gave me a shot for the pain and took X-rays. She showed me a ghostly outline of my hand and arm on a computer screen, pointed to a blur, and said in a heavy accent, “It is broken.” I just nodded and let her splint my limp arm and wrap it in a soft, temporary contraption, which she said would not “esplode” if my arm swelled up in the pressurized cabin during our flight home to Chicago the next day.
After we left the hospital, we went into a bar across the street to watch some of the World Cup, but it was too crowded to see the television, and neither of us wanted to find another place. So we went back to the Hotel Neri, and sat in the empty bar for one more glass of Cava before going home and to Oliver’s funeral.
“I know you’re not equipped to help me with what I’m going through—or what I’m going to go through,” I told him, hoping he would say, “Of course I am. I have your back. We’ll get through this together.”
“Well, maybe the Fairy Princess can bring you some joy,” he said instead.
“That’s very sweet,” I replied, trying to smile. But I was confused. He seemed to be offering up his child as some kind of compensation for his own emotional deficits. How in the world was that supposed to work? I suddenly felt afraid.
• • •
Nothing prepares you for the death of a sibling, even if it’s not a surprise. Oliver had almost killed himself, whether intentionally or not, just a few weeks earlier by downing Trazodone and vodka. When I had
last spoken to him, the conversation had become tangled. We left it unfinished. But he was reaching out to me. He needed me. “I just want it to end,” he’d said a couple of weeks before we’d left for Barcelona.
I wouldn’t say that Oliver and I were extremely close, although I did follow him to college, where we’d speak by phone every other week or so, just to tell jokes. But we barely saw each other at all by the time he killed himself. And that is part of what was hard to accept. Had I ever been there for him? We were never good at taking care of each other; my brothers and sisters and I had all apparently internalized the message that that was not what we were meant to do. Our job was to focus on our mother. We didn’t really know how to pull together; we always ended up pulling apart. Oliver and I were somehow just the same: our lives were parallel in their unnecessary loneliness. Oliver had attempted suicide when we were just out of college many years ago. When my mother read me his suicide note over the phone, she began to weep. I didn’t know why; the note was pretty tame and Oliver was alive. He’d lived. “Oh, Mom, I’m sorry. Why are you crying?” I asked her. Her response: “Do you realize there was not a word to me in that suicide note?”
He was my doppelgänger. I was born on his first birthday; he thought I was his present. Twelve years later, I cut my very long hair very short, a pixie cut, and his friends began to call me Oliver, sometimes to be mean, sometimes by accident, because we were both blond, scrawny, tall, awkward, and talked too much, snorting over our own dumb jokes. In my favorite picture of the two of us, when we were six and seven, his fly is half-unzipped and my white knee socks have slipped down to my ankles in a pile, making me look like a Clydesdale in a skirt; his arm is slung across my shoulder, his head thrown back in laughter, full of joy in that long-lost minute, two happy nerds. The same year I cut my hair, I went to a Halloween party at my friend Amy’s house dressed as Oliver, in a pair of his old wire-frame glasses, corduroy pants, and a crew neck sweater with a pointy shirt collar folded over the outside. Which made him really angry. He was funny, loved a great joke, and was an amazing storyteller: he could be charming. And he was off-puttingly smart, but also infuriating. In fact, he became so intolerable one year in junior high
that my mother sent him to live at my grandmother’s house in Galax for several months. He had a photographic memory and could recall pages and pages of books he’d read and presidential speeches and monologues from plays. As a kid he did spot-on impersonations of John F. Kennedy and Sean Connery and, when he grew up, Bill Clinton. He had a giant coin collection and his own stockbroker who showed up at our house one day looking for “Mr. Nunn” and was surprised to meet a fourteen-year-old boy in corduroy pants and a T-shirt rather than a grown man. I once sneaked into his room when I was twelve and found a pipe with a half-smoked bowl of cherry tobacco.
I won the role of Springtime in our kindergarten play and Oliver was Mr. Winter, so I got to melt him.
He was neither saintly nor angelic, nor was he the quietest person in the world. In fact, it seemed he yelled half of what he said. He was scarily impatient and a scary driver. On a trip home from college together, he got two speeding tickets in three hours. He told me to drive after the second one. I ran over a curb pulling out of a filling station and he immediately made me turn the wheel back over to him.
