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Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home

Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home

5.0 3
by Jessica Fechtor

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An exquisite memoir about how food connects us to ourselves, our lives, and each other.
At 28, Jessica Fechtor was happily immersed in graduate school and her young marriage, and thinking about starting a family. Then one day, she went for a run and an aneurysm burst in her brain. She nearly died. She lost her sense of smell, the sight in


An exquisite memoir about how food connects us to ourselves, our lives, and each other.
At 28, Jessica Fechtor was happily immersed in graduate school and her young marriage, and thinking about starting a family. Then one day, she went for a run and an aneurysm burst in her brain. She nearly died. She lost her sense of smell, the sight in her left eye, and was forced to the sidelines of the life she loved.

Jessica’s journey to recovery began in the kitchen as soon as she was able to stand at the stovetop and stir. There, she drew strength from the restorative power of cooking and baking. Written with intelligence, humor, and warmth, Stir is a heartfelt examination of what it means to nourish and be nourished." 

Woven throughout the narrative are 27 recipes for dishes that comfort and delight. For readers of M.F.K.Fisher, Molly Wizenberg, and Tamar Adler, as well as Oliver Sacks, Jill Bolte Taylor, and Susannah Cahalan, Stir is sure to inspire, and send you straight to the kitchen

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A sudden brain aneurysm and subsequent infection derailed the life plans of Fechtor, a 28-year-old married Harvard grad student, requiring her to undergo a new orientation toward food and the senses. In this straightforward chronicle of her collapse at the treadmill in 2008 while at a convention in rural Vermont, Fechtor relives a painful, confusing episode in the trauma center in Burlington, where she had surgery to stop the bleeding, lost vision in her left eye, and endured a stint in rehab. Buoyed by her devoted husband, Eli, and her Ohio-based family, Fechtor was in excellent hands, and food was brought and offered for healing and comfort, such as Aunt Leslie’s chicken soup. But once she got home to Cambridge, Mass., many of her favorite foods had lost their appeal, like the almond macaroons from her local Hi-Rise bakery. After a raging infection, requiring surgery that took out a portion of her forehead and left her without a sense of smell, a period of “medium dreadful” settled in and she sometimes panicked at her debilitation. Plastic surgery eventually reconstructed her face, and Fechtor slowly returned to cooking and graduate work. In alternate chapters, Fechtor discusses marriage, school, and healing, and a plunge into a food blog, “Sweet Almandine,” to focus her burgeoning hunger and taste. The writing is solid and the recipes, such as sweet potato curry latkes and challah, are basic with a Jewish slant. (June)
Library Journal
Fechtor (sweetamandine.com) opens by recounting her burst brain aneurysm, sustained when she was a seemingly healthy 28-year-old graduate student and budding food blogger. Chapters present crystalline recollections of the immediate aftermath as she stumbled off a treadmill and continue through a recovery complicated by infection, loss of smell, and blindness in one eye. She describes how wearing a football-style helmet for almost a year taught her how to cope with unwanted attention from strangers as well as how to graciously relinquish control and depend on family and friends. The author doesn't focus on nutritional advice or pronounce certain foods as curative but instead narrates her belief that planning, cooking, and eating with loved ones brought back her sense of self and her place in the world. This memoir examines cooking and eating as social ritual and tells the moving story of how Fechtor coped with a "detour [that became] its own path" in her life. Recipes conclude each chapter, often multistep and designed to be served at a family dinner or feed a crowd. VERDICT Recommended for those who enjoy medical memoirs with a concentration on food and cooking. The setting in and around Boston, and the author's strong Jewish faith will add interest for some readers.—Maggie Knapp, Trinity Valley Sch., Fort Worth, TX
Kirkus Reviews
