Emily Nunn finds comfort in cooking, reconnecting with friends, family

Spoon bread from Emily Nunn's memoir book, prepared and styled by Lisa Schumacher on Thursday April 5, 2018. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

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Spoon bread from Emily Nunn's memoir book, prepared and styled by Lisa Schumacher on Thursday April 5, 2018. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, how does a comfort food tour begin? With a single recipe? With a kind word? With a generous, loving offer of safe harbor?

Emily Nunn’s journey of a thousand miles began with all of those things, leading her down a road reconnecting with friends and family she had thought lost to her, and into a kind of healing she needed more than anything in life, and which she thought would never come. Eventually, it led to “The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart,” her singular, poignant and beautifully written memoir chronicling that search in vignettes so personal and at times so dark yet moving, that the words will rip your heart right out of you.

“When I started, I was so broken,” Nunn said in an interview from her North Carolina home. “It’s hard to explain how completely lost I was.”

She wanted to cook with and be around people — people who maybe had difficult lives — “I wanted to see how they did it.” How they coped.

Nunn is a journalist and food writer. A Southerner, born and raised in Virginia but living in North Carolina now, she writes freelance for such publications as Food52. Her comfort food tour was born in Chicago after a particularly cruel fall from what seemed the top of the world.

After nearly 10 years at The New Yorker, she moved to Chicago about 15 years ago to take up arts and food writing for the Tribune, a job she loved. In 2008, she moved to Good Eating (the former name for what is now Food & Dining), where she wrote deftly about such topics as her love of the toum (a garlic sauce) at Fattoush restaurant, or her fangirl crush on Ina Garten. I was a fan of Nunn’s writing (her 1,400-word rant against 2004’s rather new plague of made-up food holidays made me her fanboy), but I didn’t know her well. Certainly not well enough to know what was going on in her life away from Trib Tower.

By 2009, she had been laid off by the paper, like so many in those dark days of Tribune’s bankruptcy (from which the company emerged in 2012). I didn’t know what she was up to, where she was living or how she’d find work in a recession, when like hundreds of other Facebook friends, I read her raw cry for help in the night.

As Nunn recounts in the book: “One night I drank several glasses of sauvignon blanc and, in a fit of uncensored self-pity, broadcast the details of my wrecked life on Facebook for the unsolicited elucidation of around 350 so-called friends.”

Nunn was struggling with much more than a lost job. Her brother had killed himself, her fiance had broken off the engagement — and basically taken away his daughter, whom Nunn had come to love as if she were her own. In the book, Nunn reconstructed that post, writing, in part: “I have almost no money, no job, no home, no car, no child to pick up after school, no dog to feed, no one to care for. I am cold and alone” — and she was drinking again after being sober for years.

The next morning, she expected a “virtual scolding” in an avalanche of Facebook comments, but instead woke up to an outpouring of love, offers of help (including a place to stay and money) and empathetic admissions of painful struggles. This, from distant friends and relatives and people she didn’t even know well from across the country. Come visit, they said. We’ll cook for you. Which meant, we’ll take care of you. We’ll ease the hurt. Make it a culinary tour, said a former sorority sister from Savannah, Eileen. And this seemingly crazy idea, from an old New Yorker friend, Kevin: “It should be your comfort food tour.”

In short, that’s what Nunn did. She launched a comfort food tour, and it was brilliant. Though real life is not as pat as a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland plot, as Nunn references, the idea appealed because it gave Nunn something to do.

“I had to have this project: ‘Come and we’ll make comfort food for you,’” Nunn said. There wasn’t much of a plan, at first. “It wasn’t fleshed out. But it ended up being much deeper and richer. It ended up really changing my life. It’s about this path I had to take.”

“Comfort Food Diaries” is not an addiction and recovery book, per se; Nunn handles that subject quickly. She doesn’t dismiss it; she gives it weight — including a breakdown that led to a psychiatric ward stay and a separate stint at The Betty Ford Center — but she spends her time with the reader talking about other things: focusing on how she got to where she was in life and how to be happy.

The tour started in earnest with a visit to her cousin Toni in Atlanta and continued with visits to other family members and friends: her aunt Mariah in Virginia, her sorority sister Portia on her Georgia farm, Wyler in Athens, Ga. Dot in North Carolina. All along the journey, she allowed these people who loved her to cook for her, to comfort her — generosity she hadn’t felt worthy of accepting before, and which continually surprised and humbled her.

“Comfort Food Diaries” chronicles those visits in frank detail, the restorative conversations, the affirmations of long-ago cemented bonds, and because it’s a culinary memoir, Nunn shares recipes, 56 in all. They finish off a story or underscore an emotional homecoming. Each illustrates a memory or acts as a coda to a chapter — Martha’s Virginia sweet chunk pickles, angel biscuits (to make country ham sandwiches) and great-grandmother’s mean lemon cake. (Though Nunn remembers her grandma Augusta as mean, the title is a compliment, as in, “that’s one mean cake you baked, Grandma.”) And there’s Nunn’s spoon bread.

The recipe illustrates Nunn’s message. She writes about first tasting spoon bread at the Roanoake Hotel when she was 10: “What was this stuff that made me want to push everyone out of the way in order to eat their serving?” It took a good deal of work to get the results she wanted, which makes it all the more comforting.

