Tuesday, 6 December 2016 | 51 comments

What to eat when things aren’t going so well

I. On a Sunday afternoon

I am making three lasagnas, one for a family member who was just diagnosed with lymphoma, one for a friend with a brand new baby, and one for my sister.


The baby and the cancer happened so quickly, seemingly days apart. Events like these make me broody about mortality and humans and life. In darker moments, it feels relentless, this onslaught of new babies and people I love falling sick, as if I will never possess arms open enough or heart big enough to welcome them and give them the tenderness they deserve, the protection they need. Three lasagnas: the puniest of offerings.

I bring the lasagna to family dinner, and everyone has seconds. Everyone is quiet while they chew. It is not okay. And yet.

II. On a Tuesday night, oh wait, now early Wednesday morning, oh god

I am not one to wallow, really. I think things can be really, really bad, but not apocalyptic. Modernity is simultaneously more fragile and more resilient than we think. I believe in work. Which is probably why it was a very bad idea to take off a week of work during the election.

We are having talks about normalization in our household and in popular media, and I have opinions about it. What I want everyone to know is that it’s human to normalize things, so you shouldn’t feel guilty when you do. Should you fight it? Yes. Set yourself a calendar reminder every morning at 8 am to write to your senator about Aleppo or Bannon or campaign finance reform or immigration. Automate your donations. Use behavioral psychology to help your poor lizard brain keep its focus on important issues of which it will tire. And it will tire. You will want, soon enough, to post a photo of the yuppie naturally leavened bread that you baked.

When bad things happen, there’s a bizarre insistence from other conscientious folks that we stop talking about flip things like what’s for dinner, but the fact is that we all still eat, and that the bad things are there, every single day. Similarly, the work never, ever ends. Timeliness of our response is important. Consistency, though, and settling in for the long haul, is paramount. We have to be able to, every single day, keep our brains and hearts open enough to fight injustice where you see it and drive yourself to work and take care of your babies or your health or your girlfriend and sometimes to eat dinner. These things are not of equal importance. But there they are, all contained in the span of the same 24 hours.

I’m stirring a pot of soup while calling my senator (How is he doing? I ask the answering machine. Must be weird to be that-guy-who-was-almost-vice-president). Some people’s day jobs are writing about food. Some people’s day jobs are working at a bank. Some people’s day jobs are being Senator-Almost-Vice-President. My day job is working on health systems in poor countries, but for some reason I’ve also been writing a silly blog about food (sort of) for six years. I want us all to keep our day jobs and our silly blogs and keep cooking dinner and keep fighting. These things are not mutually exclusive. I want us to work to keep them not mutually exclusive, not just for ourselves, but for everyone else. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone else could cram fighting and working and also enjoying a meal into their days?

This is what I am committed to, the victory of the ordinary-that-is-not-ordinary. It is popular to act like sitting down to a reasonable dinner at the end of the day is a small, humble act. What a joke. It is a big, hard act, and it is a privilege.

I have a nurse practitioner friend who says that everyone medicates in some way or another. I drink more wine than I should.

III. Early Wednesday morning

We have a small copse of woods on our property, around 4 scrubby acres. It’s not much, but it’s a veritable nature preserve for the surrounding area, as the developments close in around us. Coyotes, white-tailed deer, pileated woodpeckers. The deer are a plague. We signed up for a service that links small landowners with hunters, with the aim of letting some bow hunters into the woods this season. (Yes, this is basically AirBnb for hunting. What a world.)

At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about having strangers out killing animals in our woods. But I’ve been surprised how nice it feels to share our small sanctuary with people, and grateful for their respect and kindness. One is a wine importer, and brings gifts of ground venison alongside bottles of Brut cava. Another, an older gentleman who has retired to the aforementioned dreaded developments, is so enthusiastic it’s catching. “This is God’s country!” he shouts as he walks back in, cheeks cold and shiny red. He’s convinced there’s an eight-point buck out there. They drive in before dawn.

One day as I headed out, Tom, the wine importer, huffed and puffed through the yard, dragging a doe behind him. “Did you just get her?” I asked. “No,” he said, “I got her at first light, clean. She dropped where she stood. But then I sat and watched the morning.” He promises to bring the backstrap – the choicest cut – for us, and I promise to share with him the best venison chili recipe. He drives home, and I drive into DC.

