Can a Recipe Save Your Life?

A recipe can be more than a guide to making food. A recipe can be a mantra, a ritual, a symbolic stay against chaos in the psyche and in the world. A hybrid genre ...

A recipe can be more than a guide to making food. A recipe can be a mantra, a ritual, a symbolic stay against chaos in the psyche and in the world. A hybrid genre that some have called the “foodoir” combines memoir with recipes, inviting the reader to participate in culinary appreciation and preparation. By simmering bouillabaisse, frying catfish, or roasting an eggplant, the reader of this genre can—in imagination, at least—travel through France with Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein (The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook); party and protest with the Black Arts Movement (Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s Vibration Cooking); or enjoy a cozy evening in a tiny Manhattan apartment with only one burner (Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking).

Given the genre’s propensity for vicarious pleasures, a melancholy turn might come as a surprise. Three recent memoirs in this mode—Boris Fishman’s Savage Feast, Kwame Onwuachi’s Notes from a Young Black Chef, and Ruth Reichl’s Save Me the Plums—may describe exciting travel and glamorous careers, but they also, centrally, address cooking as a coping mechanism. A recipe need not be a portal to another life, these memoirs remind us; it can be a bid to save your own.

In these memoirs, small moments of culinary pleasure stave off despair. Deep in a bout of depression, Fishman takes tactile comfort in pleating cabbage vareniki (stuffed dumplings). Reichl and the Gourmet staff cook for first responders after the September 11 attacks, filling the magazine’s test kitchen with “the scent of chili and chocolate.” After a drug binge, feeling strung out and hopeless, Onwuachi makes chicken curry and his senses reawaken. Cooking represents, not merely a temporary escape from pain, but a sustained effort to reconnect—to the body, to other people, to the possibilities that the future might hold.

Though you may cook alone, making a meal conjures a culinary history, one shaped by the people who have fed you and shared your table. These memoirists connect the desire to cook with a hunger for love, from their families in particular. Reichl’s first memoir, Tender at the Bone (1998), traced her volatile relationship with her bipolar mother; her mother also haunts the pages of Save Me the Plums, as the glamour of Gourmet magazine would have appealed to her.

Fishman’s Savage Feast captures his simultaneous alienation from and enmeshment with his Jewish-Belarusian immigrant family. Through recipes and anecdotes, he tells his family’s story: his grandfather’s wheeling and dealing on the Soviet black market; his parents’ courtship; the family’s immigration to the United States, when he was nine years old. Though he sometimes feels trapped by his parents’ love, Fishman realizes that he strives to recreate the intensity of this dynamic in his obsessive romantic relationships.

In Notes from a Young Black Chef, Onwuachi’s father abuses him both physically and emotionally, while his resourceful mother often pulls away—or pushes Onwuachi away—at the very moment when he feels most vulnerable. For Onwuachi, cooking serves as an assertion of self-worth, a demonstration of mastery designed to negate the naysaying voices that sometimes come from the closest of quarters. In the stream of abuse from the chef de cuisine in a high-end restaurant, Onwuachi hears an echo of his father’s voice, and he resolves to prove them both wrong.

A recipe need not be a portal to another life, three recent “foodoir”s remind us; it can be a bid to save your own.

The discipline of cooking drowns out the noise of self-doubt, and eating fills the belly even when the heart is empty. In this way, cuisine compensates for the unreliability of love. As Fishman writes in his opening chapter: “Food conceals the emptiness between us—and between us and the world around us—but, once gone, doubles it.” When a married woman ends her affair with Fishman, he cannot sleep or eat and barely manages to leave his apartment. As a self-imposed treatment for clinical depression, he begins to fill his days with food tasks: working at a local farm, learning traditional Slavic recipes from his grandfather’s Ukrainian home health aide, Oksana, and cooking at a Russian restaurant.

These creative acts resist the void that threatens to consume him: “Cooking is making something where there was nothing. That something happens to keep you alive—you can eat raw cabbage, but not, indeed, raw potato. It is the literal opposite of the emptying out of depression. Only something so elemental could do it—because your emptying is so elemental.”

Recipes offer the illusion of control in the form of an ingredient list and a concrete set of steps to achieve demonstrable results. By contrast, Fishman’s teacher, Oksana, knows the amounts by feel, the process by heart. The intricate level of detail in Fishman’s recipes betrays his desire for precision and mastery, yet, in an afterword, he admits that “the recipe I got to redevelop and test most often for this book was humble pie.”

