Food in Times of Need: Eat Joy edited by Natalie Eve Garrett

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In the introduction to Eat Joy: Stories & Comfort Food from 31 Celebrated Writers, editor Natalie Eve Garrett writes about how she associates taste and food with some of her most difficult experiences: the flavor of “glazed apples and creamy custard set in a crisp buttery crust” brings back the memory of being bedridden with a fever for a few months; the taste of half a cantaloupe filled with blueberries reminds her of her first break-up. With Eat Joy, Garrett hopes “to create a feast of stories about making mistakes, summoning strength, getting lost and trying to find a way back.” This heartwarming anthology-cookbook hybrid achieves that and more.

Eat Joy closely relates to Garrett’s last project, The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook: A Collection of Stories with Recipes, for which she curated recipes that function both as instruction and story. With Eat Joy, Garrett delves further into the ways that food can serve as comfort and inspiration. Containing essays paired with recipes, each written by different authors, this anthology offers intimate memories and vignettes of cooking and eating that come alive with Meryl Rowin’s vibrant illustrations. Though some recipes are more useful and others more sentimental, this anthology urges us to find ways to care for ourselves and one another—whether that means hosting a meal or making a quick pickle. Kristen Iskandrian does both, as she writes in “Grief Pickles”: “We ate the alone-food together and felt, I think, less alone. Sometimes you have to celebrate sadness, too.”

Together, the recipes in Eat Joy open a new language for love and suggest ways to live and resist through storytelling. These recipes also give advice, like the note in Lev Grossman’s version of General Tso Tofu: “Tuck in. Whoever you are, whatever you have or haven’t done, whatever your apartment looks like, you made this, and you deserve to enjoy it.” In this way, the authors included here are a chorus of friends, helping to comfort.

Divided into four sections, Eat Joy focuses on different themes that are both distinct yet intertwined: Growing Pains, Loss, Healing, and Homecoming. This book begs to be flipped through and read with leisure. I opened it in the middle of a few hard weeks and started with “Loss,” then let the stories take me where they wanted.

 

Loss

I often think of that scene in the animated film Ratatouille when the cynical and angry food critic Anton Ego eats a bite of Remy’s ratatouille. That bite instantly reminds Ego of his mother’s home cooking and shatters his hard shell. The meal shows Ego humanity, love, and warmth—feelings he’d buried deep inside.

While reading Eat Joy, I felt like Anton Ego. Each story slowly melted the ice that had hardened me the way depression, anxiety, and stress does. In those difficult weeks, I had stopped cooking and eating well, so much so that I forgot how much food matters to me. Each essay in Eat Joy transported me back to those precious times when food nourished me to a point of utter joy. This is not to say that all meals are joyous, but Eat Joy reinforces the idea that eating can be an act of rejoicing and reunion—a journey back to the body and even back home.

Essays in “Loss” explore moments when cooking and eating can be a way to heal from grief. Edwidge Danticat writes about the last meal her father ate—Diri Blan, or white rice. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shares a recipe for “Fide’s Jollof Rice,” and tells the story of her family’s former houseboy, Fide, who later dies as a soldier during a military coup in Sierra Leone. These recipes act as memorials; cooking becomes a way to keep loved ones alive.

The first essay I encountered was “Friends, Grief, and Green Chilies” by Rosie Schaap. Schaap writes about the time she was newly widowed and drove to Albuquerque to share Passover with a dear friend’s non-Jewish family. Schaap weaves in memories of Passovers from her childhood up until that moment, and both mourns and celebrates the ways in which life, traditions, and recipes change over time.

Reading Schaap’s experiences brought me back to the first Passover I experienced this past year with friends I met in my MFA program. Like Schaap’s memories of finding the afikomen for a game, in which a half-piece of matzo is hidden away for children to find, I remembered looking for the matzo in my friend’s apartment. We were a group of writers searching couch cushions, tables, bathroom cabinets, until someone exclaimed with so much joy that they had found it. I remembered how we took turns reading from the Haggadah and sang songs. We drank wine, ate charoset, and shared gratitude and goals. We ate a delicious, warm feast of matzo ball soup, roasted chicken, green beans, and more. And I remember the comfort of feeling in community with others, feeling included in a tradition that wasn’t mine at all. Before opening Eat Joy, I had felt alone, but Schaap’s story reminded me I wasn’t.

 

Growing Pains

The next section I read was “Growing Pains,” which explores times when food bumps up against life changes. For this anthology, growing pains means showing compassion to yourself and others, like in Carmen Maria Machado’s “Meals of My Twenties,” which ends with a rendition of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese she calls “You-Are-Ten-and-Tender-and-Can-Only-Make-This-One-Thing and Cheese.” In “Long Sleeves,” Melissa Febos cooks slow-roasted pork shoulder in an effort to save her long-term relationship, even though she is a vegetarian. Filled with irony and humor, Febos’s choice to tell her story through the lens of dealing with imposter syndrome makes it a poignant homage to a past relationship and a past self.

