I have gone back and forth about whether or not to post a recipe for this book, especially after having put up such a light-hearted post only two weeks ago. The last thing I want to do is seem glib about Didion’s tragedies, but as a person who has experienced loss firsthand I found that Didion’s discussion of what grief does to a person’s body—specifically what it does to the appetite—in The Year of Magical Thinking to be one of the most profoundly interesting and accurate pieces of food-writing that exists. I have been thinking about that chapter a lot recently. This past month has been one of the most challenging in recent memory for a variety of reasons, and has left me seeking solace both in recipes that comfort me and in authors whose words I cherish. Joan Didion holds a special place in my heart as an author who pulled me out of a particularly deep rut and I’ve found myself turning to her writings lately and pulling every bit of wisdom I can from them.
Last May I visited California for the first time. After ten days of adventuring from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I arrived home to a rainy and unseasonably cold New York, still smelling like In-n-Out Burger and thoroughly depressed. After a particularly difficult first day back, in which I bought $60 worth of cheese from an old man at the farmers market because I felt badly for him, and cried at a wooden flute rendition of Chariots of Fire playing in a nail salon, I crawled into bed and wallowed for almost 36 hours. Just when I thought nothing could pull me out of the “am-I-still-in-love-with-New-York” pity hole I had buried myself in, I noticed Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem sitting on my bedside table. I had meant to pack it to read on my trip but had forgotten, and there it sat, still unread and giving off that wonderful new book smell. I cracked it open and read: “This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country” (Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream). For the next four hours, as the light outside of my apartment window went from yellow to orange to blue to black, I devoured every essay. By the time I got to Goodbye to All That and read the first paragraph I was crying like I hadn’t cried in years.
It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.
When I finished I felt somehow fortified. I got out of bed and took a nighttime bike ride and smelled the early springtime smells of Brooklyn—think grass, perogies, hot garbage, deli coffee—and rather than feeling, like Didion, that I should flee back to California, I felt my love of New York renewed.
When our garlic cloves started sprouting, my sister planted them with our money tree (lotta good that’s been) to grow bulbs. The shoots that grow above the soil are just as deliciously garlicky as the cloves, I used them in my soup!
The next day I went and bought every book of Didion’s I could find at the Strand and spent the rest of the week reading them. When I got to The Year of Magical Thinking I had to take a solid two weeks to get through it.
A little while after Didion’s husband dies she suddenly asks herself “Had I eaten?” (30). This question comes with the realization that “if I thought of food…I would throw up” (30). In chapter four Didion quotes from the chapter entitled “Funerals” in Emily Post’s book of etiquette published in 1922, in which Mrs. Post talks about the way food should be presented to the grieving. Mourners should be offered “very little food: tea, coffee, bouillon, a little thin toast, a poached egg. Milk but only heated milk; Cold milk is bad for someone who is already over-chilled.” Stress is placed on the fact that food should be offered in very small portions, “for although stomachs may be empty, the palate rejects the thought of food, and digestion is never in best order.” One should present the grieving with food “without their being asked if they would care for it. Those who are in great distress want no food, but if it is handed to them, they will mechanically take it, and something warm to start digestion and stimulate impaired circulation is what they most need.” Didion goes on to say:
There is something arresting about the matter-of-fact wisdom here, the instinctive understanding of the physiological disruptions, (“changes in the endocrine, immune, autonomic nervous, and cardiovascular systems) later catalogued by the Institute of Medicine….[N]othing in my body was working as it should. Mrs. Post would have understood that. She wrote in a world in which mourning was still recognized, allowed, not hidden from view…In the end Emily post’s 1922 etiquette book turned out to be as acute in its apprehension of this other way of death, and as prescriptive in its treatment of grief, as anything else I read. I will not forget the instinctive wisdom of a friend who, every day for those first few weeks, brought me a quart container of scallion-and-ginger congee from Chinatown. Congee I could eat. Congee was all I could eat (60-63).
Recently, when a deadly mixture of sleepless nights, stress and sadness had my body all out of whack I remembered this chapter. I couldn’t quite stomach the thought of congee, it seemed too heavy and dense, but I found myself craving a huge bowl of ginger scallion soup. I had no recipe but knew exactly what I wanted it to taste like, and as I stood over the steaming pot, adding things and taking them out, tasting and re-tasting and writing down each adjustment, I finally started to feel like myself again.
The Year of Magical Thinking Ginger Scallion Soup
- 4.5 quarts water
- 1 quart chicken broth
- 2 chicken breasts—bone-in no skin
- 2 crushed garlic cloves
- 14 chopped scallions-white bulb removed, reserve two to chop for garnish
- 4 inch piece of ginger peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 lemon (slice and add both juices and rind to pot)
- 4 tsp salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 8 tsp white vinegar
- 8 tsp soy sauce
- 6 beaten eggs
Noodles or rice for serving
Add all of the ingredients besides the eggs together in a stock pot. Let them boil for 30-40 minutes (longer if you can bear it). Strain broth into a bowl and removed chicken from strainer. Pick chicken off of the bones and break into small pieces, then add back to the stock pot. Put burner on medium and take your bowl of beaten eggs. Stir constantly and add eggs in a slow stream, they will start to cook and rise up to the top. Garnish with remaining scallions and pour over rice or noodles to serve.
NOTE: I don’t like too much ginger, I think it starts to taste medicinal, but if you want your soup to taste more gingery peel and roughly chop the ginger then place it in a food-processor with 1 of the quarts of water that is going into the stock pot. Grind to make a ginger slurry and add that to the soup. You will need a fine strainer to get it all out of the broth.