Splitting his week between work at the farm and at the restaurant, Fishman gradually realizes that, in spite of the rigors of his daily routine, much of the agricultural process is profoundly unpredictable. This admission is ultimately freeing: “The notion of control was so laughable that, counterintuitively, the anxiety fell away.” While the farm reminds Fishman that we are all at the mercy of the elements, the kitchen externalizes the pressures that riddle him from within. When he works in the restaurant, he goes into “survival mode” and achieves “numb stillness.” At the intersection of mindlessness and mindfulness, Fishman achieves a hard-won respite.

Throwing himself into work remains a fairly solipsistic enterprise, however. Fishman must learn to extend himself beyond himself, to share food rather than merely make it. At the restaurant, he meets a woman who works at a summer camp for Lakota children in South Dakota. In a romantic gesture, he travels to see her and cooks a giant meal for her campers. He identifies with these children, many of whom suffer from mental illness, and with their parents, who are nervous about leaving their kids at the camp because of racist white locals and the possibility of violence. “No matter where I went, I found my way to people whom trauma had made berserk about safety,” he writes. “I felt at home among them.” Ultimately, for Fishman, the love of food is not about achieved safety but shared vulnerability.


On Writing and Restaurant Labor

By Patrick Abatiell

Reichl’s memoir about working at Gourmet magazine could hardly be more of a departure from Savage Feast. Both Fishman and Reichl are the children of immigrants (Reichl’s father was from Germany), but Fishman’s culinary apprenticeship redoubles his commitment to his cultural origins while Reichl’s enduring love affair with Gourmet flirts with class ascension. Founded in 1941, Gourmet promised that it would instruct its readers on “good living,” luxury travel, and fine dining. Nora Ephron once quipped, “It’s no wonder I never cook anything from this magazine: the pictures are so reverent, I almost feel I ought to pray to them.” Gourmet may have had a whiff—or more than a whiff—of snobbishness about it, but it also provided an important venue for literary food writing, publishing writers like M. F. K. Fisher and Laurie Colwin, whose wit and warmth make them obvious foremothers for Reichl’s own style.

Reichl’s anecdotes emphasize her democratizing touch as editor in chief—printing recipes for sloppy joes and cupcakes, for instance—which frequently sparked indignation in longtime subscribers. Rejecting this elitist attitude, Reichl features crowd-pleasing recipes in Save Me the Plums (spicy noodles, chocolate cake, turkey chili, etc.). Unlike Fishman, whose recipes are so numerous that they merit their own index, and Onwuachi, who reliably ends chapters with them, Reichl offers only five recipes, all of which are for comfort food staples. She may have edited Gourmet, this selection implies, but she cares about quality, not novelty.

Nonetheless, the connection between cooking and class is psychologically and professionally fraught for Reichl, not merely because of the magazine’s content but also because of its corporate culture, of which she becomes an ambivalent part. As editor in chief of Gourmet, Reichl acquires a personal driver and an “attire allowance,” not to mention a state-of-the-art test kitchen. Uneasy about these perks, Reichl compares her Gourmet kitchen to a Berkeley community kitchen in which she once worked: “I loved the cozy feeling, the camaraderie, the music that was always playing. … The last thing I expected was to walk into Gourmet’s test kitchen and feel that it was much the same.” The comparison is strained, but it demonstrates how Reichl tries to elevate the magazine’s editors, chefs, artists, and writers out of their market milieu. They are a community, even if Condé Nast is a corporation.

But corporations must turn a profit. Gourmet’s production budget was expensive, and, at the time of Reichl’s editorship, advertising and newsstand sales were in precipitous decline. In spite of the powerful and often political food writing that was published during her tenure—including David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster”—the magazine was behind the times in its online presence. To Reichl’s enormous frustration, Condé Nast sold Gourmet’s recipes to Epicurious, which meant that they could not appear on the magazine’s website, limiting its traffic and relevance. In 2009, Si Newhouse abruptly announced the close of Gourmet, while keeping open Bon Appétit, a magazine dominated by recipes and pitched to home cooks.

After the closure, Reichl returned to her own kitchen and found new inspiration in old issues of Gourmet. In the final scene of the memoir, she adapts a recipe for German apple pancakes, sharing her improved version with her son and his partner and recalling a similar meal she had enjoyed with her parents. This anecdote captures the spirit of enthusiastic amateurism that has also found a culinary and, indeed, a literary home on the internet, as the popularity of Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen attests.

The personal riff on a published recipe gives voice to the cookbook buff and the magazine collector, the avid reader and the adventurous home cook. It nourishes the culinary imagination and kitchen experimentation that reading Gourmet inspired in Reichl as a girl, while steering clear of stuffiness. Much like the foodoir, the recipe blog or Twitter feed associates its featured dishes with the writer’s personality, experiences, and relationships. Today, Reichl frequently tweets lyrical impressions of everyday meals, seasonal ingredients, and cozy scenes. For her, food is an emblem of life richly lived rather than life lived by the rich.

