Review: “Stir” by Jessica Fechtor

Jessica Fechtor has authored her food blog, Sweet Amandine, for six years now. So writing a memoir-meets recipe book? No problem, right? From the outset of Stir, Fechtor’s got one thing straight: a mix of brain surgeries and food memories should make for a less-than-delicious story. Instead, a measured balance of love, fear, and repair pours out of the pages with flavors trickling through in the slightest, most subtle ways. Despite its near-tragic beginning, Stir is a feel-good read.

Through her clean-cut blog, Fechtor shares the fruits of her escape-to-the-kitchen therapy. Now, Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home serves up the messy back-story, beginning with an aneurism that set the author’s life on hold. Although she struggles to stand for more than moments at a time post-surgery, Fechtor thirsts for access to the kitchen. She craves the ability to make something out of nothing; to follow straightforward directions amidst the chaos that a busted artery brought into her life.

My kitchen smells really good right now. #stirthebook and tea from @sixdepot. XoxoS

A post shared by Suzi Banks Baum (@suzibb) on

 

Though comparisons to Susannah Cahalan’s memoir about her own neurological fight for life are common, Stir is no Brain on Fire horror show. Without the freaky psychological remapping of a hospital time forgotten, Fechtor shares the opposite of a graphic surgery memoir. The investigative journalism dynamic isn’t there. Instead, it’s a meditation on regaining a sense of self through doing something for pure enjoyment. For Fechtor, that’s cooking, and of course, eating.

A better comparison would be to Kate Christensen’s Blue Plate Special, sparked with childhood joys and melancholy memories of growing up and moving, moving, moving all over the country. As with Christensen’s own blog, every chapter of Blue Plate Special is touched by food. For Fechtor, pinning down a particular comforting flavor helped her to make her sense of home tangible, too. Moving from place to place, between her parents’ houses, to NYC college dorms, apartments, and eventually to Harvard’s neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts, an almond flavor works its way into her hands. With a single taste of a Boston bakery’s almond macaroon, a childhood sprinkled with amaretto cookies and almond cakes rushes back to her brain. These delicate connections ground her in her recovery.

Fechtor’s story is as thick with tales of relationships as with cooking. She weaves in vignettes about leading choir rehearsals with her now-husband, baking cakes without occasion in her step-mom’s kitchen, and her friend, Rebecca’s uncanny ability to predict the future.

In fact, the story speaks more to the people who accompanied Fechtor’s recovery – doctors, friends, and family – than any heaping, paragraph-long food descriptions or ingredient lists. But that’s the point. You have to meet the characters behind the recipes before receiving measurements and instructions at the end of each chapter. They go hand-in-hand with one another, really: meals and the people with whom we share them. In Stir, food mixes with conversation at the table, over the stove, or even at Dairy Queen.

Fechtor celebrates food’s small healing powers, all with a slight sense of humor. “Dried cherries, though!” she’ll exclaim over their sweetness. She urges you to sink your teeth into pistachio-sprinkled baked apricots and sip on a creamy asparagus soup to see if your day didn’t just turn a little sweeter. Fechtor writes that, “A good recipe makes you brave.” It’s an optimistic observation during a years-long struggle to regain her normal life, and it rings true in book form: a wonderful wrap to a life-threatening challenge.

If you work through the book’s 27 recipes too quickly, find many more years’ worth at Sweet Amandine.

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