Jessica Fechtor came close to death as a 28-year old when an aneurysm erupted in her brain. At the time, people would offer comments like “Everything happens for a reason,” but she doesn’t believe that. “I think that everything happens and then other things happen. You take what happens and you make something with it. It’s about what we do with it,” she tells The Jewish Week.
As the month of Elul approaches with its mood of reflection before the Days of Awe, Jessica Fechtor’s new memoir, “Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals that Brought Me Home” (Avery), makes for stirring reading. Her story is one of resilience and new beginnings. Many who suffer what she did don’t survive, and many who do are severely disabled. For her, a detour became its own path.
She was newly married and a Ph.D candidate in Yiddish literature at Harvard when, in 2008, she was attending an academic conference and fell while running on a treadmill. Rushed to a nearby hospital in Vermont, she had brain surgery and due to complications, lost the vision in one eye. She was slowly recuperating at home in Cambridge when she got an infection and then required more surgery. A chunk of her skull was removed, disfiguring her face. Then she wore a hockey helmet all the time for protection, until she had additional surgery some months later to restore her skull. And because the plastic surgeon somehow didn’t show up, she had to have surgery once again. Along the way, she lost her sense of smell, although it would return.
Fechtor writes beautifully and is a warm, gracious guide through her own landscape of illness. For her, waking up from surgery is rapture, and while doctors and nurses tell her she won’t remember, she remembers clearly. “I love the first breath, how it feels spiked with extra oxygen sneaked into the atmosphere when no one was looking like rum in the punch bowl at a high school dance,” she writes.
While recovering she thought a lot about food – she always enjoyed cooking, especially baking — and everything that goes on around it, “the dash from the breakfast table to the door, the conversations that shape us, the places and faces that make us who we are,” she writes. Even in the hospital, she began making lists of food to prepare. She missed the daily details of ordinary life, and longed to do things for herself. Back home, she was able to test herself physically in the kitchen, to readjust her vision, and to find distraction from the world of illness and recovery. As she began to feel whole again, she wanted to figure out what food had to tell her.
She writes, “There are no available statistics on how many people die each year while baking an apple pie and I’d like to believe that it’s because you can’t. When you’re cooking, you’re alive. You’ve got no choice. To fry an egg is to operate with the perfect faith that you will sit down and eat it.” She knows she is getting better when she cares about the small stuff, like burnt edges.
About four months after the aneurysm ruptured, she felt she needed a project and tried to get back to her academic studies, but found it difficult to concentrate. A friend suggested that she start a food blog, something she hadn’t heard of in 2009. To her surprise, she discovered many readers beyond her circle of family and friends, and the blog, sweetamandine.com, became very popular. At first, she didn’t tell readers about her health, but just prior to an additional surgery, as she says, “I came out on my blog and said, ‘You don’t know but you have all been with me through this, and I thank you.’” Soon after, she was approached by literary agents about writing a book.
While it seems like a challenging narrative task, Fechtor skillfully combines the sequence of events, memories of her earlier life, and her adventures in the kitchen. She includes recipes connecting to memories. As she says, “It’s a kosher cookbook in the clothing of a memoir.” Appearing at the end of each chapter, her recipes, like her writing, are straightforward and distinctive, including Roasted Chicken and Baked Apricots with Cardamom Pistachios.
Born in New York City, Fechtor grew up in Ohio. She writes of meeting Eli, her husband (and a hero of the story), at a Shabbat dinner while they were both students at Columbia University, although they didn’t exchange a single word that evening. She studied music and English at Columbia, and then went on to Oxford, where she developed her interest in Yiddish literature, first through reading in translation and later learning Yiddish.
In person, Fechtor is animated, wearing large-framed eyeglasses; there are no signs of the trauma in her stylish appearance. She now lives in San Francisco with her husband and two young daughters, is keeping up the blog and is back to her studies. Before, she had been working on a dissertation related to Yiddish writer I.L Peretz, but now she has changed course, and is writing about the representation of food in Yiddish literature.
“Food tells us who we are, reminds us who we are, helps us figure out who we want to be. There are stories about food that are throughout Jewish tradition and Jewish practice. It’s the storytelling aspect – whether I’m looking into Jewish literature or writing about Jewish food, it’s the stories that draw me in,” she says.
Fechtor adds, “It was a thrill to find out why cooking and baking mattered so much. It dawned on me that baking is the incarnation of generosity. You can’t eat all those cookies. You bake to share.”