Nunn, however, suggested I include a dish she made with North Pond chef and owner Bruce Sherman, cheesy eggs on toast. At one point during her journey, Nunn was living in Charleston, S.C., but came to understand it wasn’t right. “It had all the signs of home, but it didn’t feel like a home to me. So I split. That’s when I needed to face Chicago down,” she said.

She went to see Sherman, whom she had covered while working for the Tribune. At the restaurant, they cooked the eggs on a portable burner in the dining room, because the staff was prepping for lunch, while she asked Sherman about how he came to start the restaurant. From the story about the path he took, Nunn took inspiration for her own — “Trust who you are, what you do, eventually you can’t be anything other than yourself,” he told her.

Which is why Nunn suggested that we share the recipe, but also, she enthused: “That dish is freaking awesome.”

But about that subtitle, “My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart.” Book publishing and the need for a hook being what they are, it wasn’t quite accurate. Nunn wasn’t really looking for a dish to mend a broken heart, nor was the broken heart caused by the man. (“People thought it was a chick-lit book,” Nunn said.) It was everything: her family, her brother’s death, losing her job, the breakup.

“The man was a small part of it. (The problem) was what led me to the man,” she said, explaining that the quest became: “What happened in my family to make me this way?”

And that’s what she set out to discover.

“It’s kind of like a hero’s story. You face these dragons. I would take a step forward, and I would realize something, and I would take a step back. I was leaving my comfort zone and taking a step toward a dark past.

“I also learned something: It was like the crumbs (led) back to me. It was my crumb trail, but I was spreading the crumbs. I was deciding where the crumbs were. That part of the book was really amazing.”

And she came to look at cooking differently.

When she lived in Chicago, she cooked a lot. “I really enjoyed that part of being part of the family. But one thing that I really started to be aware of on this path, I became comfortable in other people’s kitchens. I just did it. That’s who I am now. I’ll cook for you. Doesn’t have to be the perfect ingredients. The idea of having a dinner party was really stressful in Chicago, but I don’t worry now.”

Did she ever really find the answer to her quest? This is where she said she might cry.

“It’s like the really corny line: It’s the journey. You have to keep going with your life. The journey became the end.

“Did I find the perfect dish? No, of course not. Did I find what was missing from my life? Yes, I did. Really true connections with human beings. Saying yes to things, not being afraid.”

“It was not the idea of wrapping it up into a neat little bow at the end. That is never what I was after. I was after finding out how to live, how other people live.” An open heart with kindness, forgiveness. Not a wary way. “I’m a completely different person now. Not completely different, but I’m changed. My relationship to things, the way things look, achievements, the exterior signs of a great life, I’m a lot less attached to those things now.

“I live in a barn, and I’m happy. The things I valued in people changed a lot. I am a lot more into kindness.”



Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 50 minutes

Makes: 10 servings

From “The Comfort Food Diaries” (Atria Books, $26) by Emily Nunn.

1 1/3 cups cornmeal

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons granulated sugar

2 1/2 cups whole milk

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted

5 large eggs, separated

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a large souffle dish or 9-inch square casserole. In a large bowl, mix the cornmeal, salt and sugar with a whisk or fork. In a small saucepan, bring the milk to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer. Slowly stir in the cornmeal mixture, whisking until it begins to thicken. Remove from the heat, and stir in the butter.

2. In a small bowl, beat the egg yolks by hand; in a larger bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Once the corn mush has cooled slightly, stir in the egg yolks. Next, gently fold in the egg whites.

3. Pour the mixture into the souffle dish and bake for 40 minutes. The middle should be soft but not loose. Serve immediately, with lots of butter.

Nutrition information per serving: 194 calories, 9 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 111 mg cholesterol, 21 g carbohydrates, 4 g sugar, 7 g protein, 413 mg sodium, 1 g fiber


Prep: 20 minutes

Cook: 15 minutes

Makes: 2 servings

This recipe from “The Comfort Food Diaries” by Emily Nunn comes from Bruce Sherman of North Pond restaurant.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 large eggs

2 tablespoons whole milk

Fine sea salt, to taste

White pepper, to taste

5 to 6 ounces Uplands Pleasant Ridge Reserve (or good Gruyere) cheese, finely grated

2 teaspoons creme fraiche or heavy cream (optional)

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons finely chopped parsley

2 teaspoons finely chopped chives

1 to 2 thick slices per person (depending on loaf size) of miche, boule or other rustic loaf

Apricot jam

For top salad: a good handful of baby arugula, extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice, salt and white pepper

1. Heat a small sloped-sided pot over very low heat. Add the butter.

2. Whip the eggs and milk in a bowl, and lightly season with salt and pepper. Add to the pot.

3. Over very low heat, stir continuously with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula. If the eggs begin to firm up and coagulate, turn down the heat. Stir constantly for 10 to 15 minutes — switching to a small whisk when the eggs begin to curdle — until the eggs eventually become creamy and custardlike.

4. Take the pot off the heat, and stir in the cheese, creme fraiche (if using), mustard, parsley and chives. Season with salt and pepper.

5. Toast the bread and generously spread with apricot jam.

6. Place the warm eggs on top of the jam layer. Before serving, dress and season the arugula to taste and arrange on top.

Nutrition information per serving: 698 calories, 48 g fat, 25 g saturated fat, 483 mg cholesterol, 27 g carbohydrates, 15 g sugar, 38 g protein, 1254 mg sodium, 2 g fiber

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