Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

Hilarious, true to life writing. That's how I would describe Nora Ephron's novel, Heartburn. Ephron also wrote plays, essays, and screenplays, most notably When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and Julie & Julia.

Heartburn is a novel that is mostly autobiographical, and it was our Kitchen Reader pick for July. The narrator is a cookbook writer named Rachel whose life falls apart when she discovers her second husband is having an affair. Ephron somehow manages to make this a very funny book, while also being true to the pain of the situation, which mirrored her own life.

Although the plot revolves around Rachel's choices after her husband's affair, I was quite drawn to the description of Rachel's mother. Rachel's mother was a "good recreational cook" who used to impress her Hollywood colleagues with a casserole of lima beans and pears. But then her mother slowly went insane, which is narrated deadpan: "Later on, she got too serious about food - started making egg rolls from scratch, things like that - and one night she resigned from the kitchen permanently over a lobster Cantonese that didn't work out, and that was the beginning of the end."

Her mother's mental illness developed further and eventually she died before the main plot of the book. Rachel thinks it would be nice to be able to ask her mother "what a person who is seven months pregnant is supposed to do when her husband turns out to be in love with someone else," but realises her mother was never very nurturing. "She would probably have said something fabulously brittle like 'Take notes.' Then she would have gone into the kitchen and toasted almonds. You melt some butter in a frying pan, add whole blanched almonds, and sauté until they're golden brown with a few little burned parts. Drain lightly and salt and eat with a nice stiff drink."

When I reached this point in the book I leapt up to make the snack. I used cashews, fried in butter, and added a teaspoon of honey at the end. Except I started to take pictures of the nice little golden bits as they cooked and ended up with these scorched nuts.

Life is complicated, Ephron tells us in her novel. She took a tragic event in her own life and dealt with it by writing a hilarious book. Her mother dealt with struggles by turning to cliches and food. Either way, you have to deal with the burned bits around the edges of life.

I ate my cashew nuts even though they were effectively ruined. Actually they still tasted quite good. I even admit to wiping up some of the burned butter with my finger at the end. Life is full of comic and tragic events, all brought to us by the Creator, I believe. So let's choose to learn from all of them.

Do you turn to food during important life events?

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