Growing up, he regularly called me dumbbell, as if it were my name. But as we got older I suspected that, underneath his showy, outward dislike, he adored me. I began to think he avoided me because he knew I truly recognized him and understood that his anger came from not being able to be himself.
Although neither of our parents were big drinkers, we’d both gotten the alcohol gene, handed down from both the maternal and paternal sides of our family, the latter of which included our great-uncle Kenneth Messer, a brilliant and handsome air force man and inventor who drank himself to death after my great-grandfather made him come home following the war to help run the family’s furniture factories. When I was in grade school, my best friend Melissa’s uncle lived in the house where Uncle Kenneth bled to death on a stairway landing. She took me there once and pulled back the rug to show me the giant bloodstain on the wooden floor. They talked about him as if his ghost was still living there.
Oliver had always transformed himself: from a skinny kid with
glasses who read all the time but made lousy grades to a dean’s list student who won an ROTC scholarship to pay for school, a field organizer for the Republican Party in California at age twenty-one, and then a muscled marine who blazed through Officer Candidate School, and later a business executive who eventually managed his own company.
But when we were well into adulthood, he told me that when our mother came into our rooms to tell us good night and that she loved us, so many years ago, he would think to himself, Not if you knew.
Because he was gay (or bisexual). And he seemed to think that fact disqualified him from being loved. As a conservative Republican born in the sixties in the South, it had tortured him all his life—so much so that after he had come out in his twenties—and fallen in love with a man, at some point he had gone back to pretending it wasn’t true. After he’d been sober for more than a decade, he’d gotten married to a woman he loved and had a child he loved, too. “This was my second chance,” he once said to me, about his family whom I never knew him to betray. Living the life of a faithful, happy father and husband seemed to give him joy for so many years. But he was not faithful to his sobriety. He’d tried to hide the fact that he was drinking, and drinking a lot, but with every year that passed, he’d begun disappearing more and more. I’m pretty sure he’d been drinking heavily again for the last four years of his life.
Oliver had gotten tired of trying and had given up a long time ago, I think. For him, making an effort in life had always had mixed results, with wonderful highs and puzzling lows that seemed unworthy of a guy as brilliant and charming as he could be.
• • •
When we arrived back home from our ill-fated trip to Barcelona, I saw that Oliver had called and left messages on my phone. I imagined him alone, waiting for me to pick up. I deleted them without listening to them. I couldn’t bear it, knew I never would be able to. That same day the Princess arrived at the apartment, too.
I was happy to see her bright face, and she said the most perfect
thing once we sat her down to tell her about my brother: “I hope Oliver got to have a good Thanksgiving dinner before he died.”
On Saturday we were scheduled to be greeters at the holiday fair at the Princess’s alternative school. As we drove up Lake Shore Drive toward the school, Lake Michigan looked like some kind of steel-blue heaven, so gorgeous in the winter sunlight that it made me tear up. “I might have to sit in the car for a while,” I said.
The Princess fluttered away into the gymnasium, excited for her big event, but I couldn’t get out of the car to face the happy crowd. I pictured myself standing in the entry hall at this relentlessly quaint event full of handmade holiday crafts, folksy musical performances, and happy intact families.
I couldn’t imagine what I would say to them.
“Hello! Welcome to the holiday fair! Come right in! My brother is dead! We were like twins, but not really. I hope your families turn out well! Good luck getting your kids into Harvard! Hello! Welcome! Hello!”
The Engineer didn’t seem to understand my pain, but he sat with me outside the school before going in. “Exactly how long do you think a person should grieve?” I asked him, after we’d acknowledged my inability to focus on my responsibilities to our family. “What if your brother had died?” He stared back at me as if I were speaking an ancient, very boring language he had no desire to learn. “I don’t know,” he said impatiently, his face turning red. “Five days?” Which was exactly how long we’d been home. I was thinking that he was certainly the biggest fucking asshole in the universe, but also that he was my tall, handsome, engineer asshole whose frayed filament of affection was still attached to mine.
After he’d gone into the school that day he sent me this text: “It’s ok if you don’t feel like coming in. Plenty of help here. I love you.”
