Emily Nunn’s new book The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart is a memoir about a woman in the midst of grief. In the wake of her brother’s death, her fiancé breaks up with her and her life falls apart. What does she do? First, she moves toward health, going to rehab to get sober, but then she embarks on a “comfort food tour,” visiting friends around the country who have offered to host her (and cook for her) while she puts the pieces of her life back together.
I caught up with Emily for a sneak peek at her book and the lessons she learned along the way about connection, community, and love.
Tell me a little bit about your book?
Well, you know, it’s got a lot going on, but the premise of it was, I had this period in my life, years ago, where the top three or four things on that list of terrible things that can happen to you—I can’t remember the name of the chart—but about four or five of those happened to me, all within a couple of months. I just completely fell apart and I drank a bunch of wine and I got on Facebook, the way people do, and I complained about my life. I woke up the next day and I thought ‘oh my god, what have I done. I’m going to have lost half of my Facebook friends.’ Instead I had these amazing, incredible, warm notes from people—I mean hundreds of them—from friends that I hadn’t talked to in ages, some who were living across town from me, basically on my side, telling me they had a place for me if I needed it. It was like crying across the backyard fence with all your friends, or going down to the river to mourn—all of this kind of community on the internet. One of my old friends from college said ‘Well, you should just come with all of us and make comfort food—come visit us,’ and I was like ‘That’s a really good idea.’ So even though that didn’t happen immediately, and even though my life didn’t repair itself immediately—things got a little bit worse for a while, and that’s the reality of most situations like this, you don’t heal them with a comfort food tour—but that’s what I ended up doing. I ended up traveling around and staying with friends and cooking with them and they cooked for me or I cooked for them and some of them gave me favorite recipes and sometimes we just hung out, but it ended up turning into a real project for me and it was a real lifesaver, that part of the book, visiting so many old friends and friends also that I had actually never met before, some of them were friends from the ether that I had met through food sites. Meeting them in person was pretty amazing, and it turned into a book.
Obviously your book is about a lot more than food. Why did you choose food as a lens to explore heartbreak, family, and friendship?
Because at that point in my life it was kind of the only thing that I felt like I could count on. It actually makes me feel like crying saying that. I don’t know if I’ve ever really thought about that. I was a food writer at the Chicago Tribune and I had covered restaurants at The New Yorker magazine so food has always been a big part of my life, but it’s a way to connect and at that point in my life I felt so isolated and alone, despite the fact that these people were coming to me, I felt a little bit like I was in a jar and my trust was kind of shattered and my desire to be around other people was kind of shattered, but I knew that I needed to learn to trust people, I needed to connect. It’s the way that we all do connect, I mean our culture, you know, you meet for coffee, you meet for a hamburger, you meet for a glass of wine, you go to the zoo and you feed animals. We’re a food culture. I mean sitting at the table with people you love, there’s nothing like it, and there’s nothing like it with strangers either, so it turned out to be really perfect and natural.
At the beginning of the book, you had a hard time believing that you were worthy of love, even from yourself, what changed along the way and what are some of the ways you’ve learned to show yourself love?
I wish I had an easy answer for you but my path back from heartbreak, in many different ways not just a love relationship, but other areas of my life was hard for a while. I actually avoided it as long as I could. I avoided grieving, I avoided facing the heartbreak but you know it was a really gradual process and for me it actually took a really, really long time.
But as far as taking care of myself, there was this night, a really clear night, with moon and stars and I was outside and I was drinking coffee even though it was night time and I looked up and I could see the stars—I was out in the country and I just had this feeling that I was going to be okay, and it had been a long long time since I had thought I was going to be okay. I struggled for a long time. But I trusted that, I just chose to believe in it and I hung on to it.
As far as changing my habits, I had to ease into it, of course, but I think it was the people connection. I had to cook for other people before I could cook for myself, and that eventually led me to cooking for myself. I cook for myself all the time now. Back then, I stopped doing things that were harmful first. What I would do is I would force myself to accept love from people who were offering it to me. I forced myself to be aware of other people, that I wasn’t alone in the world, that nobody really is. It is partly your responsibility to not feel that way. It was really hard for me to accept things from other people, and I forced myself to do it. That’s part of what the comfort food tour is about—making myself accept love. I think if you didn’t learn to do it as a kid I think you kind of have to teach yourself.
The comfort food tour was at at least in part a way to break unhealthy relational habits that you had. Would you talk a little bit about that process?
First of all, of course you have to be aware of it. When something happens in a dysfunctional family like mine, the patterns develop so early that you don’t notice for a long time that you are picking people like your family. If your family is, say narcissistic, or if your family is very shut down—if you have very reserved parents, I think you pick a very reserved guy. I think I’ve done that in my life and it didn’t really dawn on me to the degree that I needed it to until everything fell apart. When it felt like nobody in my life was really there for me, they were worried about how my break down made them look or made them feel, but I didn’t get a lot of support—it was a wake-up call. I was able to except certain kinds of ways of relating that might not be exactly the healthiest kind, they didn’t seem abnormal to me. So having everything split wide open the way it did really opened my eyes. I don’t recommend my method, it would be better to go to a good therapist, but I had it thrust upon me. I wasn’t going around saying ‘I wonder why I feel funny all the time?’ until the bad things came to visit.
Not everybody can take quite so elaborate a comfort food tour in the wake of the end of a relationship or in the midst of grief. What advice would you give to those wanting to experience a similar journey in their own lives?
First of all, anybody can cook. I say this in the book again and again: making a sandwich for somebody is cooking and there’s a saying: the best damn sandwich is the one someone else makes for you. It’s such a special thing to do for somebody. It’s just incredibly healing.
If you’re single and all your friends have families, you have to say: ‘Can I come and have family night with you? Can I be at your table?’ You have to say to your friends: ‘I want to meet people, I want you to set me up. I want to come to your house for dinner. I want to be with you. I know you have a family. When can you and I go for coffee?’ Whatever it is, you have to make yourself a part of other people’s families, and not get your feelings hurt if they are like: ‘No, this is family time,’ but you have to kind of sing above your voice in terms of getting the love you need.
What was your greatest take away from living this story and writing this book?
For me personally it was that I could survive anything, that no matter how far down I fell in so many different ways I could pick myself up and keep going. I could continue on some sort of path but that to do that I had to connect to other people.
When I was writing the book and not quite sure what I was trying to say I think what I wanted was to make sure that people knew that there was a way out of a deep hole—that when you feel like you’re being pushed just further and further down and you feel hopeless that you can get out—it does happen eventually.
The food lens is a really important aspect of it, but I think it applies to anybody’s life, especially when talking about relationships. You have to find a window into relating to other people, you have to get outside yourself and that can be really difficult. I wanted to show people that no matter how dysfunctional your family is, no matter how horrible a thing has happened in your life, not just to you but to other people in your family, or your friends, I guess it’s about finding your inner strength and connecting. I guess that was kind of the point of the book.
Cara Strickland writes about food and drink, mental health, faith and being single from her home in the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys hot tea, good wine, and deep conversations. She will always want to play with your dog. Connect with her on Twitter @anxiouscook.