Former New Yorker editor Emily Nunn has always loved food. It’s what brought her often dysfunctional family together, what propelled her to pursue a writing career as a journalist and food critic, and what helped her heal from one of the most traumatic experiences in her life.
Nunn’s new book, The Comfort Food Diaries, follows the author as she travels the country, visiting old friends and relatives, cooking with them and sharing memories. The journey began as a way for Nunn to reclaim her life after the loss of her brother to suicide, the dissolution of her relationship with her fiancé, and her relapse, when she used alcohol to numb the pain.
“When you’re an alcoholic, turning to alcohol is the equivalent of giving up,” Nunn tells Guideposts.org. “You use it not to ease the pain but to block it entirely, so that you do not have to process it. Or that’s the way it has always seemed to me.”
The death of her brother, the loss of her job, and the end of her relationship left Nunn homeless with no money and a huge amount of grief she didn’t know how to process.
“I had been in rehab once before and sober for many years, but I had slowly begun to dabble in drinking,” Nunn explains. “When my brother died, I went straight back to my worst habits. I gave up and because of that, I also lost my self-respect.”
Nunn checked herself into a Betty Ford clinic with the aim of getting sober again, and along with that, she rediscovered her love for food and her need for familial connection. She began to truly mourn her brother and her old way of life. Then, she made a decision to visit the people most important to her.
“When I finally embarked upon my many trips to visit friends and family and a few cooking professionals I admired, I honestly didn’t have a clear goal in mind, beyond connecting through cooking,” Nunn says. “I was pretty broken, and had no idea how to put myself back together again.”
Some of Nunn’s fondest childhood memories involved cooking. The act of cooking for someone else was a way to show how much you cared for them – something she felt she needed to do for the people in her life she had been neglecting.
“The more I reached out and allowed people to cook for me and the more I cooked for them, the more I began to believe that I deserved love. Because for me, that’s what cooking is: showing people how much you care for them.”
Nunn traveled constantly, cooking salty Virginia ham biscuits, baking her grandmother’s tangy lemon cake, crafting the perfect morning custard, all while communing with people who loved her, people who were able to restore her sense of self-worth through friendship and food.
“It wasn’t really about the dishes as much as it was about the fact that so many people—many of whom I had not seen in decades—opened up their kitchens to me and made me a dish that was special to them, which is the same as opening up your heart in my opinion,” Nunn explains.
The experience left her with a handful of delicious recipes, ones she shares in her new book, but it also taught her a valuable lesson about relationships and turning to those you love in your darkest moments.
“Sometimes the only way to get back up when you fall down into a deep dark hole is to ask for hand up,” Nunn says. “You have the power to create your own recipe going forward. It’s your responsibility.”