I got out of the car and went inside, into the gym, hypnotized by the idea that love was in there.
From that day forward, we never talked about Oliver or how I was feeling about any of it. We were supposed to go on like none of it had ever happened, even though the funeral had still not been planned.
I continued to cook delicious meals for him and the Princess
during the next few weeks, despite my clumsy broken arm. I filled my cast-iron Le Creuset pot with white bean and sausage stew and fried up cornmeal arepas topped with black beans and avocado; I made the Princess’s favorite spicy sweet potato and kale stew with coconut; we had vegetable soup, lentil salad. Also, caramelized pear tart, fish fillets smeared with mustard, Indian dishes that made the Princess wipe her tongue with a napkin (which made me laugh; thank God for her), and sometimes fudge sauce for vanilla ice cream that made her stand very close to me, waiting for it to be ready.
The Engineer seemed unable to understand that I was in the kind of pain that takes you by surprise, the kind that feels less like pain than like an inability to see any of the brightness in your life.
“What did you do all day?” he asked one night as I served them Chef Thomas Keller’s amazing curry chicken breasts and my special butternut squash roasted with just a sprinkling of cayenne and a lot of lime, along with onion focaccia I had baked.
“I cried,” I replied, somewhat operatically. I’d gone to the grocery store and I’d cooked, and I had started walking the dog more than once a day, but I wasn’t really sure if I’d cried. I couldn’t remember what I’d done, actually. I was trying to get some solace. The dog seemed to understand and was sitting at my feet now, slumped against my calves.
“That’s sad,” he replied, then continued quizzing the Princess about her day at school, whispering and laughing, as if I were no longer there.
I understood that he was concerned how the Co-parent would react to my sadness playing out in front of the Princess. It also occurred to me that he just couldn’t understand or tolerate my tears.
Once he even told me that my tears were “diabolical”—as if I were the Riddler or the Penguin rather than the person who had taken the Princess to get her first bra at Marshall Field’s and made vegetable soup with pistou to go in her lunch box. Rather than the only person who’d shown up at her Christmas concert after we’d all moved in together, because both the Engineer and the Co-parent had been out of the country for work.
Whatever the reasons, I’d considered myself under a strict crying ban ever since the time Oliver had ended up in the hospital in early November (after his run-in with Trazodone and vodka). I had openly cried in front of the Princess. It had gotten back to the Co-parent, and the Engineer made it clear to me that concerns had been raised. So a few days later, on my birthday, which was also Oliver’s birthday, I spent all day by myself. The Engineer was unhappy with me (for many reasons, I have no doubt) and had canceled our birthday dinner reservations. It seemed impossible that we’d gone to Barcelona three weeks later, but we had.
And after we returned, I began to feel like a ghost in my own home—insubstantial but still hanging around for some reason, haunting everyone or, at the very least, annoying them.
“Don’t you have some friends you could talk to about this until then?” the Engineer asked me one night, when I mentioned I was worried that weeks after Oliver’s death no date had yet been set for the funeral and that I felt like I was in limbo.
“I have you. You’re my friend!” I said. But I was coming to see that while the Engineer could do friendship, I was depressed and he couldn’t do depressed.
No one seemed recognizable to me. At the same time, I couldn’t say anyone had changed very much. What scared me most was that I was beginning not to recognize myself, either.
A few nights later, the Engineer and the Princess came storming into the house. “Dinner is ready in ten minutes,” I said.
“We’re not ready for dinner,” the Engineer replied, as he followed her into her bedroom, where they had a heated conversation about her clarinet tutor, a lovely man with messy hair I’d hired myself. When the Engineer came out, he was furious. I stirred a pot as he told me about the clarinet-tutor situation; as he was talking I had the overpowering sensation that I was seeing him from miles away, through a tunnel much too small for me to fit through. No matter how much I yearned to be over there with him—in a place where you could be mad about something like a clarinet tutor—I could not go into the tunnel.
A month before we had left for Barcelona, the Engineer had asked for my social security number to make me the executor of the Princess’s trust.
Three weeks after my brother’s funeral, which he didn’t attend (neither did my mother or my younger sister), the Engineer and I broke up.
