The Comfort Food Diaries

Book review: “The Comfort Food Diaries” by Emily Nunn

Like so many of my favorite meals, “The Comfort Food Diaries” was a bit of a mixed dish. Rich and warming, bitter and sweet, the narrative satisfied on many levels, especially at a time when we could all use a solid serving of comfort.

In the “Diaries,” author Emily Nunn embarks on a self-described Comfort Food Tour, cooking and visiting with family and friends across the country on a meandering quest to reassemble the pieces of her shattered life. Reeling from her brother’s death and a devastating breakup, Nunn sifts through the leftovers and shares deeply personal insights while chronicling her efforts to recover a sense of home. 

Food can be such a direct and gratifying metaphor for healing. Nunn takes this a step further by incorporating recipes along the way, as she creates new dishes and re-discovers old favorites during her trip. The book maintains a well-balanced flow, sharing just the right amount of both stories and recipes, so I never felt as though I were simply reading a cookbook (which is a perfectly worthwhile pastime, by the way).

By the end however, the Diaries left me feeling a bit hungry. The author’s journey takes her into a number of privileged spaces clearly inaccessible to the average reader, and at times it was difficult to relate. 

An award-winning food and features reporter who covered theater and restaurants at the New Yorker, Nunn taps into a network of restaurateurs while roaming from her Charleston loft, to Chicago, to New York, to the Blue Ridge mountains. She has transformative experiences at an all-inclusive private resort: a restored Southern plantation mansion on an island once owned by the Carnegie family. Chefs craft Nunn special dishes, delicious in their simplicity. 

She ultimately lands in “the rigid hierarchy of a professional kitchen” at the Eseeola Lodge, a high-end mountain resort in North Carolina, where she gains strength through the meditative work of chopping vegetables day and night.

To be fair, Nunn also has dinner with her dad at Ruby Tuesday. Twice. So it’s not all glamour and triple-cream cheeses. Often I simply enjoyed this view into another world, and even wound up cooking my way through several of the author’s recipes. 

Classic, homey dishes like Sweet Chunk Pickles, Great-grandmother’s Mean Lemon Cake, and Ragu Bolognese helped Nunn keep things grounded, and it seemed to work for me as well. The portions were huge and the flavors took a strongly Southern slant. Soon I was bringing pound cake and collard greens to a few delighted friends, and it occurred to me that sharing those moments was the real take-away.