After suffering a brain aneurysm at age 28, Jessica Fechtor found herself mostly physically healed, yet utterly disoriented. Multiple surgeries had left her brain clear of “problem areas,” but also caused the loss of her sense of smell and the sight in her left eye. And while she was “aggressively grateful” to have survived the medical ordeal, Fechtor still yearned to resume the life she loved: her graduate studies at Harvard, her still-new marriage, and the hours she spent in her Cambridge kitchen, cooking and baking for her husband and her friends.
“Getting well means finding your everyday,” Fechtor explains in her gorgeously written memoir, Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home. “I found mine in the kitchen.”
First came clear chicken soup and fresh raspberries, the latter eaten with her fingers in a Vermont hospital bed. Later, she propped herself up in a kitchen chair, watching as her loved ones prepared her favorite meals. Gradually, Fechtor ventured back into the kitchen, rediscovering “the protective powers of kneading, salting, sifting, and stirring, because you can’t be dead and do these things.” Later, she started a food blog, Sweet Amandine, sharing recipes and exploring the ways that food – the preparing and the eating of it, the vivid taste memories and the physical acts of cooking – connect us deeply to ourselves and those we love.
Fechtor weaves together the story of her illness and recovery with wry humor and plenty of recipes. Every food story is also about connection: Fechtor writes about baking almond cake with her stepmother Amy, apple pie with her grandmother Louise, challah bread for the Friday-night Shabbat dinners she co-hosted with her husband, Eli. “It seemed whenever I’d enter the kitchen, I’d discover a story,” Fechtor explains. “The stories I remembered, the stories I made, let me know there was a life beyond the narrow world of recovery.”
“To admit change was to admit defeat, I thought,” Fechtor writes near the book’s end. She was, she realized, loath to admit “that I had allowed myself to be carried off by the current of this terrible thing.” Sitting on a Berlin balcony with a bowl of baked apricots on her lap, Fechtor finally accepted the truth: her illness had changed her, like it or not. “I had tried to resist the idea of a before and an after,” she admits. But as the process of cooking and eating changes both the ingredients and the cook, Fechtor’s traumatic experience and its aftermath had changed her. She couldn’t go back, and she gradually realized she didn’t want to.
“When you’re cooking, you’re alive,” Fechtor writes. “You’ve got no choice.” Luckily for her readers, Fechtor has chosen to share her story – and it, too, is rich, delicious and utterly alive.
Have you read Stir? We’d love to hear what you think — please share in the comments below. Thanks!
Link to buy Stir at your local independent bookstore (we love them!) or at Indiebound by clicking here.