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Finding Comfort in Food, A Lesson From Nora Ephron’s 'Heartburn'

Food52 logo Food52 6/24/2022 Kelly Vaughan

“Food, I think, is my favorite thing,” Nora Ephron once said to Vogue’s food critic Jeffrey Steingarten, during an interview in her Upper East Side kitchen, “When I go somewhere, I have no desire whatsoever to see a famous Renaissance painting. I only want to go to the market and I only want to go to the restaurants. It’s all I care about.”

Nora Ephron always knew best, especially when it came to food. Her quips and one-liners have always been a source of comfort. On a bad day, there’s nothing a bowl of pasta—my carb of choice—and a Nora Ephron movie can’t salvage, or at least until the credits roll. As for Ephron, she’d turn to potatoes—her carb of choice—when life got sharp around the edges, and wallowed in a bowl of buttery mashed comfort. At least, that’s what she wrote in her 1983 autobiographical novel Heartburn, a book that is as much a lesson on hauling yourself out of heartache as it is on mastering the perfect vinaigrette. In Heartburn, she recounts the end to her second marriage. At seven months pregnant, she finds out her husband has taken a lover, leaving her with nothing but a baby on the way and her recipe for the perfect vinaigrette. And you’d be a fool to think she’d ever give that to her husband.

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In Heartburn, she thinly fictionalized herself as a food writer, scattering recipes throughout the book. As to tip my hat to Ephron on the 10th anniversary of her death, I decided to spend my weekend cooking my way through the pivotal moments of Heartburn, starting with the heartache-soothing mashed potatoes, the “you just don’t bump into a vinaigrette that good” vinaigrette, and key lime pie, the latter of which is more than just a sweet ending to Ephron’s legacy. At the end of Heartburn, when her marriage was truly at the point of boiling over, a sliver of catharsis was found in a key lime pie, which she threw into her husband’s face with gusto during a dinner party.

This key lime pie really is incredibly easy to make and more importantly, it’s loaded with butter. Nora Ephron didn’t believe in God; she believed in butter. Since this is the woman who once uttered the words “All this stuff about butter is probably as close as I’ll ever get to religion,” I figured it would be rude to disregard her philosophy on the matter. So off I went, pouring a steady stream of melted butter into the graham cracker crust. While I poured a second full can of sweetened condensed milk into the mixing bowl as Harry Connick Jr. played in the background (it wouldn’t be an ode to Ephron without him), it crossed my mind that I had gone temporarily insane for doing this.

So that night, while watching the opening credits of *When Harry Met Sally*, I was happy to forgo my usual bowl of pasta for buttery mashed potatoes, salad, and pie.

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While the pie sat in the freezer to set, I tossed a few handfuls of arugula with the vinaigrette and went to town on the butter for the mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes may be labor-intensive, but it’s a true labor of love. Although the recipe calls for a potato ricer, my kitchen built for pasta-over-potatoes is not equipped with one. This was not the time for disappointment, so with my old-fashioned potato masher, I grabbed however much butter was leftover from the key lime pie and, per instruction, added, “as much melted butter as you feel like” as well as a tablespoon of heavy cream. I grilled a filet of salmon to accompany the attack on my arteries in an effort to achieve something resembling balance.

So that night, while watching the opening credits of When Harry Met Sally, I was happy to forgo my usual bowl of pasta for buttery mashed potatoes, salad, and pie. The vinaigrette was thick, creamy and tangy, and the key lime pie was as rich and utterly delicious as it sounds. With each bite, I couldn’t help but think that if I ever were to vindictively throw an item of food in a lover’s face, this would be it. The custardy lime with the mountain of whipped cream really makes it the perfect mess for a job like this. Even at a dinner party. Especially at a dinner party.

I’m sorry to tell you that the key lime pie from Heartburn was a fictional story from Ephron. In reality, it was a bottle of red wine that widened the eyes of those around the dining table, the contents of which she poured over his head. The entire bottle, to the very last drop, streaming down his face, soaking his clothes and drenching the linoleum floor. So that night, while Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal sang Surrey with a Fringe on Top in front of Ira, I had to pour myself a glass of merlot.

In Heartburn, Nora Ephron calls the relationship with her best friends “a shrine to food”, but Nora Ephron’s entire life was a shrine to food. Even in the deepest throes of heartbreak, she knew just how to reach for the stovetop in a way that could melt away the sharpest edges of the pain, finding comfort in whichever mouthful would come next. Braving herself through the heartache, until she was ready to cook for someone new again.

“What I love about cooking,” she wrote, “is that after a hard day, there is something comforting about the fact that if you melt butter and add flour and then hot stock, it will get thick. It’s a sure thing! It’s a sure thing in a world where nothing is sure; it has a mathematical certainty in a world where those of us who long for some kind of certainty are forced to settle for crossword puzzles.”

And I, for one, will never settle for a crossword puzzle either.

Share your favorite memories and lessons from Nora Ephron in the comments below.
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