We’d argued briefly, and after a familiar wall of silence rose up between us, I felt like I needed to be alone to cry. I bought a bottle of wine and took it to a hotel room across the street, hoping to grieve. Instead, in one of those grand moments of sweeping clarity that usually come only with alcohol, the universal truth serum, I sent a text to the Engineer saying that I thought we should break up. I remember feeling triumphant, light, released.
And he must have felt the same way because when I tried to take it back the next day, it was too late. “No, we’re done,” he said, and I could see in his eyes that this was true.
At first it was all relatively friendly. “You can stay as long as you want/need to,” he texted me after we broke up. But the following week, after he’d stayed a few days at the Co-parent’s apartment, the Engineer told me I had to leave our beautiful, sunny, high-rise, industrial-concrete-and-glass apartment with sweeping views of Lake Michigan (which I had found for us). He wanted me out in two weeks but I was pretty sure it would be impossible to find a new place to live in Chicago in two weeks.
I had just buried my brother, was crushed by shame and guilt, and suddenly it became blindingly obvious that I had absolutely nothing to show for my life. I was an unemployed former stepparent with $240 in the bank and a seriously drained IRA. I had lost, quite literally, almost everything I had in the world.
But I couldn’t help noticing that I did have a half-full bottle of gin in the freezer, left over from a dinner party we’d had that fall on our building’s rooftop terrace (I made fish tacos on the grill, with lime and cilantro). The blue Bombay bottle held an almost soulful, spiritual allure. I closed the freezer. No way. Not going there.
I had always credited my move to Chicago with changing my life
after more than a decade of genetic, creeping, high-functioning alcoholism (Why am I this way? Should I stop drinking? How can I keep doing this? Open a bottle of wine.) Less than a year after I’d started working at the Tribune, I’d gone to rehab, on my own, without telling anyone in my family. The slower midwestern pace had allowed me to face the truth about my life and do the things I needed to fix it. Alcoholism is like charisma: you either have it or you don’t, but how you choose to deal with it decides your fate. Like a lot of addicts, the allure for me was that it made my dark side seem brighter—until it didn’t.
By the time the Engineer and I had met (“You have such beautiful eyes!” I’d said; “So do you!” he’d replied), I’d been a faithful nondrinker for more than four years. I’d told the Engineer right away that I didn’t drink, and explained why. People tend to want to hear exactly why you quit, in great detail, a lot more than they want to know why you ever drank so much.
“I don’t care about that. I care about who you are now,” he told me, pulling my head to his warm shoulder. It was so comfortable there.
I began dabbling in white wine a little over a year into our relationship. “I can never do that again,” I said, the first time I had a glass with him, horrified with myself.
“Well, I’m not going to police you,” he replied; we’d had fun.
I felt safe. So rather than viewing myself as a relapsed alcoholic, once we’d moved in together I chose to see myself as a prissy sailor: taking my shore leaves, drinking with delicate purpose, then heading back to the ship of sobriety before things got too out of hand. And the Engineer had been fine with that, until I did something stupid—like smoke a cigarette with his business partner’s wonderful wife after too much wine at his company Christmas party, creating a brain buzz that hit me like general anesthesia. I ended up having to leave the party early, walking like Frankenstein’s monster, which made him furious. I thought he was worried about me, and maybe he was. But what he’d said the next day was, “I can’t stand people thinking I’ve made the same mistake again.” Meaning picked the
wrong partner. Meaning me. It never seemed to occur to him that he was part of the equation.
Nonetheless, he asked me to marry him the very next week. And I accepted. A few weeks later, he bought a case of his favorite red wine and put it in the Princess’s closet, since our kitchen was so small.
The possibility that my occasional social drinking could swerve, without much warning, into full-blown alcoholic behavior did not dissuade him from openly wanting me to be able to have cocktails with him.
But it was my responsibility. I knew that some kind of jerky behavior would always be the reward for the stupid, unforgivable risk I took having those few glasses of wine with him. No matter how good you seem to be at drinking, when you have the gene it always leads to the same place, eventually.
After the breakup, as my life started to spark and smell like smoke, I poured alcohol on it and watched it burst into blazes, as if I were preparing cherries jubilee for a crowd.
Sometimes only a flaming dish can serve as the proper ending to a dramatic meal.
