I’m not sure how Nora Ephron’s Heartburn escaped my attention until now. In fact, it’s ludicrous that it did! It’s everything I love in one neat volume – it’s funny, there’s recipes and it gets to the nitty-gritty of relationships.
I had penciled Heartburn in for the Foodies reading challenge and then realised that it also qualified for the What’s in a Name challenge under the ‘Fire’ category. This was particularly satisfying as I’d ear-marked The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus for this category but after reading Rory’s review I got the distinct impression that it wouldn’t be my cup of tea.
So, to the book. It’s the story of Rachel Samstat who, seven months into her pregnancy, discovers that her husband, Mark, is in love with another woman. The fact that the other woman has “a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb…” is no consolation. Food sometimes is though, since Rachel writes cookbooks for a living. And in between trying to win Mark back and loudly wishing him dead, Rachel shares recipes.
The story reads like a confession from an acquaintance – an acquaintance as opposed to a long-time friend, as with an acquaintance you can afford to be glib about gruesome details (true friends see through your humour).
Ephron acknowledges in the introduction that it’s with hindsight she’s been able to turn her tragedy into a comedy (this book is largely based on Ephron’s own divorce). Although not on the same scale, I’ve shared a story with a handful of people that involves moving house, an interstate husband, a rained out 5th birthday party that I forgot to organise a cake for (hence the last minute $300 extravaganza – people are still talking about it), me being diagnosed with whooping cough and our first nit infestation. All in the space of four days. If I didn’t laugh about it now, I’d be in therapy. Maybe one day I’ll turn it into a best-selling novel.
Ephron’s writing is sharp and snappy but at the same time warm and personal – truly blurring the lines between Ephron herself and the character of Rachel. There were dozens of laugh-out-loud moments. I particularly liked the section titled ‘Rachel Samstat’s Jewish Prince Routine’ which includes what in my house is known as a ‘boys look’ –
“And if you say to him…’in the refrigerator’… and he goes to look, an interesting thing happens, a medical phenomenon that has not been sufficiently remarked upon. The effect of the refrigerator light on the male cornea. Blindness….. ‘I don’t see it anywhere.'”
And of course the sections relating to food are so heartfelt, they’re poetic –
“What a cook she was! Everything she made was the lightest, the flakiest, the tenderest, the creamiest, the whateverest. She would stand at the kitchen counter – kneading dough for yeast rolls, making curls from carrots, rolling butter into balls – and tell me her secrets. She knew the mystery of my grandmother’s cookies (sour cream), and she insisted there was only one true road to piecrust (Crisco).
4/5 I devoured this book in almost one sitting. Brilliant fun.
There are so many food references it’s difficult to pick out just one. Happily, there’s a recipe index so you can quickly locate Chez Helene’s Bread Pudding, Linguine alla Cecca, Sorrel Soup or three different ways with potatoes. But it’s all about the vinaigrette –
“That’s what I do for a living – I write cookbooks. And while I did discover a fairly revolutionary and absolutely foolproof way to make a four-minute egg, and had gotten to the point where I simply could not make a bad vinaigrette, this was not exactly the stuff of drama. (Even now, I cannot believe Mark would want to risk losing that vinaigrette).”
As much as I’d like to share Ephron/Samstat’s vinaigrette recipe (and it’s right there on page 178), I’m not going to. It’s kind of the punchline to the book. If you found this page after searching for vinaigrette recipes (stranger things have happened), I won’t let you down – head to A Family Feast.