Eat Joy, edited by Natalie Eve Garrett, is an essay compilation about comfort food, but not the category of food that, in America, tends to include large amounts of butter. Here, comfort food is whatever dish has helped 31 notable writers through various life phases, described in the book as “Growing Pains,” “Loss,” “Healing,” and “Homecoming.”
In the “Loss” section, for example, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche shares her memories of her family’s houseboy in Nigeria and the jollof rice he made. Under the “Homecoming” category, there’s Alexander Chee on what he learned from a cleanse. Along with these stories, and all of the stories in Eat Joy, the writers have included recipes that, the idea goes, may help readers through their own trials.
In this essay from Eat Joy, Rakesh Satyal, author of the novels Blue Boy and No One Can Pronounce My Name, explains how learning to baking pie made him feel more American and less afraid. — Monica Burton
For most of my childhood, I had guys who cornered me in the hallways at school or tormented me on the bus rides home; there were the times when someone would rip a book from my hands and throw it across the playground or trip me so that I fell face-first into the dirt underneath the swings. When you are in the throes of bullying, when you are facing the physical terror of it, the menace that could be something as intangible as a glare or something as tangible as a punch, it is not a term but an entire state of fear. This is all the more reason that, once you escape whatever threat has been immediately in front of you, you seek out something over which you have control, materials and tools and processes that you can use to make something beautiful. As a queer person, being creative — exercising the right of creativity, the liberation it could provide, the solace it could generate — was an act of survival on my part. So it’s no great surprise that I turned to pie, a literal enclosure of taste, as a means of comfort.
Pie — that quintessential symbol of coziness and culinary Americana, a dish so enticing that being simply left on a windowsill to cool causes it, in caricature, to extend wavy tendrils of scent into the surrounding air and draw neighbors in by their noses. Sadly, although I grew up in decidedly suburban Ohio, we weren’t so rural as to have pies cooling on window sills. My family was Indian; we weren’t in the habit of making pies at all. Instead, my mother would either make barfi, a traditional Indian confection composed of sweet condensed milk, coconut, and cardamom, or Betty Crocker chocolate cakes from mixes, which my dad brought home from his job at General Mills.
Perhaps because it wasn’t a mainstay in my daily life, perhaps because it wasn’t informed by my parents’ immediate cultural understanding, and perhaps because it was in that rarefied world of American culinary comfort, I turned to piemaking as a coping mechanism. I figured that if I actually made the confections readily associated with those who were tormenting me, I might circumvent the sometimes brutal circumstances in which I found myself. Why not commit to something so dearly embraced by American culture to see if it would legitimize me more? There were TV mothers who made them so deftly, who seemed so content in their willful production of edible Americana, and I could join their ranks, for I, too, had become adept at taking the things the world could give me and turning them into something more beautiful, more bolstering — or at the very least, something that might make me less disliked.
I remember the first pie that I ever made: apple, of course, but I forgot to remove the peels from the apples themselves, so the filling included the tough red skin. Meanwhile, I had also forgotten to cover the pie’s edges with foil for the better part of the baking process, so when it came out of the oven, it resembled the opposite of a solar eclipse image in a science book—a bright center and a burnt corona surrounding it.
There would be better and more refined pies to come. Once I had mastered the art of making a crust — at the age of thirteen — I was free to experiment with whatever I wanted to include within it. All manner of fruits were explored — only fitting for a queer person—and then there was the requisite period in which I made savory things, quiches and tarts and pastries assembled from reconstituted dough.
Doing my homework, I found myself doodling pies on my notebook while I sat at the dining room table, or into my problem sets during particularly tedious lectures in math class. (But not during language arts, when I was too busy devouring the literary discussion to focus on anything else.) Soon enough, I was drawing pies that sprouted wings, or over which a halo of light hovered, or that had musical notes wafting out of them along with their aroma. The scariness of the world around me meant that I had to contain my ostentation within myself, but I could unfetter it on the page, as deftly as my hands stirred together blueberries and sugar and cinnamon for a filling.
This out-of-the-box thinking (or out-of-the-pie-plate thinking) led me to try out intricate shapes that I added to my crusts. That’s right: this queen knows how to accessorize her pastries, mmmk? I’d roll dough into little discs that I’d wrap around each other to create roses and other shapes, and I’d bake them separately and then add them to the top of my pies. This was basically my version of waving a Pride flag before I could officially come out. (Years later, I still mention this to my parents: “You really didn’t know when I made blueberry pies with floral arrangements on them?”)
People often deride cooking as a chore or an unnecessarily taxing undertaking, an activity that exacerbates stress instead of relieving it. Even more people seem to deride baking, in particular — the meticulousness of measurement it stipulates, the sheer number of steps it takes to transform dry and wet ingredients into a cake adorned in icing, a cookie studded with chips, and yes, a pie crisscrossed in sugar-speckled strips. But those of us who love baking love it for the very reason that others shy away from it: the praxis of it, the dexterity of movement and imagination of its construction and the boundaries that can be teased out and pushed. These make it worth the mental exercise and acuity, and then there is the coup de grâce: the finished product itself, physical proof of the thought and careful stewardship that went into it. And, well, it’s pretty. (Unless it’s mincemeat. That shit looks medieval.)
Since the election, I have basically salted the inside of my pies with my own tears. (Yes, this is pretty much a plot point of the movie Waitress and its musical-theater incarnation.) But I continue to find deep comfort in seeing this sweet creation that I’ve brought into the world, this fruity embodiment of my efforts to soldier forth in the face of adversity. It’s become, fittingly, a kind of mantra: Take your fear. Bake your fear. And make your fear go away.