One night I drank several glasses of sauvignon blanc and, in a fit of uncensored self-pity, broadcast the details of my wrecked life on Facebook for the unsolicited elucidation of around 350 so-called friends.
Pouring out my heart, I wept a bit while I typed, pausing to gaze out my floor-to-ceiling windows at Lake Michigan, a landscape where clouds and moonlight cast strange shadows across giant chunks of ice that rubbed together and made mournful creaking sounds that seemed to come from deep inside the earth. It was the modern-day version of going down to the river, rending my garments, beating my breast. Except stupider.
It went something like this: “My brother’s funeral was three weeks ago, and my fiancé just broke up with me. I have almost no money, no job, no home, no car, no child to pick up after school, no dog to feed, no one to care for. I am cold and alone.” (It was actually a
lot more detailed than that, and a lot more embarrassingly melodramatic, but I deleted it and I don’t remember all of it nor do I ever wish to.)
By the time I’d finished typing, I was comfortably numb, unmoved except by a flicker of the sensation that comes from watching a spectacular explosion in a movie. Even if it destroys something you’d never want to hurt, like the White House or Disneyland. Kablooey! It’s satisfying.
I went to bed, unconcerned about webcasting my plight. It had seemed like the only thing to do.
The morning after my pathetic post, I swallowed my slightly hungover dread and logged on to receive a remarkable surprise: instead of punishment for my honesty, I had been rewarded with kindness.
The little Facebook comment button displayed a big number, but it was not the sign of a virtual scolding. It turned out to be a bright flag signaling that people from all around the country were willing to come down the river with me, so I wouldn’t be alone.
A community had gathered around me that included not just my accustomed associates, but people I’d forgotten I’d once loved so much, people whom I’d never known cared about me, people I’d always admired but had never made the brave effort to get truly close to, and people who were almost strangers. Some I hadn’t actually spoken to in years—since leaving my hometown, since leaving college, since leaving New York City, since throwing myself into what I’d believed was my real family in Chicago. Since leaving all the places I’d left without saying much of a goodbye to anyone, convinced it made no difference. It had never occurred to me that people wanted to stay in touch with me.
“You’d better cheer up or I’m coming back to give you a tune-up,” wrote a high school classmate who was in our small-town production of South Pacific (starring my mother) when we were fifteen (probably the last time he and I spoke). We had spent lots of evenings together, waiting for hours in the hallway or the band room, doing our homework, until the extras were required to stand on the high
school stage, sing and dance in the chorus, say a line or two, then go sit in the hall again. Since then, skinny, boyish John had grown big muscles and acquired a weathered face after years stationed in Iraq. He was writing from a war zone, and in his Facebook photos he was dirty and sweating, with dusty trucks and sand in the background. I was on the thirty-fifth floor of a Helmut Jahn high-rise in Chicago, overlooking gorgeous Lake Michigan. In my pictures I was clean and smiling, wearing red lipstick and standing on a street in Barcelona, or posing with our sweet Labrador retriever as she stretched out on our large comfortable bed.
Beyond the kind, cordial notes—sweet pats on my back—personal stories arrived detailing sorrows that were not my own.
There was a message from an old college roommate, the kind of blond southern belle who knew which boys would not break your heart, what to wear to a mixer, why it was okay to have sex but not talk about it, and other things I couldn’t figure out. She had a constant hum of happiness that was leavened with a sharp sarcastic edge that made her seem ideal to me. But she was writing to tell me how her longtime husband left her for another woman. How she became so depressed after their children left for college that she couldn’t get out of bed. And how much it hurt to take him back, despite her love and sense of relief.
A very funny woman I’d never met in person, whom I’d gotten to know through the growing internet food community (created by Twitter and Food52) before officially friending her, told me that when she was in her twenties, her brother and sister died within a few years of each other. “I was an only child,” she wrote. I remembered how lucky I was to have my remaining siblings.
I read things I never would have guessed from all the happy family pictures that I’d scrolled through, thinking everyone else in the world had gotten an instruction booklet for life that I’d been denied.
Former New Yorker coworkers encouraged me to move back to New York City and offered to help me find a new job. One high school classmate even offered me money (he was my ninth-grade date
for the homecoming dance; his gesture was pretty embarrassing, but so disarmingly sweet).