IV. Yesterday
I have been writing an essay about Dairy Queen for about six months now. I got it into my head the last time I visited my grandparents’ farm in Indiana that I was going to write this piece about Dairy Queen and taking refuge and hockey-puck-shaped Dilly Bars. I planned to take a grand writer road trip to confirm that, per this outdated website, the original Dairy Queen in Joliet, Illinois became a church and then an auto insurance office. Sometimes I overshare and tell people all about this fabulous essay that I’m sort of in the middle of writing, and I have a lot of it done, like a lot, like 10,000 words a lot, which actually is definitely too many words to write about your personal feelings about Dairy Queen.

In any event, I consider it something of a creative failure to have only been able to write part of a long, bad essay about Dairy Queen for six months. I don’t need to tell you the kind of paralyzing, sneaky, hate spiral this can send someone into, one where one doesn’t do anything at all because of the aforementioned clear creative failure.

But I do want to write more, and yesterday, at a very low moment, decided that even if it’s just a LiveJournal rant about feelings, thinly-veiled politics, soup, and dead deer, that I would do so, today. So here I am. Ben is at a conference (farmers have conferences in the winter). I am eating cold leftover Kung Pao tofu. I am writing.

Tomorrow I’ll call Tim Kaine’s answering machine again.


I. This lasagna – the creme fraiche is a true stroke of genius. It’s almost annoying how fabulous all of Julia Turshen’s recipes are.

II. This soup: Kenji for president

III. Best ever venison chili: Molasses! Coffee! Many chiles!

IV. Get your wok out, I made Kung Pao tofu that’s a mash-up of this (without the deep frying, sorry President Kenji), this, and this recipe. It is a process, but good. Chinkiang vinegar if you can get your hands on it; 1 tbsp red wine + 1 tbsp balsamic if you can’t.

V. Places to send your ducats, if ya got ’em:
Southern Poverty Law Center
Planned Parenthood
Council on Islamic-American Relations
– Consider supporting your local or regional or national news outlets! We need strong free press more than ever.

§ 51 responses to What to eat when things aren’t going so well

  • Jennifer Cole

    So nice to read your words again. Thank you for the reminders and the links. Best wishes

  • Amy

    If we don’t feed our bodies and our souls, we have nothing left to give. Thank you for taking the time for writing this.

  • I grew up with a Dairy Queen too – closed in the winter, only open during the warm months. It’s claim to fame was that it didn’t serve burgers – just ice cream which in my book made it the best ever. This was in Illinois. I always thought the Dilly Bar was a bit underrated too – I like butterscotch, which always seemed to run out. Our DQ did chocolate soft serve just once a week. Geez, I hope that place is still there, unchanged.

    Would love to read your essay some day – as someone else who plays around with ideas from the mid-west, writing about places that feel familiar, yet foreign now. Memories. Wishes. An entire summer of peanut buster parfaits.

  • Ha. I’ve been working on the same novel for 4 years. 4 YEARS. I don’t even know if it’s good anymore. I’m going to keep going though.

    Thank you for writing.

  • Susan

    I don’t believe your blog is silly. Not one bit.

  • I can’t tell you how soothing this was to read. I also see and feel the confluence of friends gaining children and losing parents at a jarring speed. I too work in healthcare and have been trying to channel every ounce of my frustration and sadness into something concrete and worthwhile. One long apology for moving to London instead of staying behind to help. It is a tougher season this year but it also has the comforting wonders that show up every year. ‘The victory of the ordinary-that-is-not-ordinary’ is absolutely right.

  • Mary-Jo Dale

    I read your posts religiously and live them all but this one has totally touched a nerve.

    I have a brother with a learning disability. I won’t go into details, as that would a book. He has lived on his own since mom and Dad passed some 20 years ago. He was just diagnosed with cancer. His “neighbor” Cross the hall doesn’t like him nor understand him. My brother wants to move. Next month will start a new regime “to make America great again” and all I want is to make America better again.

    I am supposed to be jolly as the holidays are coming and all I do is cry. Can you make me one of your lasagnas?

