Ruby Tandoh on Nora Ephron
FOOD WRITER AND ESSAYIST RUBY TANDOH ON THE MENTOR SHE NEVER MET
How the legendary writer Nora Ephron gives guidance to the chef from beyond the grave
There’s this one story I like to tell anyone who’ll listen. It’s about how I made my now-girlfriend pancakes the first morning she woke up at my flat. I ran to the shop for eggs and lemons, hoisted her on to the kitchen counter and made her sit there sleepily with a cup of tea while I cooked. I found a perfect recipe with five-star reviews. I followed it to the letter and turned out a really awful batch of pancakes.
People say you can taste the love that went into something. Those people have clearly never tried my pancakes. They were all kinds of bad: some heavy and thick, some anaemic, others somehow sweaty, crunchy, or crumpled into a craggy mess. When I tell people this story, the joke is not how terrible those pancakes were, but the fact that Leah ended up falling in love with me in spite of them.
There was a time when I would have scraped the lot into the bin and run to the bakery for croissants or maybe a couple of almond Danishes, and prayed never to see Leah again. I might have uninstalled Tinder and thrown my phone into the sea. But that morning, there was a third person in the kitchen. She leaned over the stove, wrinkled her nose at the pancakes and told me they looked like crap. ‘But forget about it,’ she yawned. ‘Everything is copy.’
I hear Nora Ephron, the late screenwriter, director, journalist and food lover, a lot these days. Last year, actress Grace Gummer played her in Amazon’s series Good Girls Revolt, chronicling the struggle of women working in journalism in the late Sixties, pushing for the right to be allowed to write, and be credited for, all the smart, unflinching commentary they had to offer. She was best known for writing films such as When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless In Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, and now her spirit is right here at my kitchen counter, even though I never met her and she died in 2012. Most times, she’s screaming at me for using the sea-salt flakes that, she insists, scratch the top of her mouth, or telling me I’m using the wrong dessert cutlery. Often, her voice is sharp with criticism, although at other times it slows and softens as she coaxes me into adding another spoonful of butter to the pan.
She’s a little demon on my shoulder with a New York twang and this real, unshakeable conviction about the right way to serve meatloaf. I don’t know if she’s the best cooking teacher I’ve ever had, but she definitely thinks she is. The thing that always comes to me, though, when I’ve made some kind of culinary faux pas, is that one phrase, ‘everything is copy’, that Nora’s screenwriter mother drilled in to her, which she then fed, through her writing, to a generation of porous minds. It’s the phrase she uses when something goes so terribly wrong that the only way to stop it knocking you flat is to turn it into the punchline of a joke, the crux of an article or the chapter of a book.
With a philosophy like ‘everything is copy’, it’s little wonder that so much of Nora’s life became fodder for her art. You’d be forgiven for thinking that her life – as messy and complex and painful as anyone’s – wasn’t even the main event, but just a prelude to the punchline that she’d construct from it. In her books and screenplays, that singular acerbic voice splits into a chorus of different personalities, each carrying with it a small part of Nora. Each of those voices is impassioned and creative and whip-smart. Most of all, though, they’re hungry. Nora loved food.
In Heartburn, a ‘thinly veiled novel’ based on Nora’s real-life marriage to and divorce from her second husband, she becomes Rachel, a cynical wife and beleaguered food writer, or cynical food writer and beleaguered wife, depending on the day. In her screen adaptation of her book, Meryl Streep’s Rachel cooks spaghetti carbonara and brings it to Mark (played by Jack Nicholson) in bed at 4am, after their first night together. When I first saw that scene, as an impressionable 18-year-old, I thought that was true love. As you grow older, you lose that romantic streak, though, and realise that, first and foremost, no matter how vigilant you are, the other person in your bed will always drop crumbs or sauce or a rogue tail of spaghetti on to the sheets, and it’s you who is going to have to live with it. You don’t let someone eat in your bed unless you love the bones of them. Through all the bluster, Nora was a hopeless romantic, and it’s impossible to watch her films without being infected by that funny, clumsy, romantic spark.
The whole of her body of work is just like that, though: every romance she wrote was a metaphorical crumb-strewn, rumpled bed. These things are all wrapped up together, and they come hand in hand with the inevitability of mess along the way. In When Harry Met Sally, Meg Ryan’s Sally channels Nora’s own eccentric way of ordering (‘I’d like the pie heated, and I don’t want the ice cream on top, I want it on the side, and I’d like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it. If not, then no ice cream, only cream, but only if it’s real’), and it’s that quirk that both infuriates and entraps Harry, played by Billy Crystal. In Sleepless In Seattle, it turns out the measure of a person is how well they make potatoes.
By Nora’s final film, Julie & Julia, in 2009, food and love had become pretty much one and the same. Butter was love, boeuf bourguignon was care and struggle and the pay-off for devoting yourself to a cause. Just as food blogger Julie’s life mirrors the path of TV chef Julia Childs, the romantic fates of the two heroines become bound up in the food they cook and, crucially, the relationship they have with that food. Food is life, love is food, you can eat yourself out of love and cook your way into it. As someone who had a troubled relationship with food for a long time, that emotional, even mystical power of food in Nora’s films was deeply cathartic to me: if I could love someone, and love them enough to cook great food for them, then there was no reason I couldn’t extend that same care to myself. That self-care is revolutionary.
When you look at Nora’s work, it hardly makes sense that this wistful romantic – a foodie long before anyone had even coined the term – is the same woman who wrote biting takedowns in her newspaper and magazine columns, and who got her big break in journalism thanks to a parody article where she coolly tore apart the New York Post (the newspaper’s then publisher, Dorothy Schiff, promptly gave Nora a job because, by her logic, if she could parody the paper then she could write for it). By all accounts, she was tough.
But vulnerability and tenacity aren’t incompatible. They’re not incongruous in all the ways that some self-righteous men would have us believe. The key to Nora’s success – the thing that gave her the power to reach out and grab you by the heart and drag your neurotic ass to enlightenment – was that she was an incurable sharer. She put her life at the centre of her art, and when she did that, she gave a thousand other women licence to do the same. I used to balk at the smallness of my work. I looked at those writers tackling the big issues, and I felt embarrassed at how my writing was peppered with little, self-conscious ‘I’s. But learning from Nora changed all that. Everything was copy for her, and that meant being unembarrassed to root your art in the real, difficult, undignified messiness of your own life. As a terribly self-absorbed person, naturally I was thrilled to realise this, and I’ve been boring people about the finer details of my life ever since.
In her final essay collection, I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections, written in 2010, Nora lists ‘What I Will Miss’. Roughly a third of that list is food: waffles, the concept of waffles, bacon, butter, dinner at home… She was hungry for more right until the end (she died of complications resulting from leukaemia). Every time I watch her films I get this pang, sometimes in my heart, sometimes in my belly (it’s getting harder and harder to tell them apart), so I take her lead and head to the kitchen to feed my soul. I’m ready to retry my pancakes, but they’re as thick as placemats and wet like flippers. Nora’s there, rolling her eyes at my uselessness. I look her dead in the eye as I flip a pancake on to the floor. ‘What kind of a damn food writer are you that can’t even make pancakes?’ she says. I shrug, as I start to write.
Ruby Tandoh's book, Flavour: Eat What You Love, is out now
‘FOOD IS LIFE, LOVE IS FOOD, YOU CAN EAT YOURSELF OUT OF LOVE AND COOK YOUR WAY INTO IT’