Authors: Jessica Fechtor
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Copyright Â© 2015 by Jessica Fechtor
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Some of the recipes and brief portions of this book appeared in different form on the author's blog, Sweet Amandine.
Portions of chapter 30 were originally published in slightly different form in
by Derek Walcott. Copyright Â© 1990 by Derek Walcott. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
Photos by Jessica Fechtor
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGIN
Stir : my broken brain and the meals that brought me home / Jessica Fechtor.
1. Fechtor, JessicaâHealth. 2. Intracranial aneurysmsâPatientsâUnited StatesâBiography. 3. Intracranial aneurysmsâPatientsâRehabilitationâUnited States. 4. CookingâTherapeutic use. I. Title.
The recipes contained in this book are to be followed exactly as written. The Publisher is not responsible for your specific health or allergy needs that may require medical supervision. The Publisher is not responsible for any adverse reactions to the recipes contained in this book.
Some names and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.
Penguin is committed to publishing works of quality and integrity. In that spirit, we are proud to offer this book to our readers; however, the story, the experiences, and the words are the author's alone.
Cover design: Alison Forner
Cover images: (spoon) Laurie Rubin/Getty Images; (chocolate) Momoko Takeda/Getty Images
For Mom, Dad, and Amy
And for Eli, of course
Measure the days you have left. Do just that labour
which marries your heart to your right hand: simplify
your life to one emblem, a sail leaving harbour
and a sail coming in.Â .Â .Â .
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
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 tryâit will be years before I realize the oddness of thatâand 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.
Â â¢Â â¢Â â¢Â
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 something to say, I couldn't have known that day. How a detour could become its own path, I would never have believed.
(Some Thoughts on Cooking from This Book)
o, yes, this is a book about food. It isn't a cookbook, though there are recipes here. Because to follow the story where it went I had to follow it into my kitchen. The recipes in this book are for foods that connect me to myself and to my people. Foods that reminded me who I was when I felt least like myself. My recipes are, for the most part, simple and straightforward, because that's the way I like to cook and eat. They're recipes that show you how to make food that feels special not because it's fancy, but because it tastes so good. I'm excited to share them with you.
We all have our ways in the kitchen. Before we get started, I want to tell you about some of mine. Think of it as preemptive troubleshooting, reducing the variables so that at your house, things just work. Of course, over time, I hope you'll make these recipes your own, with whatever tweaks and changes you see fit.
First, let's talk about measurements. I like to cook and, especially, bake by weight because I find it easier and faster, with more consistent results. A basic digital scale will do the trick; you don't need any bells or whistles. You can pick one up for around twenty dollars. Most household kitchen scales are not sensitive enough to reliably measure weights under ten grams. Any ingredient that measures under Â¼ cup, I've listed by volume alone, in teaspoons and tablespoons.
Flour is especially tricky to measure by volume, since even the same cook measuring the same flour with the same cup can get considerable variation from scoop to scoop. It all depends on how tightly you pack your cup. If you don't have a scale or prefer to measure by volume, here's how to do it so that your amounts are closest to mine: Stir your jar or sack of flour with a fork to aerate it, spoon the flour into your measuring cup, and, without tapping the measuring cup to settle its contents, sweep the excess flour from the top with the straight back of a knife. The recipes in this book were tested with both weight and volume measurements by a small army of home cooks, cookbook authors, professional bakers, food bloggers, and food magazine editors, so either way, you should be set.
While we're on the subject of flour: For all-purpose unbleached white flour, I use the King Arthur brand. It has a higher protein content than other national brands (and a consistent protein content, bag to bag, which I appreciate). Protein content is relevant because more protein means more gluten development, and more water absorption when you combine it with your wet ingredients. That affects texture. King Arthur all-purpose flour contains about 12 percent protein. If you bake the cookies in this book using a brand that contains only, say, 9 percent protein, you can expect a wetter dough that will result in flatter, paler cookies with less chew. A higher-protein all-purpose flour like King Arthur is nice to have around because it also works well in breads. Convenient if you'd rather not purchase an additional sack of bread flour or don't have any on hand.
I use large eggs and unsalted butter when making the recipes in this book. I bake with fine-grain sea salt. You can use table salt instead, if that's what you've got. A few of the recipes in this book call for Diamond Crystal brand kosher salt. The brand is important because the size of the crystals varies among kosher salt brands. Morton's, for example, has a finer grain, so a teaspoon will be considerably saltier than a teaspoon of Diamond Crystal. If you swap in fine-grain sea salt or another brand of kosher salt for the Diamond Crystal, you'll need to use less. Taste as you go and trust your preferences.
A few of the recipes call for canned tomatoes or sauce. My preferred brand is Muir Glen. I always have a can or two of their organic whole peeled tomatoes in the cupboard, the tomatoes that, incidentally, beat out even the celebrated San Marzano tomatoes in a
Last but not least, please buy an oven thermometer. Ovens, even shiny new ones, run hot and cold all the time. Some, like mine, overshoot by fifty degrees before settling back down to the temperature on the dial. It's not only a matter of under- or overbaking. Cakes, cookies, and breads baked at the wrong temperature will have issues with texture, too. It's the simplest thing, but an oven thermometer can make all the difference in what comes out of your kitchen.