  • Courtney

    What started out as soothing, wound up hurting my heart. It’s very upsetting to read about hunting animals in an area they have sought sanctuary in (I love animals to bits and don’t consume meat).

  • Stacy

    Your writing is the reason I read this blog. It’s good.

  • Shannon Thornton

    Thanks for putting this out there. I wanted to paste so many quotes and link the post to FB for my friends to see. I feel – as many others here do – many of the same pulls now and become afraid that I’ve lapsed and that I will simply close my door to the activism that I need to find a way to manage now. Thanks for putting 24 hours into context.

  • jacquie

    i love your writing, your thoughts and your musings. It is the about the simple and ordinary everyday things that we need to do including eating, caring and being activists in our small way. Not silly at all. Please keep sharing.

  • Between your’s and Molly Wizenberg’s recent blog post, I have spent two mornings at my desk at the office, near tears. I don’t necessarily know why, other than I’m feeling particularly fragile post-election and other people’s writing reminds me why. Thank you for putting words to the emotions.

  • and the cycle of life continues……

  • The kitchen is where I am during times of stress. I cook when I’m in pain, like right now after a tooth extraction! I think there’s enough food for days! I’m thankful for the ability to make food and then write about it on my silly blog, which started out of necessity when I gave up everything back home to move to another country. We need our silly blogs and our silly words.

  • Katie

    Perpetual lurker and I’ve been reading along for more of those six years than I realized, but this post is one of my favorites you’ve written (the other was maybe 2 years ago on your work and on privilege and one I still read from time to time). The balance between the trivial and the big, hard fighting is so essential, so privileged, and so challenging to hold the right space for – but this is such an eloquent reminder that it is all life. Your line about all that our 24 hours hold is really ringing true. And AirBnB for hunters made me laugh; I know hunting is a fraught subject for many but living in the country and places with development pressure make it so clear the important role hunters play in helping maintain healthy populations that nature isn’t able to regulate on its own because we’ve modified it too much. Thank you for sharing, for writing about the hard and the daily. xo

  • This was a beautiful essay. It gave me the feeling of spending a rainy afternoon cooking a meal with friends and then sitting down at the table to eat. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Beautiful. I am also trying to figure out how to work and blog and feed my family and keep fighting. Thank you for this.

  • This is so beautiful! Esp. this quote “When bad things happen, there’s a bizarre insistence from other conscientious folks that we stop talking about flip things like what’s for dinner, but the fact is that we all still eat, and that the bad things are there, every single day.” — I needed it. x

  • Death and birth, activism, hunting, writing, food. Wow. I just lost a friend to cancer and stepmother to old age as I read about a league of former students having babies and friends becoming grandparents. Is this the path tom acceptance? I feel the fire lit under my ass to fight for what I believe. Where will I be the most helpful? After living in the Adirondacks for 26 years, it warmed my heart reading about the arrangement you’ve made with hunters, and I’m not a hunter. The hunters I know have a deep reverence for nature. And you’ve inspired me to write again – I fell into that dark nobody-gives-a-shit hole a while ago. And I believe there are those of us who show our love with food – a friend’s daughter was coming home from college and she said “I need to bake gigantic chocolate chip cookies!” Need I say more? I do.
    Thank you.

  • Dana W.

    Perfect timing for comfort foods like lasagna and lentil soup. Can’t wait to try these great twists on the traditional! For even more comfort, add the ACLU to your list. A highly effective organization, they’re ramping up the fight for civil rights at all levels of our judicial system and can use the support! http://www.aclu.org

    • Yes Dana! I’m new to this blog but will be back. I second the ACLU! I’m a Canadian and fiercely political. Going to the ACLU gave me a sense that there is hope and sanity.

  • Thank you for this post.

  • Jean

    Your writing is so beautiful. Thank you for this post.

  • Always so happy to see a new post, and to hear your voice. Yes to more writing – I’ve been feeling the same tug lately.

  • YES! Livejournal! Politics! Life! All of it. Fabulous.

    I am failing at writing about statistics since the election. It seems a 30 day migraine (how is that even possible!?) will do that to you. But there are so many ways to create: writing, yes, but also cooking, playing music, sharing what you have with others. All of it beautiful and worthy and good.

    The struggle continues.

