Book Review — The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart

The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart
Emily Nunn
Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2017

While it’s generally not recommended to read other reviews of something before writing your own, I was drawn to reviews of The Comfort Food Diaries not for the critique of the writing style or the events depicted, but out of genuine curiosity as to what other readers got out of this book. Because, to me, the main theme was not Nunn’s stated premise of a comfort food road tour and emotional support that she received after her brother’s suicide, descent into alcoholism, and subsequent break-up with her fiancee, but rather an over-arching theme of dysfunctional families, the destruction caused by narcissistic personality disorder, and finding “family” wherever you can. Maybe that can only be seen by someone who is also from a dysfunctional family, but that was a much more prevalent theme for me than Nunn’s search for comfort food.

Nunn is living in Chicago with a man she refers to as The Engineer, along with his daughter (The Princess). She has been made redundant after a great career as a food and features writer. When her closeted gay brother commits suicide, Nunn finds solace in a bottle (or rather a lot of bottles) and has a nervous breakdown of sorts that her partner is not emotionally equipped to handle.

She returns to her family, moving to California to attend the Betty Ford clinic and stay with her sister, but family, despite best intentions, are not always the best people to help and support us, and Nunn finds herself at odds with her sister Elaine once she moves on to stay with other extended family members. This is apparently a typical situation within Nunn’s family with some of her three remaining siblings and divorced parents estranged from someone else at any given point (neither Nunn’s mother or younger sister attend her brother’s funeral, for instance). As the story unfolds, Nunn gives the reader a more nuanced look at her family situation, and I’m happy to award both Nunn’s mother and older sister the official “Piece of Work” award for their head games and narcissism.

All of this leaves Nunn rather more of a mess than she needs to be, and certainly does nothing to help her heal and recover, and much of the book is about her working out feelings towards herself that resonate back to childhood. (Like most auto-biographies, a lot is left unsaid regarding Nunn’s role in the dynamic of these relationships, but I know enough about how narcissists constantly pull the rug out from under the people around them that I can feel real empathy and sympathy for her.)

So wait, where does the food bit come into this? Nunn’s original plan, when she first reached out to friends on Facebook, was to go and visit various friends and relatives, cooking with them and writing about what they consider to be comfort food. And she does do that to some extent, staying with cousins. aunts and uncles, and reconnecting with many friends from her youth, all of whom welcomed her into their homes and lives. One of the key points Nunn discovers is that “comfort food” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, and a dish that represents love and caring to one person might bring up terrible memories or distaste for another. This lack of universal agreement reflects the idea that family, the other entity we think of as “comfort” and where we’re most likely to associate food memories, may not be universally accepting either.

There are great-looking recipes throughout, but they feel a bit secondary within this interpretation of the theme, more of a way to avoid the issues Nunn must face on her journey rather than something that enhances it (she admits to avoiding her issues throughout the book), although many of her moments of enlightenment and self-awareness come while cooking and eating the various permutations of southern comfort food she seeks as a form of solace.

I suspect that the rift in Nunn’s family is likely permanent after the publication of this book, but my educated opinion is that she’s probably better off for it. Nunn has found herself and her healing within her family of choice, not her family of birth, and while her journey as an alcoholic and ACON (Adult Child of Narcissists) will always colour her feelings and decisions, the life changes she has made in The Comfort Food Diaries seem like a good base on which to restart her life.

This is a sharp and witty work — Nunn is a great writer — although it leaves a lot unsaid that might have pushed the story in a different direction. At minimum, it will give the reader cause to rethink their ideas of family and comfort and comfort food and how those things interweave throughout the course of a person’s life.