Healing through Cooking and Writing | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

Healing through Cooking and Writing

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Four Authors Share Their Stories

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Studies have shown creative activities like cooking have a positive influence on one’s emotional health. For these four book authors, the combination of cooking and writing have been a healing journey connecting them with self and family. Each shares her story and the book that resulted.

Jessica Fechtor – Baking While Recovering from a Brain Injury

Jessica Fechtor was a 28-year-old newlywed and Harvard graduate student studying Jewish Literature when an aneurysm burst in her brain and nearly killed her while she was out for run. She lost her sense of smell, the sight in her left eye, and was sidelined from doing many of the things she enjoyed. But she never lost her passion for cooking, especially baking. Once she was physically able, Fechtor turned to the kitchen to restore her sense of normal and nourish her soul.

“Baking helped me feel like myself again at a time when I didn't feel much like myself at all! Also, making something, however small - a cake, a loaf of bread, a salad - at a time when I was feeling so broken, allowed me to believe again in my own creative, generative powers. Finally, baking for the family and friends who rallied around me and offered so much love and support, I was able to feel generous again, like I could participate in the relationships most important to me, and not just receive, receive, receive,” Fechtor said. 

Fechtor is author of the award- winning memoir, STIR: My Broken Brain and the Meals that Brought Me Home (Penguin Random House) which shares her struggles after facing a debilitating health setback and her road to recovery which began in the kitchen once she had the strength to stand at the stove and stir. The book itself stirs the notion of cooking as nourishment for both the spirit and body; it features 27 recipes, each with a story behind it.

Hannah Howard - Learning to Accept One’s Body

Hannah Howard always loved food, but said it also became an “entangled in a mess of fear and obsession” for her. She battled an eating disorder and negative body image which she tried to hide. Working at a high-profile New York City’s restaurant, dealing with complicated men and facing self-destructive obsessions comes to a head in Howard’s memoir Feast: True Love In and Out of the Kitchen (Little A). In the book, Howard peels away layers of emotion and learns to develop thicker skin and a stronger sense of self-worth by accepting the beautiful person she is inside and out.

Howard said writing a memoir about such an emotional topic was more difficult than she expected. “It was as if my hard-earned perspective had evaporated and left me back at age 18, full of self-loathing and despair. By the time Feast had endured its six rounds of edits, two rounds of copyedits, legal review, and proofreading, I had been through the emotional ringer.

“What has been therapeutic is getting to talk about my story with amazing readers, and getting to hear their own stories, struggles, and successes. We all need the reminder that we are not alone. And hearing that my story resonates with others is such a satisfying, powerful feeling.”

Celia Reiss: The Pie Connection

The memory of baking pies with her late mother inspired Celia Reiss to write Pie Day: Sharing a Mother’s Love in the Kitchen, a slim cookbook of pie recipes, each with a family story.  

Reiss’s mother, Evelyn, died suddenly from an aneurysm at age 45 when her daughter was just 17. Reiss took over cooking for the family, her father and three siblings, and she started baking to keep her mother’s traditions alive.  Although the idea to write a book started germinating many years ago, it was a memoir writing class she took at her synagogue two years ago that inspired her to start and self-publish Pie Day.

My mother baked everything, but pies were her signature dessert. She baked seven every Thanksgiving. She taught us how to bake from an early age, always letting us get our hands dirty. Baking and writing about my mother keeps her alive for me.  I feel as if I've spent the day with her.  It also allowed me to give my children a piece of her, even though they never met her,” Reiss said.

Miriam Green - Reflections and Recipes from an Alzheimer’s Caregiver

An award-winning poet who lives in Israel, Miriam Green stepped in to assist her father when her mother, Naomi Cohen, was diagnosed with advanced Alzheimer’s. Green’s book, The Lost Kitchen: Reflections and Recipes from an Alzheimer’s Caregiver (Black Opal Books) is filled with both humor and the hard reality that the parent who cared for you as a little girl is now dependent on you. Throughout the book, Green shares recipes and recollections that capture moments with her mother, both past and present.

The idea for “The Lost Kitchen started as a funny notion around her father’s newly gained cooking prowess, but it evolved into more. “I used the creation of a book to cope with the sudden changes in our lives: my dad was cooking because my mom no longer could. We were going to call it, The Man’s Emergency Cookbook. I soon realized that this vehicle was not broad or deep enough for me to express everything I needed to say. I kept the framework of a cookbook, but the focus was now on caring for my mom.”

Writing The Lost Kitchen has helped Green find clarity in a life she cannot always control. “Alzheimer’s has become a lens through which I view the world. But it doesn’t have to be a depressing view. There are amazing moments of joy and laughter that we’ve experienced. You just must work to find them. Alzheimer’s has taught me about what it means to live with illness, how crucial it is to embrace kindness, compassion, laughter, love, not only towards my mom, but towards myself,” she said.

RECIPES:

Marcella’s Butter Almond Cake - Jessica Fechtor

Chocolate Mousse Pie - Celia Reiss

The Cake - Miriam Green

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