October 23, 2018

‘Stir’: How a food blogger cooked her way back to wellness

In 2008, when 28-year-old Jessica Fechtor fell off a treadmill after an aneurysm in her brain ruptured, writing a food memoir was the last thing on her mind — literally. At the time, she had just begun a doctoral program in Yiddish studies at Harvard University, but in the following years of multiple brain surgeries and recovery, creating the Sweet Amandine food blog became a source of happiness and fulfillment she had not imagined before her devastating illness.

Fechtor’s new book, “Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home” (Avery), now a New York Times best seller, lyrically charts this unusual experience and her response to it — with her meaningful recipes included (think perfect roast chicken inspired by a friend who cooked it for her, or Cleveland cassata cake, a complicated strawberry-custard layer cake she mastered as she gained strength). Fechtor spoke by phone as she prepared her weekly Shabbat challah.  

Lara Rabinovitch: Tell me about your no-knead challah recipe in “Stir.” 

Jessica Fechtor: It’s a no-knead recipe, but it’s not “no-knead” in the sense of the famous Jim Lahey [known for his Sullivan Street Bakery’s recipe for No-Knead Bread]. You can make this challah while you’re talking on the phone, straightening up the kitchen, etc. Every half-hour, for a couple of hours, you just fold it in a bowl eight times over into the middle, and then you just leave it until Friday afternoon, when you shape it and bake it.

LR: As your food blog didn’t mention your aneurysm, how did the idea for this book come about?

JF: I started writing Sweet Amandine as a way of creating an aneurysm-free zone. I didn’t mention anything about the aneurysm, even though while I was writing it, I was sitting there with a partially missing skull and wearing a hockey helmet. But when it was time for a major surgery to repair my head — what I call “Humpty Dumpty Day” in the book — I couldn’t just say, “Gone fishin’!” So I wrote a post on the blog and said, “Here’s this thing that’s been happening behind the screen. …” After I posted that on Sweet Amandine, hundreds of tweets and comments and emails poured in, and it was then that I was approached about writing a book. 

LR: Are you in any way grateful about what happened to you because, in a way, as a result of your illness, you were birthed as a writer?

JF: I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason; only that things happen. And other things happen. And what we make of what happens becomes the reason. 

LR: “Stir” is about your aneurysm and your love of food, but it’s also a love story between you and your husband, Eli. Throughout the book, we read about how you met your husband, your young marriage and how Eli championed you through your recovery. What’s his perspective on your portrayal of him?

JF: He actually has not read the book. I’ve read various parts to him, but he always wanted to wait until the book came out to read it as a book — he wanted that to be his first experience with it. So he is now slowly making his way through it, and he loves it. We joked while I was writing this book: “Everyone’s going to think I’m a hero,” he would say, and I would respond, “But you are a hero!” 

LR: Why doesn’t he want to be a hero? 

JF: Throughout this whole thing, I always said — and I still believe — he had it way worse than me. His experience of going through my illness and recovery was a far more painful one than my experience lying in the bed. He thinks I’m crazy. But even with the pain, the agony and the terror of it, if something like this happened again — God forbid — in a heartbeat I’d choose to be the one in the bed rather than be the one having to watch. That said, Eli has always joked that when the movie [based on the book] is made, the role of Jessica will be played by Padma Lakshmi, and the role of Eli will be played by himself. 

LR: How were you able to re-create these events from your memory, especially when you were recovering from brain trauma? 

JF: I’m someone who remembers things, but it was actually the act of writing that unlocked my memory. Memory begins with a single sensory point or a memory of a feeling, and then writing helped me chip away
at that. Finding the words helped me remember. 

LR: It’s the Proustian madeleine effect. 

JF: Exactly. 

LR: What is your advice to other writers or other food writers specifically? 

JF: Read like crazy. Inspiration is everywhere. Read everything you can get your hands on, broadly. Don’t limit yourself to the genre you want to work in; there’s something to learn from everything out there. Pay attention to what you’re reading — when you laugh out loud, what moves you — and try to ask yourself, “Why?” 

LR: What’s your best writing tip?

JF: Read your work out loud to yourself. 

LR: Best cooking tip? 

JF: Use an oven thermometer.