Cottage cheese & cinnamon

Food nostalgia (and books and movies)

This comes later than newsletters past, as it’s been a rainy, gloomy, busy week. The sun burst forth as if in apology yesterday and I got to go for a long hike, which seems to have reset my internal dials somewhat.

Today I’m attempting to bake the famous Tartine country bread, at the suggestion of my friend Phyllis Grant (author of the gorgeous memoir-with-recipes Everything is Under Control). It’s a two-day affair and I’m on day two, still wondering whether it’s possible it’ll work. Phyllis is an actual food wizard and may have overestimated my capacities. While I wait for the timer to ding on my numerous proves and rises, I’m eating a snack my mother often ate when I was little: a pear, sliced into small bites, with cottage cheese, cinnamon, and golden raisins. My grandmother used to eat this too. My children find it gross, as do friends, and it’s perhaps too cold and viscid to count as a proper comfort food, but it is one of mine. I’ve been feeling real gratitude for my parents in the past eleven months. And the feeling is bound up with food memories and longings—my dad making fresh orange juice on a manual citrus squeezer some Sundays—maybe because I have cooked my way through despair this year.

This sent me back to Michelle Zauner’s lovely 2018 essay “Crying in H Mart”—soon to be a book; I can’t wait to read it—about grieving her mother in the aisles of the Asian grocery store, and the way a particular ease with cultural heritage is achieved through food. “I can hardly speak Korean, but in H Mart I feel like I’m fluent,” she writes. I feel the same way about the Russian and Eastern European-inflected Jewish foods passed down in my family, which impart a sense of true or natural Jewishness, at-homeness in my Jewishness, like nothing else. A kind of literacy. Sometime soon, I want to write about this gustatory legacy, and about the Jewish dairy restaurant my father’s side of the family owned on West 86th Street. I just ordered Ben Katchor’s The Dairy Restaurant to get started.

I thought about Jewishness and unease last night watching a documentary called Mayor about Musa Hadid, the charming, worldly mayor of Ramallah. I recommend the film, which offers an amusing view of the absurdity of daily life for a hands-on public servant in a struggling city (footage of discussions of “city branding” in council meetings alone may be worth the price of admission). But the levity is counterbalanced throughout by the indiscriminate encroachments of the Israeli army, including some soldiers who appear to be smirking as they shoot at protestors in the wake of Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Israeli forces killed dozens of protestors in the weeks following, and injured hundreds more. The film struggles to hang together a bit. Or rather, there is no connective tissue between the scenes of the mundane work of municipal governance and the horrifying high-drama moments of fear and chaos wrought by the Israeli army. But that may in fact be the point.

Last night I cried into my split pea soup as I read an email from a woman who’s reading my book. A stranger, but one who wrote me like a friend and said she felt like we were friends (I did too, reading the email) and that my story was so similar to hers it was kind of weird. It was a beautiful note. The line that made me cry was “your story makes me feel less alone and somehow less stupid.” Less stupid: no one has ever put it this way. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the shame of living with an addict and/or tolerating mistreatment or abuse and how fucked up it is that our culture both celebrates certain types of “wild” romance and also laughs at those who become ensnared in its darker variants. I spent a long time feeling stupid and embarrassed and those feelings fed my worst habits: drinking, isolating, secret-keeping.

I’ve long heard writers say that hearing from readers who were moved by their work is the best part of the job, and I thought yeah, that must be cool, but I did not at all anticipate how profound it would be. Especially in the case of a deeply personal book, one that risks inviting the horror, judgment, or disappointment of real people in one’s real life. It moves me deeply, always to tears, anytime I hear from someone who gets it, needs it, feels it in this way.

We can be so cruel to people we see as weak. Which may be why cultivating empathy for myself and others who are in situations similar to the one I was in feels not just emotionally or psychologically important to me now but also politically important. Radical. It takes strength to weather the storm of certain relationships and enormous strength to leave. I love every reader who is able to bring this kind of empathy to the story I lived and wrote about. We could all stand to feel a little less stupid.

[Somewhat relatedly, I’ve also been thinking lately about the films of my 1980s and 90s youth, in part because I want to watch some of them with my kids. So much of the “romance” in them was what we now understand to be stalking, gaslighting, or date rape. (Remember the end of Revenge of the Nerds?!) But I never felt bad for the girls in those movies. We were all socialized to see them as manipulative and to feel pity for the lovelorn guys—all was fair when they had a crush, or an urge. When they’d been “led on.” I know many people must have written about this; if anyone has anything particularly good to recommend, I’d love to read it.]

I finished Night Boat to Tangier and could write a dissertation on the absolutely heartbreaking and enraging masculinity at its center—the lazy self-loathing, the hunger for conquest, the quiet, defeatist emotional ineptitude that wrecks childhoods, breaks hearts, gives rise to petty rivalries, violent jealousies, world wars. Anyway, it flattened and enlivened me both. I fucking loved it. Barry’s writing is stunning. I wish the word stunning wasn’t thrown around so promiscuously—haphazardly, really—in book marketing copy because some books genuinely are and now we have no meaningful language left to say so!

I’m now reading Anne Serre’s The Governesses, a very odd little book about which I can’t yet gauge my feelings. Because I felt I needed to cleanse my palate with a more conventional, less gutting novel, I’m also reading Dominicana by Angie Cruz. Joke’s on me because it turns out it’s also about the torments of lopsided love and the cruelties of the world, in this case for a very young Dominican woman who emigrates to New York to be the child bride of a 32-year-old man. It’s based on the author’s mother’s life, which lends it even more gravity. But it’s richly detailed, warm and funny, and a very good escape from my living room. Instead of watching patchy clouds pass from the couch, I’m in a sixth-floor walk-up in Washington Heights in the 1960s, seeing snow fall outside the window. I’ll take it.

A few good things I read this week:

  • This excellent Marina Benjamin piece about writing and gender and bodies in The Paris Review

  • This fabulously tantalizing review of a forthcoming book about oil rigs and sleeping with your subjects in the London Review of Books

  • This Carmen Maria Machado piece in the New Yorker on Promising Young Woman and rape-revenge movies