The Art of the Meal

Eat Joy: Stories & Comfort Food from 31 Celebrated Writers edited by Natalie Eve Garrett. Black Balloon. 208 pages. $22.

Celebrities endlessly publicize what they eat—supermodel Chrissy Teigen’s two ​New York Times b​est-selling cookbooks feature her face, which is also her job, on the covers and throughout the books; Snoop Dogg’s cookbook promises “platinum recipes,” as if his success began on the plate; Stanley Tucci’s preface for ​The Tucci Cookbook c​ites his family’s Italian cooking as the inspiration for his directorial debut​. ​According to this logic, stardom starts in the stomach. Celebrities’ signature dishes are cruel invitations for the lowly fan to try and elevate their mundane body to a higher plane.

Eat Joy​, a collection of thirty-one essays and recipes by well-known writers—including Jeffery Renard Allen, Carmen Maria Machado, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—seemingly fits into this eat-like-a-celeb canon. But, rather than presenting the recipes and essays as mini-manuals for literary success, the collection chronicles “the hard times . . . and the foods that help them make it through,” as Natalie Eve Garrett writes in the introduction. There’s a crisis at the center of every story: A father’s lung tissue grows thick with scars, a family flees their home country, spouses leave, someone starts eating pills for breakfast. Still, eating has to happen—even if you’re busy nursing a parent with dementia or so heartbroken you can’t swallow. Here, meals aren’t aspirational or fuel for better sentences. They rarely, if ever, soften the crisis. Instead they’re an inconvenient bodily necessity, like blowing your nose.

Garrett divides the book into four sections: “growing pains,” “loss,” “healing,” and “homecoming.” (Of course, essays under “healing” invariably involve “loss” and essays about “homecoming” often reconcile a “growing pain.”) The more pronounced division is: Do you want to eat or do you just need to keep your body going? I preferred the pieces in the latter group, like Laura van den Berg’s “Comfort with Eggs.” She prefaces her foray into frittata making with an anecdote about pacing off the calories in every “extra” grape she consumed throughout her teenage and young-adult years. But the essay focuses on a decade or two later, when she tends to her bedridden mother for a month after she’s had knee-replacement surgery. Van den Berg’s mom, dazed from pain meds and sick of the frozen food her daughter serves, asks for “something warm and light.” The author, still a hesitant cook, prepares a spinach and feta frittata from a recipe on the Food Network’s website. But the story isn’t a simple triumph. Her frittata is not a sign that she has conquered her adolescent eating disorder enough to nourish herself and her pain-addled mother. Van den Berg still knows the exact number of calories in an egg and admits that “the ghost of the person who believed it was right and reasonable to starve herself to death will never fully leave me.” She mostly chooses the recipe because it’s “easy-sounding,” not because it seems delicious. In the final anecdote, Van den Berg’s mom eats a whole slice of frittata while her own appetite, absent throughout the essay, continues to slip out of the narrative. She details the chore of mincing vegetables and cracking eggs but withholds a description of the payoff. There’s some joy in eating, but it’s displaced: It’s in watching her loved ones eat.

Meryl Rowin
Meryl Rowin

If Eat Joy​ recalls the most famous cookbook of all, ​the Joy of Cooking,​ the title can also sound like a command. A few essayists test this command’s elasticity, stretching it until it snaps: Alissa Nutting goes a few days without eating but eventually must sip juice so she doesn’t pass out at work; Emily Raboteau swallows her stepmother’s congee because she can’t subsist on herbs and acupuncture alone. The priciest way to discern the smallest amount of food you can possibly live on is, of course, to buy a cleanse. In Alexander Chee’s contribution, his brother, a financier obsessed with raw foods, gifts Chee a five-day cleanse for his birthday. The menu is made of the obscure foods left over when you cut out unhealthy staples like milk, sugar, and meat. As Chee writes, the cleanse “sells a fantasy of a pristine world apart from this one,” one in which the author can live on juice, smoothies, and Himalayan moss. But chasing this ethereal promise pulls him back into banal reality. Chee notes that the bathroom is “your new favorite place during a cleanse.” Overpriced moss and juice can’t liberate him from that fact, let alone turn his body into an effortlessly self-regenerating machine.

Chee’s essay was one of my favorites in the collection, but after reading about endless trips to the bathroom and the ever-increasing amount of toxins in our food and air, I wasn’t very hungry. Many of the essays in the collection slice open the term ​comfort food ​to expose the discomfort at the center—the lingering sharpness an eater wants to dull. This sustained attention to​ discomfort livens the familiar phrase but it also makes food sound as appetizing as a limp peanut butter sandwich that fell out of a kid’s backpack. Often, food is ​part​ of the discomfort—a tangled knot the best essays here refuse to completely untangle. Take, for example, Melissa Febos’s “Long Sleeves.” In the beginning, Febos, a life-long vegetarian, debones a twelve-pound pork shoulder while kneeling on the floor of her Brooklyn apartment. She plans to cook it for her boyfriend—a florid attempt to nurture their anemic relationship back to health. Trying to stop something from disintegrating bogs her down in flesh: There was blood on her hands as she looked down at the “disassembled raw meat.” She huddles, she wrestles, she flays. But the pork shoulder disappears for most of the essay—the memories of her burgeoning romance are filled with faux-chicken cutlets and vegan fried chicken. The hunk of meat only returns in the final few paragraphs as a nauseating reminder of Febos’s “doomed” effort to “stay inside a life that didn’t quite fit.” The slow-roasted pork recipe that accompanies the essay reads more like a provocation than a suggestion. If you really want to taste her heartbreak you must stick your hands in pig flesh.

Most of the recipes in the collection are simple—white rice cooked in coconut milk, green juice, roasted sweet potatoes. Many aren’t even recipes at all—store-bought labneh with store-bought pita bread, Duncan Hines Chewy Fudge Family Style Brownie mix (the author instructs the reader to scoop the raw batter directly into their mouths with their fingers), canned tomato soup mixed into Kraft Mac & Cheese. These aren’t foods you’d consult a book to prepare, and they definitely won’t make you famous. But a handful of essays are sure to satiate the reader.

Jensen Davis is a writer and former Bookforum intern.