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.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
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.
Table of Contents
Please Buy an Oven Thermometer (Some Thoughts Cooking from This Book) 5
Chapter 1 The Pit 9
Chapter 2 A Cake 16
Marcella's Butter Almond Cake 23
Chapter 3 Passing Through 26
Chapter 4 At the Table 30
Eli's Oatmeal Cookies 34
Chapter 5 Patient 36
Chapter 6 Z-i-t-i 45
Saucy Baked Ziti 49
Chapter 7 The Moon Out of the Sky 53
Pan-Roasted Salmon 58
Chapter 8 Just in Case 59
Kale and Pomegranate Salad 64
Chapter 9 A Home Run 66
Sweet and Clear Chicken Soup 71
Chapter 10 The Most Beautiful Things 74
Sarah's Cholent with Kugel 79
Chapter 11 Riptide 82
Chapter 12 Plotting, Together 87
Cream of Asparagus Soup 92
Chapter 13 The Everywhere Light 94
Crispy Rice and Eggs 99
Chapter 14 Everything Happens 101
Chapter 15 Becoming Home 107
Hi-Rise Almond Macaroons 113
Chapter 16 The Most We Could Do 115
Chapter 17 Badass 123
Roasted Chicken 126
Chapter 18 A Certain Kind of Best 128
Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies 132
Chapter 19 Medium Dreadful 136
Chapter 20 Three Mushrooms 146
Lemony Pasta with Morel Mushrooms and Peas 152
Chapter 21 Home Is a Verb 155
Amy's Potato Salad 159
Chapter 22 Doing the Math 161
Louise's Apple Pie 167
Chapter 23 They Cooked 172
Sweet Potato Curry Latkes 177
Chapter 24 Food Blog 180
Buttermilk Biscuits 188
Chapter 25 The All Clear 190
Julia's Sesame Noodles 196
Chapter 26 More Than Enough 198
Cleveland Cassata Cake
(Strawberry Custard Layer Cake) 202
Chapter 27 Time-In 207
Cherry Clafoutis 214
Chapter 28 Humpty Dumpty Day 216
Whole Wheat Banana Bread 219
Chapter 29 Luxury Head 222
Five-Fold Challah 227
Chapter 30 Don't Look 231
Simplest Tomato Soup 237
Brown Soda Bread 239
Chapter 31 A Funny Definition 241
Janet's Coconut Cake 248
Chapter 32 Move Along Now 251
Baked Apricots with Cardamom Pistachios 258
Chapter 33 Any Day 260
Italian Prune Plum Tart 263
Reading Group Guide 271
Reading Group Guide
1. On page 17 of Stir, Fechtor writes that “food is the keeper of our memories, connecting us with our pasts and with our people.” How does this statement apply to your own experiences cooking and baking? Which foods evoke the strongest memories for you?
2. Stir is an incredibly intimate book, wherein Fechtor reveals the peaks and valleys of recovery after a near-death experience. After reading, how would you characterize Fechtor? Which anecdotes in the book were most impactful to you?
3. Fechtor’s road to recovery is as much a mental journey as it is a physical one. Discuss the challenges she faced in assuming the role of “patient.” During which moments of her recovery did she experience the most frustration? Elation?
4. Fechtor integrates anecdotes about her personal journey alongside meaningful recipes that relate to the content of each chapter. How did this impact your reading experience? Which recipes were you most drawn to?
5. In Chapter 2, Fechtor asserts that “getting well means finding your everyday.” Which aspects of Fechtor’s everyday came back first? Which elements of her daily life took longest to resurface?
6. Fechtor’s relationship with her husband plays an important role in the narrative. Discuss their courtship. How would you characterize their relationship? Which moments of their lovestory stick with you?
7. Stir is full of delightfully descriptive scenes of Fechtor in the kitchen. How does the act of cooking physically reconnect
Fechtor to her body? What adjustments does she make during her recovery process in order to return to the kitchen? What meal would you consider her “breakthrough” meal, when she realizes that her passion for cooking and baking is more than just a hobby?
8. Discuss the importance of community in Fechtor’s journey ofrecovery. How did her friends and family help her reestablisha sense of normalcy in her life?
9. In Chapter 23, Fechtor discusses the art of hosting, revealing that there is “no such divide” between the words guest and host in other languages. Discuss the significance of this statement. How does Fechtor’s recovery change her perception of hosting? From Fechtor’s perspective, what characteristics make for a gracious host? Guest?
10. Discuss Fechtor’s creation of Sweet Amandine. How does blogging act as an outlet for her to escape the confines of her illness? What does she learn from the act of sharing recipes and experiences online?
11. In the latter chapters, Fechtor reveals her dificulty accepting the idea of reconstructive surgery. What causes Fechtor to reconsiderher stance on it? How does the tension between being externally “fine” and internally “fine” play out throughout the pages?
12. Discuss the connection between senses and memory. How does Fechtor’s loss of her sense of smell affect her as she recovers?Which scents evoke memories for you?
13. Jessica and Eli’s determination to become parents is an important thread in the narrative. What anxieties or fears does she have about motherhood? How do the matriarchs in her life—her mother, her grandmothers, and Amy—shape her idea of what motherhood is and can be?
14. Discuss the significance of Jessica and Eli’s trip to Berlin. How does this trip act as a sort of liberation for Fechtor?
15. On page 156, Fechtor asserts that “home is a verb.” Explore the significance of that statement. How does Fechtor define home? How does the act of cooking become tied into the idea of “home” inasmuch as physical objects do?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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!
The exquisitely crafted story of a journey from health to illness and back again and more broadly, the beautiful path food makes from a thoughtful chef's mind to the table and the tongue. Highly recommend.
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).
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!