My Review - 5 Stars
Given the premise of Emily Nunn's food memoir, I was pretty sure I was going to like it. Then I came upon this passage and I knew I was going to love it:
"Despite my dive into the mysteries of comfort food, my plans were not suddenly tied up in a neat bow. And unlike what you might expect from a story like this, I didn't have a road map for the next year of my life, a rock-solid timeline, or an uncharacteristically smart but rustic man hovering in the wings to make my life happy and perfect again. The truth was that I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life, expect in the short term. And even the short-term was sketchy." p. 62
Emily Nunn is my kind of people.
In the course of her memoir, we see her do the good and hard work of becoming sober, of processing her complicated and often toxic family dynamics, of grieving, of figuring out just who she is. It is not always neat or pretty but it is an honest account of someone taking stock of their life and doing their best to become healthier and stronger. It's worth reading for that alone.
Emily grew up in Galax, VA with two brothers and two sisters. Her parents ultimately divorced and her dad was not very involved with the family afterward. She moved to New York where she covered theater and wrote the original Tables for Two column for the New Yorker before taking a restaurant column job at the Chicago Tribune. Once in Chicago, she met the Engineer, who would become her fiancé, and his 7 year old daughter.
In so many ways, it seemed like Emily had an ideal life. But there were cracks along the surface and they shatter after her brother Oliver committed suicide. Shortly after Oliver's death, the Engineer breaks off their engagement and as Emily had become a stay at home stepmother of sorts, she has to figure out employment and housing. All while recognizing she was an alcoholic, like Oliver was.
After seeking treatment for her alcoholism, this ultimately launches a year or so of staying with different friends around the country, freelancing, and figuring out what she should do with her life and how things got this bad. One friend quips it'll be her comfort food tour. Everywhere Emily stays, she and her friends or family discuss the idea of comfort food. They make favorite recipes for each other. They consider what makes comfort food comforting and why we turn to it when we're in distress or need to celebrate. (One smart person raised the idea of why we associate comfort food with sad things when food is also an important part of many of our happiest moments.)
It made me think about the role of comfort food in such unexpected ways, going beyond my go-to choices. It was interesting to consider what we cook for people when they're in distress and how it's formed by our own ideas of comfort, as well as how "the things people truly need from us at the very worst times in their lives are often much smaller than what we try to give them" (p. 24.)
While Emily has a complicated relationship with her immediate family, her cousin, aunt, and uncle shower her with love and affection and open up their homes to her for extended periods of time. I loved these relatives for being stable presences and for the way they nurtured Emily. I loved how they showed her it's possible to be part of a stable, loving family.
As Emily visits her relatives and reconnects with old friends from college and tries to settle somewhere, her relationship with food evolves. Early on she notes how she cooked to show people how much she loved them or to make them love her. But as she's putting the pieces of her life back together and people give to her when she has little or nothing to give in return, she realizes she has to let people take care of her for a while. In the process of allowing people to love her unconditionally, she becomes more of who she truly is. The contrast between her past relationships and the ones she encounters after Oliver's death was truly striking and I ached over what she'd gone through and settled for.
"I felt uncomfortable about taking so much, having given so little. And it would be a long time before I could repay them. Or anybody...But they gave me all this generous comfort so freely, so happily, that I just decided to sink into it; outside, the birds were singing and inside, the dogs were nuzzling their noses on my leg, the signal for me to drop something into their mouths." p. 173
The Comfort Food Diaries is beautifully written. I'm adding it to my list of favorite food memoirs. Nunn thoughtfully weaves in recipes from her travels and there are many I can't wait to try. The food and her history complement one another and I was truly impressed with her ability to unspool her story in such a seamless way. It may be her Southern heritage but Nunn knows how to tell a story, that's for sure.
More than that, I'm glad I read a story about someone who doesn't have it all together, who is still figuring things out. That's where I find myself these days and I am grateful whenever I encounter someone who doesn't have the next chapter of their life thoroughly outlined and annotated. (I'm not entirely sure how old Nunn was during these events but I'd estimate late 30s or early 40s. She truly is my people.)
As I write this review, I have a mug of breakfast tea by my side and a plate with some of the No-Knead bread I made the other day. I'm contemplating beef stew or green curry chicken for dinner. These are my go-tos when life doesn't quite make sense and there's something healing about kneading and chopping and stirring, whether I'm only feeding myself or sharing with others.
I was raised in a family that welcomed others to the table and who brought meals to people who were sick or grieving. I've done my best to carry on those traditions, though not as well in recent years due to my own big moves and the hazards of making a new state your own. But perhaps this break in hostessing will have served me well. I've learned a lot about what comforts me and, more importantly, how to be there for others during this time and the lessons I've learned from this memoir will only add to that knowledge.
Food can't fully mend a broken heart but when someone shows up with a dish or a beverage in our time of need, something does start to knit us back together. If only because that person's presence tells us they see us. We're not alone. We're enough. We'll get through this.
"Food has become my touchstone for understanding what real love is. The best thing? Food makes it easier to give love, untangled. Since it keeps us alive, the smallest, simplest gesture can seem miraculous: I brought you this soup." p. 303
Another favorite quote:
"Luckily, I had figured out that life was not a banquet at all but a potluck. A party celebrating nothing but the desire to be together, where everyone brings what they have, what they are able to at any given time, and it is accepted with equal love and equanimity. You can arrive with hot dogs because you are just too tired or too poor to bring anything else, or you can bring the fancier, most elaborate dish in the world, and plenty of it, to share with people who brought the three-bean salad they clearly got at the grocery store. People do the best they can, at any given time. That's the thing to remember." p. 300
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Disclosure: I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Affiliate links included in this post.