Book review: Stir, by Jessica Fechtor

I made a batch of these chocolate cookies yesterday afternoon. I love this recipe — see my modifications at the end of this post — because it’s very simple and you don’t need to measure ingredients particularly accurately, but the result is a cookie with a deep flavour and a texture that’s heading on for brownie-like. Basically, this is the double-choc cookie recipe that will ~*change your life*~.

I’ve been on a bit of a “the girl who brings cookies” kick recently, which is not an identity I’m entirely comfortable with (I’d rather bring my rapier wit, y’know?) but I am enjoying getting back into baking after spending Spring going “urgggh, I’m too tired and cooking is hard and complicated.” And creaming butter and sugar by hand feels approximately like exercise so this is all about healthful living, right?

Actually, part of what prodded me to get back behind the mixing bowl was reading Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home by Jessica Fechtor, which is a book I’d love to read the proposal for because the concept is that it’s a combination food memoir (ok fair enough…) slash (wait for it…) recovery-from-a-brain-aneurysm memoir.

The book tells Ms Fechtor’s story of how as an otherwise healthy 28 year old, she suddenly collapses in a hotel gym, and later in hospital is diagnosed as having a brain aneurysm. From there, it’s a fortunately-unfortunately story: she survives and has surgery to seal the aneurysm, but then she has (horrifying) complications a few weeks later, which again she survives, but then recovery is slow… But now she’s a successful author and food blogger.

Tied up in all this is, as I say, a food memoir. Ms Fechtor tells us about the places she’s been through the foods she ate there, and lets us meet the family and friends who surround her during her illness and recovery by their signature dishes, from oatmeal cookies to potato salad to latkes. To be honest, I’m not a fan of food memoirs. I have read too many that can be summarized as: I spent a semester in Paris when I was 19 and now I want to tell you all about the clafoutis my landlady made and how French people don’t eat the same way as the rest of us. Yawn. In this case, the food wasn’t my favourite part of the book — even if the discussion of cookies did get me back to baking them myself — but I did appreciate the long-form illustration of how “to fry an egg is to operate with the perfect faith that you will sit down and eat it.”

With or without the food memoir, I think Stir‘s strength is its recounting of a medical emergency, where things go badly so uncomprehensibly quickly and then take so long to return to (a new) normal. Even as the overall story is one you don’t want to imagine yourself in, the details ring true. Like how while Ms Fechtor waits for the ambulance she figures she’s in “a plotline already underway, 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”, or how much later, while she’s at home recovering: “every few weeks, I was certain I’d arrived […] Then a few weeks later, I’d think back to that breakfast and how slowly I’d still moved, […] and revise: ‘Now I feel better.'” It’s these moments of observation that convinced me of the book and they’re what I’d recommend it for.

(That recommendation comes with a disclaimer that the book is quite up-front about some stress-inducing medical scenarios, so you should consider if that’s a sore point for you.)


Chocolate cookie notes for future reference: The recipe makes easily 2 dozen cookies. Use the darkest brown sugar you can find. I use walnuts rather than macadamias because I don’t know if I’ve even seen macadamias here in Italy. Also, I roughly chop a 100g block of cheap dark chocolate in place of the Choc Bits (chocolate chips) and Choc Melts (cooking chocolate) but the contrast between choc chips and choc melts is nice too. I usually add a pinch of salt with the other dry ingredients.

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3 thoughts on “Book review: Stir, by Jessica Fechtor

  1. CatherineRose

    Creaming butter and sugar by hand is definitely a workout. Now I want cookies.

    Also, I hate books and articles that put France on a pedastal. The food is better! The babies are better! There are some things I love in France and some things I don’t, but France is not the be all and end all of doing stuff better than the rest of us. (Just bread and pastries.)

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    1. Where's Zoe Now? Post author

      Italy at least seems to only get this treatment with food, maybe because everything else is so often chaotic you’d be hard-pressed to recommend it with a straight face ;)

      But every time I see an article about how “authentic” Italians are with food with their local markets and family dinners (and yes those stereotypes have basis in reality), I really want to reply with a series of photos of Italians waiting at the checkout at a large supermarket with their carts full of plastic-wrapped preservative-laden croissants because those people are real Italians too…

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