These stories make me think of the time when I was ten and tried to show my parents how grown up I was by making instant ramen without their help. When I was almost finished, I burned my arm with boiling water. I don’t remember what exactly happened next—my memory flashes forward to lying in front of the bathroom sink and using a Ziploc bag filled with ice to soothe my burn. Next to me on the floor, my mom fed me a dinner of what we call bai chie rou, or boiled pork dipped in soy sauce and garlic. I still remember the plate she used: a plastic one, decorated with cartoons and divided into three sections like a cafeteria tray. She would ask me what bite I wanted. I’d tell her pork, rice, or veggies, and she would give me just that. It was a slow meal, a comfort meal.

For the next few weeks, I’d look at the scar on my arm and remember that night—how I’d felt cared for. Looking back now, I realize I didn’t really want to be an adult; I just wanted someone to notice me. I loved that feeling more than any kind of independence I sought.

 

Healing

Growing up, my mother taught me that the first step to healing from a cold is to make a simple chicken broth. She’d buy a whole chicken, stick it in a pot with water and ginger, bring it to a boil, then simmer it for a few hours, sometimes even half a day. I return to this recipe now in times of need—yes, when I am sick, but also when my spirit feels dull and needs to be uplifted. One winter, living in New York City, I cooked chicken broth for so many weeks in a row. After those weeks, my roommate said to me, “You were cooking broth so often I wondered if you were okay.”

Reading “Healing” brought me to those chicken-broth weeks, when I wasn’t, but was becoming, okay. The section contains perhaps the healthiest recipes in the book, for dishes that not only help with healing and recovery but also offer ways to live life one day at a time. Take Aaron Thier’s recipe for “Oatmeal Cookies,” which his mother made for him as he was healing from alcohol and drug addiction, or Alissa Nutting’s recipe for “Green Juice,” a juice that gave her sustenance when she had no appetite after her divorce. Antoine Wilson shares a recipe for “No Alzheimer’s Turmeric Toast.” The toast both attests to turmeric’s natural antiseptic and anti-inflammatory qualities and honors his father, who once pulled out a container of turmeric and sprinkled it over French toast. These authors share with vulnerability to let readers know that one day things will be different.

 

Homecoming

The last section of Eat Joy is a return of many kinds—a return to home but also to the self and body. Some of these authors see food and cooking as an act of resistance. In Beth Nguyen’s essay “Spaghetti and Books,” she admits, “I think I’ve eaten a pound of spaghetti every week since the 2016 election. Each time, I hope for a small sense of progression… it is the enduring necessity and pleasure of comfort.” Sharing her own tried-and-true recipe for spaghetti, Nguyen extends this “pleasure of comfort” to readers, insisting that we “don’t rush” through the process of preparing the dish.

One morning, I read Porochista Khakpour’s essay “Calculated Destruction,” in which she talks about eating rice (despite her allergies) and learning to make tahdig, a Persian dish of “crispy near-burnt rice.” Her recipe begins with a simple version, written and given to her by her mother. It then expands to include more complex renditions from the internet—people trying to perfect and “hack” it by adding butter or saffron, poking holes, using special pots, etc. Khakpour learns that every tahdig will be different and unique, and many attempts probably won’t turn out great. The lesson is not in perfecting but in trying—to make something “that could break and be broken, to make something cumbersome and hard out of something that’s so often fluffy and easy…. the exercise in never quite getting there.”

Khakpour’s words make me think of dumplings. No matter how hard I try, I can never make a perfectly folded dumpling. That same day, I decide to go out and buy dumpling wrappers, napa cabbage, ground pork, and scallions to make a simple batch. A playlist I’ve named “Strength” plays in the background as I breathe deeply and use my hands to mix the pork with the cabbage, soy sauce, sesame oil, salt, and pepper—just like I saw my mother and grandmother do as a child. Then I place coin-sized balls of filling onto the wrappers cupped in my left palm. I fold the wrapper in half and use water to seal and tuck, seal and tuck.

This process takes an hour. I make forty dumplings. With each dumpling, I say grace. I thank my friends and family, the act of cooking becoming a meditation on love. I think that maybe my ancestors would be proud of my imperfect folds. Then I think of the last sentence in Carmen Maria Machado’s recipe: “Think about your past self with compassion. She got you here, after all.” I think that maybe I will be okay. I make my first meal in many weeks. I thank myself.

 

Recipe for Comfort and Return

Ingredients:
1 copy of Eat Joy
1 glass of water or warm to drink (tea or hot chocolate recommended)
Time to browse
Serving Size: as much as you are ready to receive

Instructions: Pick up Eat Joy. Close your eyes and let your thumb brush the edge of the pages. Stop when you feel like it, when it feels right. Read the story you land on; if you land in the middle of a story, flip a few pages back and find its beginning. Let the story heal you. Let it be a balm for your heartache, whatever it is you are missing and longing for—your mother or father, your sister or brother, your best friend who made pizza with you once after a break-up. Let these stories be your companions and help you return: to home, to love, to the memories you need, to yourself. Repeat for as much and as long as you need.


Jennifer Huang is a writer and teacher with a visual arts background. The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, she currently lives in Ann Arbor, MI, where she is pursuing her MFA in Poetry at the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers' Program. Previously, she was a Civitas Fellow with InsideOut Detroit and a Brooklyn Poets Fellow. She serves as an Assistant Poetry Editor for Sundog Lit, and her essays and poems have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, The Blueshift Journal, and elsewhere. You can find out more at www.huangjennifer.com. More from this author →