(Oct 2017) I listened to The Comfort Food Diaries as an audiobook on a long drive from Northern Virginia to Dalton, GA, and back home again. I wanted my husband Tom to listen to this book with me because I didn’t think it was a book he would read otherwise. We both loved it.
Tom was drawn into Emily Nunn’s story without knowing any of the people in the book. I was drawn into the story because I knew many of the people in this book and I wanted Tom to know them too. I became aware of Emily’s journey on her Comfort Food tour because of Facebook. After connecting with her Aunt Mariah on Facebook, I ended up connecting with her cousins Toni and Susan, and then with Emily. There’s a point in the book when she talks about posting a question on Facebook asking people what they think of as their comfort food. I remember answering that question.
Galax is a small city in southwestern Virginia near the North Carolina border. The five Nunn siblings and the five Sublett siblings attended the same Methodist Kindergarten. My family lived next door to her Uncle John and Aunt Mariah Nunn (to whom she has dedicated this book) and their three daughters until we moved in 1968. The parts of her memoir that talk about her childhood in Galax have a familiarity to me that is uniquely personal, and yet it could be the story of many small rural towns in the 1960s and 70s.
As I listened her memoir unfold, it also brought to mind a famous quote from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I can’t speak for other people’s relationship to food, but in my family, when we think of our best childhood memories, food always has a central role. Is that just a Southern thing? I’m not sure. But the recipes in this book speak to both the dishes of my childhood and the life I live now married to a “foodie.”
She talks about making Morning Custard at the Bluebird Café in Athens, GA, when she was a student at the University of Georgia, and that reminded me I had made a video several years ago of my 90 year old Tia Sylvia showing my sister and I how to make our Granny’s baked custard. Does this happen in all families? I have no way of knowing. Emily’s memoir, centered around food, family dysfunction and failed relationships resonated with me.
My daughter Emily called me tonight to ask me recipe questions – she can’t make out her Grandma Sublett’s handwriting on her signature meatloaf recipe. In a meandering conversation about her childhood, she observed that sometimes she wonders if she and her sister Allison actually lived in the same house because they remember things so differently. That was a real “aha” moment for me. As one of five children myself, I’m sure we each experienced our lives in the same family and household quite differently.
That is a significant point that I don’t want to overlook. This is Emily Nunn’s story of her life the way she experienced it. It’s not up for a vote on “right or wrong” or “good or bad” nor is it anyone else’s story but her own. Her relationships with her family, fiancee and friends are relayed to the reader as she lived them. It’s not about them . . . it’s about her relationship with them. This is her journey. She owns it and she’s sharing it through this memoir. Writing a book about the most personal aspects of your life is likely quite cathartic and satisfying on a number of levels. The vulnerability required to then look at reviews written by friends, colleagues and total strangers about that book, is beyond anything I can imagine. That takes strength and fortitude I’m not sure I have.
After hearing the wonderful audiobook version of The Comfort Food Diaries, my husband Tom ordered the hardcopy book so we would have the recipes. It was a glorious experience to hear Emily’s descriptions of dishes, meals and so many aspects of food preparation while sitting in a traffic backup on I-81 in Virginia. We’ll always remember where we were when we heard her talk about Cathy’s mother’s Sour Cherry Pie, which I knew immediately was the book’s cover photo.
Spending time with this book, experiencing it with someone I wanted to understand the people and places contained in its pages, was a beautiful thing. Life is about the journey. We need to embrace it all – it’s what we have. My heart aches for the loss of Emily’s brother, as my heart aches for the loss of my own brother – who, quite ironically, was born the same day in the same hospital as her cousin Toni Nunn. My dad was the hospital administrator. Because that’s how life was in Galax in the 1960s.
I highly recommend this book. It’s unique. It’s thoughtful and hopeful and real. And the recipes are out of this world wonderful!