Literary Hub

What Makes Good Comfort Food? Writers in Conversation

A few years ago, in the midst of a dark time in my life, I conjured the most cathartic imaginary dinner party—one where everyone laughed and cried and ate comforting foods by candlelight, sharing memories of hard times and how they somehow made it through.

My dream dinner party ultimately became Eat Joy: Stories and Comfort Food from 31 Celebrated Writers, a feast of personal stories that offer nourishment, healing, and grace. Each story is accompanied by a recipe from the writer’s own kitchen. What remains most compelling to me—and I think what drew many contributors towards the project—is the way in which Eat Joy embodies the idea of coming together to make something delicious and joyful out of darkness. And isn’t that what writers and artists do best?

Four of the book’s contributors—Mira Jacob, Maile Meloy, Emily Raboteau, and Diana Abu-Jaber—came together to discuss their experience of summoning memories of dark times via food, the things they eat when no one’s watching, their dream dinner parties, and much more.

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Natalie Eve Garrett: What are some of your favorite food memories?

Mira Jacob: Nothing makes me feel better than taking an afternoon nap and waking up to the smell of cooking. It means, among other things, that someone besides me is awake, and in charge, and willing to feed me.

Emily Raboteau: After I gave birth, my friend Miranda brought me several tupperware containers of homemade food, including black bean soup, with instructions on how to reheat, so that we needn’t worry about cooking in those early sleepless weeks.

Diana Abu-Jaber: My favorites are also about other people cooking for me, though mine are more about my own childhood. My father cooked on the weekends, when he made Middle Eastern dishes—stews and rice dishes and roasts with garlic that took whole afternoons to cook. I have many sense memories of waking from naps to the smell of his roast lamb that suffused the whole house and seemed to work its way into my dreams.

Maile Meloy: My mother’s French-Canadian family eats tourtières on Christmas and New Year’s Day. They’re pies based on a medieval French recipe: ground pork spiced with cinnamon and cloves, in a flaky crust, served for breakfast with pickle spears. People who marry into our family are mostly weirded out by tourtières, but the pie makers, spread out in different cities, get competitive, and trash-talk each other by text thread all of Christmas Day.

NvG: Have you written about food before?

MJ: My first novel is basically a dinner scene interrupted by a few decades and some really good fights.

“Cooking feels restorative to me only when I have enough time to do it properly and lovingly.”

MM: I put my great-grandmother’s pancakes in another cookbook before I wrote about them for Eat Joy—I have a limited food repertoire. Then my brother tweaked the recipe and made it better. I made fun of my mom’s anti-inflammatory muffins in Natalie’s The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook, even though I love those muffins. In general, I don’t write about food unless the characters in a novel absolutely need to eat.

ER: I had not written about food in this way before. I found it a really good way to enter into writing about relationships.

DAJ: Right? Food is an amazing prism—I love the way it draws on the senses and gives my writing more focus and life. I tend to integrate food and cooking either as a metaphor in novels or as a literal thematic construct in memoirs. I’ve written many recipes as well, but I find them challenging—they’re so measured, almost scientific—very different from the improvisational way I learned to cook from my parents.

NvG: Do you usually cook from recipes?

MM: I can bake all the things a fifth-grader can bake. My favorite recipes have five ingredients. More than that makes me nervous.

DAJ: A nice, short recipe is a thing of beauty! I love recipes for inspiration and have a little Pinterest problem that way (dovetailing with my chocolate problem). I frequently recipe surf, do mash-ups, and improv. But it’s almost an article of faith with me to never take a recipe literally, even with baking. I’m compelled to put my own spin on things. Also, I think of recipes as a sort of western/new world phenomenon. I don’t know anyone in the Middle East who cooks from recipes. When I used to ask my father to transcribe some of his dishes he thought that was hilarious.

NvG: I am the same way, Diana. For me, recipes are a starting point; it’s hard for me not to rebel against rules, even if it’s just adding a half teaspoon of cardamom to oatmeal raisin cookies (always a good idea by the way). Speaking of cookies: do you have a favorite comfort food?

DAJ: Mine has always been chocolate, although my relationship with it has gotten more complicated, along with my relationship to sugar in general.

MJ: Sev puri at a chaat house with chai, naturally.

ER: Cheese.

MM: I sometimes make clafoutis, a sort of flan-cake baked in a pie plate with cherries. (The five ingredients are eggs, milk, flour, sugar, cherries.) The French recipes say to leave the pits in the cherries for the taste, but I think it’s because it’s easier not to pit them—it seems very French to make an aesthetic virtue of a shortcut. You just have to warn guests so they don’t break their teeth.

“My favorite alone food is an artichoke that I don’t have to share with anyone else.”

NvG: I love clafoutis too, for both its ease and deliciousness (though I avoid the pit problem by using plums or peaches; non-traditional but tasty). A brief pivot away from food: what sorts of  non-food-related rituals do you have during dark times?

DAJ: Yoga and morning walks. I started after a doctor told me I had high blood pressure and needed to do something besides sitting at a desk staring at a screen. I felt pretty sorry for myself at first, but after I started, I discovered unexpected pleasure in movement. The repetition of strolling and moving in and out of poses reminds me of the way cooking takes me out of mental static, to quieter places in myself. It’s unexpectedly freeing, like taking yourself on imaginative journeys.

