Ruby Tan­doh on Nora Ephron

FOOD WRITER AND ES­SAY­IST RUBY TAN­DOH ON THE MEN­TOR SHE NEVER MET

ELLE (UK) - - Con­tents - Photography Sa­man­tha Ca­so­lari

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’

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