Stir – My Broken Brain and the Meals that Brought Me Home
Avery (June 2015)
A couple of years ago, I got knocked down in the street. A complete accident, it occurred as a woman was stepping out of a shop door and wasn’t watching where she was going. She slammed into my back and sent me flying, face-first onto the sidewalk. I walked away from the fall but was left with severe muscle tears and sprains, including both shoulders. On top of an already herniated disc in my neck, the combo left me useless in terms of cooking or housework for months. Months later my shoulders were still very fragile, having been re-injured a number of times when I overdid something such as lifting a too-heavy item or exercising too much, too soon.
Through it all, as my husband and I ate take-out or prepared food night after night for dinner, I desperately wanted to get back into the kitchen. But I couldn’t bend my head forward to chop, lifting stockpots sent me back to recovery, and even the repetitive action of hulling a bag of peas caused a major set-back. Of all the different types of illness and injuries I’ve had over the years, I’ve never gone this long without being able to cook.
So Jessica Fechtor’s story in Stir, of how a brain aneurysm that nearly killed her also took away the thing she loved doing most, was very relatable to me. Not the nearly dying part, but definitely the part about wanting to get back into the kitchen.
Fechtor was a perfectly healthy young woman when, in 2008, a brain aneurysm put her close to death. Subsequent infections and operations caused blindness in one eye, a loss of her sense of smell (since returned), and a weird dent in the side of her skull near the temple that required her to wear a hockey helmet for almost a year.
A grad student who had always loved to cook, Fechtor found that not being able to prepare even simple meals (she could barely stand up at one point) left her feeling lost. As she regained her strength she began cooking — and writing, creating the food blog Sweet Amandine.
Stir is the story of Fechtor’s illness, her return to health and most importantly, how food helped her heal, physically and emotionally, after a year of hospitals and hockey helmets.
With a writing style that is warm and engaging, Fechtor intersperses the story of her illness and recovery with sections of recipes and stories about how those recipes came to her from the people she loves. Meals from friends provide comfort, love and memorable milestones during her recovery, and the story of the friends who brought her a chicken dinner rightly gets paired with a recipe for roast chicken, while a section about her grandmother comes with Grandma Louise’s apple pie recipe. Fechtor shows her love for her step-mother Amy by talking about and sharing her recipe for potato salad.
Two small complaints — Fechtor’s recipe instructions tend to be a bit chatty for me. I like the stories associated with them but I’d prefer the recipes to be a stand alone enterprise. This likely comes from predominantly working in a food blog format where chatty is fairly standard, but as a working cookbook, it makes it more difficult for the reader to just take the recipe and go.
Secondly, reading Fechtor’s story and everything she went through — it feels slightly sanitized. Not in a “glossing over the details” kind of way but by the fact that she takes on everything like a trooper. The lady rarely complains. Which either makes her a candidate for sainthood or someone decided that it didn’t belong and edited it out. But to me, the book — and Fechtor’s story — would feel more accessible if she occasionally threw something across the room in frustration or got angry over her situation. For instance, there is only a passing reference to being teased about the hockey helmet, something which she undoubtedly must have had to explain to people she came in contact with. Certainly, throughout my own injury recovery, I’ve regularly expressed frustration at not being able to do certain things, or talked about being sick of eating take-out food instead of being able to cook. Fechtor’s emotions, both happy and sad, while described and explained, come across as subdued and muted within the text of Stir, making it a sweet and interesting story, but one where it feels slightly embarrassing to be angry, or scared or punch-the-air excited on Fechtor’s behalf.