Dealing with the aftereffects of an aneurysm through a love of cooking. In 2008, Fechtor was moving into adulthood in a manner that could be described as ordinary. She had fallen in love, gotten married, and made her way through undergraduate school and into graduate studies at Harvard. She loved exercise, particularly running. One morning, a storm kept her from running outside, which turned out to be somewhat fortunate—if she hadn't been on a treadmill when the aneurysm happened, she would have been much less likely to get help quickly enough. After the aneurysm, the author underwent multiple surgeries, with the standard caveats from providers about the risks and the benefits. When she awoke, she was told that, yes, she would live, but no, not like before: her sense of smell, the vision in one eye, her ability to speak as confidently as in the past, her sense of self were all changed. Physical therapy progressed slowly; there hadn't been any neurological damage, but a month in bed had left her muscles weakened and her balance off-kilter. She began hearing that common refrain from well-meaning people: "everything happens for a reason." She challenged that cliché—things don't happen for a reason, but we make reasons for the things that happen. Her process of making meaning of the accident and the aftermath came to her by way of a constant throughout the many shifts of her earlier years: a love for food, flavors, and cooking. She writes with clarity and obvious joy about the foods that have meant so much to her, and she includes the recipes (she doesn't believe in secret recipes) so as to pass it forward. The recipes are simple and uncomplicated; many of them have a handful of ingredients but are prepared in a way that might surprise you. Fechtor's book could be described the same way.
From the Publisher
“Pairing food with the nightmare of surviving a brain aneurysm shouldn't work — but under Jessica Fechtor's wise and wonderful narration, the pairing not only works, it shines.”
–Susannah Cahalan, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Brain on Fire
“Jessica Fechtor writes with remarkable lucidity, courage, and grace about the darkest and brightest moments a person can know. Stir will feed you, even after the last page is turned."
–Molly Wizenberg, creator of Orangette and author of the New York Times bestseller A Homemade Life
“Utterly captivating, engrossing, un-put-down-ably, terrifyingly magnificent. In a world filled with dross, Stir is breathtaking.”
–Elissa Altman, author of Poor Man’s Feast
“Written with the flare of a novelist and the precision of an academic, Stir is a brave, beautiful narrative of illness and recovery. But it is not only that. It is a meditation on food and the kitchen, what it means to cook, and how the choices we make at the table can define who we are – and who we want to be.”
–Molly Birnbaum, author of Season to Taste 
“Fechtor's gentle lyricism cannot hide her fierce determination not only to survive, but to flourish."
–Luisa Weiss, creator of The Wednesday Chef and author of My Berlin Kitchen
“Stir is a beautiful, sometimes sad, often heart-lifting story of putting back together what has fallen apart. It is a poignant reminder of how inexorably tied our hearts and minds are to our stomachs, and what a blessing that can be.”
–Tamar Adler, author of An Everlasting Meal
“Though Stir winds us through Ms. Fechtor’s illness, its complications and ultimately her recovery, this book isn’t a tale of sickness and health. And though it is filled with inviting concoctions…it isn’t merely a book about food and how to make it. Rather, it’s a recipe for living a life of meaning and an homage to the people in her life who nourished her.”—Wall Street Journal
“An inspiring journey, with recipes. With a novelist’s touch, Fechtor chronicles her recovery from a brain aneurysm that hit her as a Harvard graduate student at 28, sending her life on a far different path than she had imagined.”—Seattle Times
“Charmingly peppered with personal recipes, [STIR] thoroughly inspired readers and immersed them in Fechtor’s life against all odds.”—Elle
“Jessica Fechtor blends the story of her near-fatal brain aneurysm with recipes as if it's a natural combination. And for someone with her optimism and modesty, it is. A feel good memoir.”—Shelf Awareness

“With warmth, humor and clarity, she explains in Stir how cooking helped her to reclaim her life.”Columbus Dispatch
“Reading the book, I was compelled to reach for a pen every few pages, to underline things I didn’t want to forget — things I had to remember.“The Forward
“Fechtor writes beautifully and is a warm, gracious guide through her own landscape of illness. Fechtor skillfully combines the sequence of events, memories of her earlier life, and her adventures in the kitchen.”Jewish Week

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.30(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

I am on the floor.

My back is flat against the ground, and so are the soles of my feet, and my knees are up and swaying. Someone is holding my head at the temples. “Jessica, it’s Ilana.” She says it the Canadian way, with a flat first a. Lavish, lamb, Atlantic.

My knees are swaying.

I turn my head and vomit into her lap. The  hotel gym guy comes with orange Gatorade. He is tall and waxy with a bird face and dark hair that’s more thin than thinning. He wants to know if I’ve had any breakfast. “A banana,” I tell him, and he nods as though he suspected as much. He bends at the waist and wags the bottle over my face for me to take it. I vomit again. Ilana doesn’t flinch.