The discipline of cooking drowns out the noise of self-doubt, and eating fills the belly even when the heart is empty.

While also grappling with the classed implications of haute cuisine, Onwuachi’s Notes from a Young Black Chef, written with Joshua David Stein, is refreshingly clear about the relationship between race, money, and food. Onwuachi comes from a family of cooking professionals, but his mother made a tenuous living through most of his childhood as a caterer. Growing up in poverty, he dealt drugs in the Bronx because it was more lucrative than part-time fast-food positions. He discusses the notoriously high price point of his short-lived restaurant, the Shaw Bijou, speculating that racism fueled public resentment: “I was saying that [black] culture is worth something, worth a lot, actually. That I was worth something. Underneath the reaction to the price tag, this was the white-lash rage that seethed.”

Onwuachi uses cooking to cope with the collective trauma and daily indignities of systemic racism. On the way to class at the Culinary Institute of America, Onwuachi is pulled over because of a busted taillight, and the police officer proceeds to arrest and handcuff him for “outstanding parking tickets.” “Since when,” Onwuachi asks himself, “are parking tickets an arrestable offense?” When he returns to class, he pours all of his attention into making consommé: “The way the egg whites form a natural filter, removing impurities from the stock, felt like a metaphor for where I was in my own life.” For Onwuachi, cooking means survival—and not merely metaphorically. The book is dedicated to the memory of his best friend, Jaquan Millien, who continued to deal drugs and, with the proceeds, helped to pay Onwuachi’s Culinary Institute tuition. Millien was shot and killed in October 2018.

Food—its preparation, its healthfulness, its availability—is inextricably bound up with questions of race and class. Early in his career, Onwuachi works as a cook on a ship cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon spill. The head chef prepares the cheapest possible food for the laborers, who are stuck on board for months at a time, but Onwuachi thinks that these workers—“all young, all white, and all poor”—deserve the pleasures of home.

Ultimately, his meals, cooked simply but well, topple the other cook’s fried food regime. On the ship, cooking creates an interracial community: “I bonded with these backcountry guys. … I listened to their stories of home, of the gumbo and red beans and rice, jambalayas, crawfish boils, and fried catfish their mamas made.” Inspired by their memories and cravings, Onwuachi makes them “Grandma Cassie’s Shrimp Étouffée.” This recipe features Cajun flavors in its “blonde roux” and holy trinity (onion, celery, and bell pepper) and prizes the region’s seafood and shellfish; “Be careful not to overcook the shrimp,” Onwuachi cautions. Louisiana’s history of enslavement, segregation, and lynching draws a brutal color line, but cuisine reveals the kinship that racism denies. One of his white shipmates jokes, “I’m gonna smack my mama for what she’s been feeding me my whole life, ’cause your étouffée is ridiculous!”

Such racial parity, however tenuous or temporary, is not reflected in the high-end restaurant world. Onwuachi wins a coveted internship and runs into the blatant racism of an aggressive head chef, who assigns black chefs the dullest jobs and never promotes them. When Onwuachi decides to leave, the chef berates him for letting down culinary “ancestors” like Carême and Escoffier. Instead, Onwuachi claims a black diasporic history that connects him to Nigeria, the Caribbean, and the US South. Repurposing the idiom of haute cuisine to reflect his personal experiences and tastes, Onwuachi’s menu at the Shaw Bijou featured gourmet riffs on steak and eggs (beef cheek and quail eggs), chicken and rice from halal carts (lamb sweetbreads), and Butterfinger bars (mignardise).


A Black Counternarrative

By Jehan Roberson

Fishman, Reichl, and Onwuachi all propose that a meal should tell a personal story—a perhaps predictable thesis for foodoirists, whose genre depends upon the premise that recipes and reminiscences have something essential in common. Their therapeutic message, however, threatens to reproduce an all-too-American myth that producing and consuming exquisitely can elevate the value of an exceptional life. These narratives are most powerful when they connect the individual to the collective, the drive for accomplishment to the thirst for communion.

When they turn to trauma and solidarity, these memoirs recall M. F. K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf (1942), which both teaches readers to cook cheaply and well during wartime and offers a philosophy of food as spiritual as well as physical sustenance. Baking bread, Fisher counsels, “will make you feel, for a time at least, newborn into a better world than this one often seems.” In these anxious and uncertain times, these writers find that it is hunger, rather than satiety, that unites us.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus and Liz Bowen. icon

Featured image: Chef (2009). Photograph by Steve Snodgrass / Flickr