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'Eat Joy': Top Authors Serve Up Recipes That Gave Them Comfort In Dark Times

In a new book of essays, literary luminaries share stories of surviving dark times and the foods tied to those memories. Think of it as a cathartic dinner party.
Meryl Rowin
In a new book of essays, literary luminaries share stories of surviving dark times and the foods tied to those memories. Think of it as a cathartic dinner party.

Natalie Eve Garrett isn't sure exactly which shelf at a bookstore her new book would belong on. She says it "probably wouldn't be at home among cookbooks," although it does contain recipes. Maybe memoir? Self-help? Literary essays?

Garrett's new collection, Eat Joy: Stories & Comfort Food from 31 Celebrated Writers, is a multi-genre, illustrated work of food writing. Literary luminaries like Claire Messud, Colum McCann and Lev Grossman share personal essays and an associated recipe. In that sense, the book takes a page from Garrett's 2016 anthology, The Artists' and Writers' Cookbook: A Collection of Stories with Recipes, which paired writing and recipes from big names in the world of arts and letters.

The premise behind the new book, Garrett says, is a group of writers "coming together to make something delicious out of darkness." In Eat Joy, Edwidge Danticat gives a recipe for white rice like the simple dish she and her mother served her father three days before he died. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shares a remembrance of a young boy who worked for her family who was later killed by a land mine, and his recipe for jollof rice. Diana Abu-Jaber offers a recipe for za'atar bi zayt (za'atar in oil) and her Palestinian aunt's recollection of eating wild za'atar leaves to stay alive in 1948 as she and her family were forced out of their village by soldiers in the war that led to the creation of the state of Israel.

We spoke with Garrett about the process of bringing it all together.

You write in the introduction that food is a "conduit for unearthing memories." Can you elaborate on that a little?

Food can be such a lovely way into the heart of a story, you know — the sound or the smell of garlic in a pan. There's something about the sensory memories that really can pull us back into our childhood, or things we ate in times of celebration, or times of grief. It has a way of summoning up our past. A lot of cherished memories are times when someone created something for you and gave you this nourishing thing.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

The concept started in 2016. Back then the world was feeling pretty dark, and layered on top of that, a loved one received a diagnosis that we knew would pretty dramatically change their life and mine. Sometimes when we're faced with adversity we rise to it, and sometimes we tumble into bed and curl up in a ball — and that was a curl-up-in-a-ball kind of time for me.

In that wallowing, I had a vision of the most cathartic dinner party I could ever imagine, where everyone laughed and cried and shared the stories of the hard times in their lives, and how they somehow managed to make it through.

So that dream dinner party became the book. To me, the book sort of embodies that idea of coming together to make something delicious and beautiful — and joyful — out of darkness.

The book does have — if not a darkness to it, at least a heaviness. These stories are rich. Did you know so many of the stories the authors submitted were going to be about these fairly dark themes, like addiction, eating disorders and war?

I didn't ask them for their favorite food memories, like I did for my last cookbook. It was more like, "Tell me about a time you went through something hard." I wanted stories of adversity and resilience and what helps us along the way. I think it can be so healing for people to hear that other people are going through hard times, too. Hearing these stories can be a source of light.

There was one reviewer who said the book was good but it that it has the worst title because there's no joy. But to me it is joyful — it's not happy, but I do feel like it is joyful.

What's the difference between joy and happiness?

I think of happiness as being something that we're always chasing — the right person, the right job — external things. To me, joy is quieter, more internal, and we often find it in simple moments along the way. Like in Claire Messud's essay [in the book], where she writes about her mother, who experienced so much disappointment and loneliness in her life, yet finds solace in the little things.

I think this is part of why cooking and eating can trigger joy. Food pulls us into the moment, and reminds us of our senses and all that we have to be grateful for. Even in — or maybe especially in — dark times.

And that feeling of gratitude for the little pleasures is in itself healing. Sometimes I think you have to experience the dark times in order to really see clearly, and experience joy.

It's like sugar and caramel. They're the same thing, but for caramel there's something extra sweet that comes from the burning. These stories aren't sugar stories — they're caramel stories.

Yeah, definitely. These are caramel stories; I like that. It's like the lemon on the cover — I had the saying, "When life gives you lemons..." in mind when I made the book, but I didn't know the illustrator was going to do that, and I think it's perfect.

How do you imagine people reading this book? Do you imagine people following the recipes? Some of them are kind of odd, in a delightful way.

I see the recipes as being kind of — not the function of the book, but an additional gift to the reader. Like, here's a story of a really hard thing the contributor went through and they're sharing it with you, and it's intimate and they came out on the other end, and now here's a gift. It might be as simple as Anthony Doerr's recipe for brownie mix, and sitting on the floor eating it with his fingers in a rush of sugar and comfort — which to me is such a moving and very relatable image, and such a poignant moment.

Some of the recipes are very recipe-esque. Very traditional. And others are more conversational. Like Porochista Khakpour's recipe for tahdig — the story and the recipe are all one thing. In her recipe she says, "Every tahdig is uniquely its own mess. That to me seems apt for the Persian psyche as well." I love these lines.

And I like that the book has a lot of short recipes, too. I think sometimes that's what we need most of all. Sometimes, with really complicated recipes, I'm like "I 100 percent want to eat that but I do not want to make it." But cooking doesn't all have to be that way. It's OK to have it be easy. Maybe you'll even burn it a little bit, and that's still fine.

Emily Vaughn is an intern on NPR's Science Desk.

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