I’m at a graduate student conference in Stowe, Vermont, a town wedged deep in the valley between the Green Mountains and the Worcester Range. I am twenty-eight years old. Ilana is a colleague. I’ve seen her at these conferences over the last couple of years, and we’ve shared meals, but that’s all. I’m grateful for the pad of her thigh.

I see my friend Or. We’d planned to run together along the country roads that morning, but a crack of thunder had sent us to the gym instead. He stands over me now in a tank top with a bandana tied low across his forehead. He looks like a pirate and says he’s going to call. The gym guy insists it’s not necessary, but Or calls.

An ambulance is coming.

It’s August and the sky is dark from the storm. I don’t try to get up. I don’t even think to try—it will be years before I realize the oddness of that—and  no one offers to help me. Ilana is talking to me, and Or is talking to me, and Or and Ilana are talking to each other about me, and the girl who was on the treadmill next to mine is talking to someone, the gym guy maybe, about “what happened.” I can hear the spit moving around in her mouth as she speaks. She sounds breathless and scared and I want her to be quiet. Someone at the opening session the night before had mentioned that he was training as an EMT and they bring him in. He looks me in the eye, expressionless, then steps away.

My knees are swaying.

I’ve had migraines before. The pain feels similar, so I assume that’s what this is. I’ve never fainted, though, and it has never come on so fast. A flash migraine, then. Is that a thing? I can’t decide if I’m supposed to be scared.

Or is asking me whom he should call and I tell him my dad, no, Eli. I give him my husband’s number and watch him dial. My head hurts so badly, and I think that if I can relax my body, get really quiet, I can make it better. Ilana says, “She’s not talking anymore.”

The paramedic arrives. He shines lights and asks if I remember the fall, and I do.

I was running on the treadmill, when I felt a painless click in my head. There was an odd trickling sensation along my skull like a rolling bead of sweat, but on the inside. Then the room went gray and the earth sucked me down. I knew I was about to faint. The red stop button seemed suddenly far away. I swiped at it, but there was no time to step off the machine. Someone says I hit my head on the way down, and I wonder if the belt was still moving when I fell. I can no longer sway my knees; the paramedic’s in the way, so I start rubbing his leg instead.

“I’m sorry,” I say, “I’m rubbing your leg.”

“That’s all right. You keep rubbing.”

He tells me to fold my arms across my chest, that they are going to strap me to a board and carry me to the ambulance. It’s very important, he says, to call out if I need to vomit so that they can flip me over in time. The thought of that, of hanging facedown in the air and vomiting, the thought of being dropped, is at this moment the most terrifying thing in the world.
I start this story here, on the floor of a conference center gym, because it now seems the most obvious place. But it wasn’t obvious to me then that a start had occurred at all. I thought my fall from the treadmill was a dot on a plotline already under way, the one about the literature student at  a conference who fainted, missed the morning’s events, got checked out, and returned, red faced and sheepish, in time for lunch. I didn’t know then that when I slipped from that moving belt, that dot had also slipped and become its own point A.

What a click in my head, and a moving belt, and a headache that knocked me down might have to do with butter, and flour, and eggs at room temp, and hunger, and love, and a kitchen with some- thing to say, I couldn’t have known that day. How a detour could become its own path, I would never have believed.

From the Hardcover edition.


Meet the Author

JESSICA FECHTOR writes the popular food blog, Sweet Amandine. She is a PhD candidate in Jewish Literature at Harvard University, where she has received numerous awards for her research and teaching. She lives with her husband and daughters in San Francisco, and doesn’t believe in secret recipes.

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Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is not just filled with amazing recipes, but it is filled with hope and promise. I have never read anything so inspiring and I honestly doubt that I ever will. Kudos!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As a brain bleed/surgery survivor myself (and writer of memoir about my own recovery), I truly appreciated all the issues--disorientation, confusion , self doubt. On the one hand I recognized myself in you and on the other I felt enlightened by the differences in our recoveries. I loved the underlying theme of cooking, it eased some of the rawness. There's so much more I can say but I guess it can be summaries by saying that you told your/our story very effectively (with a completely different approach than my own writing).
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Your story helped translate some very rough times my daughter has and continues to deal with while fighting brain cancer. You brought her closer to me. Thank you!