  • Connie Sargent

    So good to read your lovely prose.

    Through many and many ups, downs and in betweens, cooking is what I do… for nourishment of my friends and family and delight to my soul.
    My children are superb cooks (Moms are allowed to brag) and my granddaughter, age just barely 6, is going to open a restaurant with her specialty… batter fried squash blossoms. These facts sustain me more than chocolate. Well, maybe not chocolate, but close. :)

    Long may you flourish and long may you nourish us with your food and your writing.


  • Alexandra

    I’m so sorry to hear about your family member. There aren’t ever appropriate or meaningful words for these things, especially from a stranger, but the sentiment is sincere.

  • Kate

    What an interesting post! It’s so heartfelt and meandering and you’ve drawn a beautiful circle of words that comes back to its beginning.

  • so honest and real and beautiful! thank you.

    and that lasagna, oh wow!

  • Anna G

    Thank you for this, Sarah. Feeling this extra hard over here in Seattle.

  • Kath the Cook

    Just absolutely brilliant and moving. Welcome your return and hope for more thoughtful words soon…..

  • Kristina

    I am so happy whenever you post. Thank you!!!

  • Yes, these are tough months. Similar struggles here. I do want to echo the many folks who’ve said that your posts are always very appreciated. I have followed and stopped following many blogs over the years and yours is the one that I’ve never considered culling from the dwindling list, and always look forward to checking in on. Thank you.

  • TRE

    For the last 8 weeks I’ve been feeling like maybe one day I’d wake up and things would be different. Today I wished a colleague well as he left work for extended leave to accompany a very sick young child through months of treatment and realized I need to put matters into better perspective.
    But still, comparatively speaking, Kenji would be a good president.

    A few weeks ago I was in VA for work, along with several colleagues from Japan, the UK, and a few other places. We took turns picking where we wanted to eat each evening, based on the food we most missed while living abroad, and the UK component picked DQ for dessert (after truly excellent VA BBQ).

    The chili recipe sounds really good, although I’d probably prefer tofu to venison. Please wear very bright colors when you go out walking in your woods!

    I am glad I happened to read this piece. You are a talented writer, and your words not only make me think deeply, they make me feel like I know you. I guess I sort of do…..(Kara’s mom ).

  • Elke

    Fried eggs, sunny side up. My comfort food. If I could eat this every day the past few months, I would. Thank you for putting into eloquent words what’s been rolling around in my mind. You and Leonard Cohen’s last album…

  • So great to pop in here and see a new post. Love reading your words. I hope you had a nice holiday. Wishing you all the best for 2017!

  • Chris

    Thank you for allowing the hunters to work their part in conservation and I hope you enjoy the shared harvest. We processed plenty among our group of friends this season and shared a good portion with the land owners as well.

  • Cooking in Brooklyn

    I keep returning to this post, thank you so much for this reminder to ground ourselves in what is important, to take of ourselves so that we don’t become fatigued as we respond to what at times feels overwhelming. Thank you (and for the terrific recipes, too! Have already enjoyed a few lasagna dinners this winter!).

  • Thank you for being an authentic and compassionate voice. I’ll be back!

  • The not-pleasant combination of being in eldercare hell with my mother, while simultaneously dodging political/existential anxiety has resulted in my disappearing from the world for a while: we Cancerians, in times of woe and fear, crawl deep into our shells. In my case, this food writer also forgets to cook, and to eat. Long way of saying: I missed this post. Reading it this morning has reconnected and grounded me, and I thank you. And I wish we lived closer so that we could raise a glass and make a lasagna together. Sending love.

  • Cindy Buck

    I wish I’d written this. Keep it up, please.

  • I hope your essay about the DQ includes a reference to “Waiting for Guffman” (Parker Posey is fabulous.)
    Putting venison and tofu into one entry is wonderful. Made me think of something Michael Pollan said: “At home I serve the kind of food I know the story behind”
    Love your prose, thanks for being here.

  • Rachael Davis

    I finished up this free Kindle book on how to cook (How to Cook: An Easy Guide to Cooking Techniques) and was looking for a recipe to practice on and I’m real glad I found this. Looks amazing, I can’t wait to try, thanks for posting!

  • thank-you x

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