ER: Running before dawn. Cooking feels restorative to me only when I have enough time to do it properly and lovingly, which is nearly never because I am always behind on deadlines. My husband cooks 95 percent of our family meals. I recently attempted an apple cake recipe that my agent shared, and failed two times—first because I forgot to add sugar, and then because I forgot the second attempt was in the oven, and burnt it.  By the end of the enterprise I was drained and depressed.  Both those fails happened because I was distracted by worry and not paying attention. I had to scrape off the burnt parts and feed it to my son in a pathetic lump.  It was not cathartic at all.  That cake was an exact mirror of my stress, dumped dejectedly onto my poor child’s plate.

MJ: I draw. I also replace all the threadbare household items that need replacing. It’s amazing (embarrassing?) how a new bathroom rug will make me feel like I’m taking really good care of myself.

MM: Wandering around in a funk. Also baths.

NvG: Do you have a favorite alone-food—something you eat when no one’s watching? And what about the opposite: a go-to dish that you make for celebrations?

ER: My favorite alone food is an artichoke that I don’t have to share with anyone else. For celebrations: four-cheese mac and cheese.

MJ: When I am sick, I eat Spaghettios. I know. But it makes me feel better. For celebrations: Rosemary Garlic Pork Loin with Apple Green Chile Chutney.

DAJ: Peanut butter cups. To continue with my problematic chocolate theme. And to celebrate: lamb shish kabob and chocolate cake (there I go again).

MM: I have a problem with peanut butter cups, too. And I don’t cook much for celebrations—I horn in on other people’s. When I have to bring something, I make oatmeal-cherry-pecan cookies, from a friend’s recipe. It never lets me down.

NvG: What’s the weirdest thing in your fridge right now?

ER: Pedialyte. It looks like motor oil. Our son is sick.

DAJ: Some experimental gummy bears my daughter and I attempted to make using this hippie collagen powder, which I’m pretty sure is going to fail.

MM: A jar of chokecherry jelly given to me by the woman who had bought my grandfather’s childhood house, who showed me around it when I stopped by. She had a prepper’s pantry of preserved food: pickled vegetables and canned elk. She was also missing some fingers from a bout of flesh-eating bacteria. I know the jelly is probably perfectly safe, but I can’t bring myself to eat it or throw it away.

MJ: Not weird but notable: about 17 kinds of hot sauce.

NvG: Last question: how would you describe your dream dinner party?

ER: I used to have dream-like dinners during a residency at MacDowell with two older Irish women writers—the late Nuala O’Faolain and Polly Devlin. They were wickedly funny and moderately drunk and would often break into song. When I imagine a dream dinner now, it’s one that does not involve the urgent nightmare discussion of the climate crisis. (I’ve been forcing the subject at dinner parties all year, at the risk of becoming unpopular, because I learned a statistic that only a third of us in the US talk about it at all. In fact, I’m writing a strange book about those dinner conversations, and what we ate. It’s called The Last Supper.) Also: an evening in which I’m not responsible for the cooking or the cleaning up.

DAJ: I second the cleaning up! Also, great wine, a small group of lively thinkers— no over-talkers or sulkers—and good eaters, a nice night, maybe outside with candles, and no mosquitos. And dessert.

MM: I want to go to Diana’s party! I’ll do dishes.

MJ: I’ll want to go to Diana’s party, too! I will do the eating. (I am very good at eating.)

NvG: Diana, I think we’re all crashing your dream dinner party—I hope that’s okay. I’ll bring chocolate peanut butter cups for everyone.

DAJ: Hooray! Don’t forget to bring your sunglasses. There will be mango margaritas by the pool to start.

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Mira Jacob is the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing and the graphic memoir Good Talk. Her recent work has appeared in The New York Times, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Vogue, and Glamour, among others. She lives, draws, and writes in Brooklyn with her husband and son.

Maile Meloy is the author of the novels Do Not Become Alarmed, Liars and Saints, and A Family Daughter; the story collections Half in Love and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, which was named one of The New York Times’ Best Books of the Year; and the Apothecary middle-grade trilogy. She has received The Paris Review’s Aga Khan Prize, the PEN/Malamud Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Rosenthal Family Foundation Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Born in Helena, Montana, she now lives in Los Angeles.

Emily Raboteau’s books are The Professor’s Daughter and Searching for Zion, winner of an American Book Award. Other distinctions include a Pushcart Prize, the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award, and fellowships from NEA, NYFA, and the Lannan Foundation. Her short fiction and essays have been widely published in such places as The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Believer, McSweeney’s, Freeman’s, The Guardian, and Guernica. She teaches creative writing at The City College of New York, in Harlem.

Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of two memoirs: Life Without a Recipe—an Indie Next title—and The Language of Baklava, as well as four award-winning novels, including Birds of Paradise, Origin, Crescent, and Arabian Jazz. Her YA fantasy novel SilverWorld is forthcoming next year. Diana teaches at Portland State University and lives with her husband and daughter in Fort Lauderdale.

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eat joyEat Joy: Stories & Comfort Food from 31 Celebrated Writers, ed. by Natalie Eve Garrett, is out now via Catapult.

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