And so many people wrote simply to say they were thinking of me. Whether I received this unexpectedly soothing balm because these friends didn’t know the kind of person I’d turned into or because people like slowing down when happening upon a disaster, I wasn’t sure. I honestly could not discern straightforward human kindness any longer. But one thing was certain: it was a second chance to reconnect with people from my past and make new friends in a way that others seemed to do with grace. I grabbed on to this opportunity as if it were a giant piece of driftwood in the ocean, bobbing toward me as I flailed miles from shore.
A lot of these people were terrific home cooks or food writers or chefs or cooking instructors or plain old food lovers, so their suggestions leaned heavily in a culinary direction. It was as if they’d arrived at my frozen Chicago home, where the snow had been falling for days and the gray sky never cleared, bearing covered dishes for an impromptu winter potluck.
“Hey! You should visit us, and we can cook for you,” wrote Eileen, a former sorority sister from Savannah who makes great peach and strawberry jams from local fruit.
“Or you could cook for us,” wrote a wry illustrator from the New Yorker, who wore a short bob haircut and played in the magazine’s summer softball team in Central Park, facing off against teams from Vanity Fair and Time with life-or-death seriousness.
Eileen then suggested I embark on a culinary tour to see them all. “It should be your comfort food tour,” posted one of my oldest friends, Kevin, who’d sat at the desk next to mine the entire time I was an editor at the New Yorker.
And we all “Liked” that idea—very much.
It was the moment of crisis in a Mickey Rooney–Judy Garland movie. Except rather than gathering around the barn to put on a show, my friends and I were in separate homes, miles apart, staring at glowing computer screens, alone but together.
Their offers seemed to me extraordinarily generous. We often hear
about the isolating, numbing qualities of the internet, but in my case it had an inverse effect, perhaps because I was already feeling both numb and isolated. Either way, Facebook saved me. It really did. I’ll always be grateful to my virtual guardian angels. Thanks to them, the kernel of an idea began to form right then—a Comfort Food Tour that would allow me to reconnect with people I’d dearly loved, and get to know new ones I’d admired from afar. I wondered what secrets they would reveal to me about how to become a happy, healthy person, with a happy, healthy family, in a world that seemed awfully forbidding from where I was sitting.
In honor of all those guardian angels, here is the recipe for my cousin Martha’s Angel Biscuits, passed along to me one spring afternoon in my aunt Mariah’s apple-green kitchen in Galax during a lovely weekend with a group of some of my favorite female relatives. These are perfect for country ham biscuits, the sandwich of the South. They are what I imagined having in my knapsack as I ventured out into a different world, hopefully one in which connection and solace and renewed love were possible.
Makes approximately 48 biscuits, to be served with country ham
5 cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2½ teaspoons dry yeast
2 tablespoons warm water
1 cup shortening
2 cups buttermilk
1. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, the ¼ cup sugar, the baking powder, baking soda, and salt; set aside.
In a small bowl, combine the yeast, water, and the 2 tablespoons sugar; it will begin to foam. If it doesn’t you need to start again with new yeast.
3. Incorporate the shortening into the flour mixture until the texture resembles gravel. You can use a pastry cutter. I use my hands.
4. Pour the yeast mixture and the buttermilk into your flour bowl and mix gently until a ball forms. Fold the dough over on itself a half dozen times or so, until a uniform texture is achieved, being careful not to overwork it (you can do this in the large bowl). Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and place it in a warm area of your kitchen to let it rise for 90 minutes. At this point, you can refrigerate half the dough for later use, which is kind of amazing. It will keep for 4 to 5 days.
5. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400°F. Lightly grease a cookie sheet, or, if using a cast-iron skillet, place it in the oven about 10 minutes before baking.
6. On a floured board, roll the dough to ¾-inch thickness; fold the dough over on itself and press down evenly to make it ¾ inch thick; repeat once, pressing the folded dough out into an even ½-inch slab. Cut with a biscuit cutter. (I use one the size of a half dollar for small ham biscuits, but you can make larger biscuits according to your whims.)
7. Place on a lightly greased cookie sheet or in a preheated cast-iron pan and bake for 20 minutes, until lightly browned. You may brush the tops with melted butter halfway through baking for a prettier brown.