I recently had the pleasure of interviewing my friend Jessica Soffer for The Tottenville Review. Jess’s debut novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, was published last week and is just beautiful. You should really, really read it.
In the meantime, here are a few select excerpts of our conversation, the complete version of which can be found here.
In your novel you write about food with a sense of nostalgia and warmth and fondness. It seems like the antidote to suffering. Do you have your own fond, familial memories of food? If so, what are they?
I come from a long line of people who believe in the curative powers of food. My father was born in Baghdad, Iraq in the 1920s and his mother was a healer. She believed in eating for one’s well-being, to strengthen and fortify and enrich the body by eating particular things. Iraqi Jews of that time also believed in eating by color: yellow fruits and vegetables for happiness, rose petals for love, shunning black and unlucky foods, such as the skin of eggplants. When my father came to the United States, he was forced to abandon his family, his Jewish faith, his national pride, and so food and the flavors of his childhood were the way he reestablished a home in New York, by replicating his mother’s recipes.
I love this answer. I also see so much of that in you: your first question, every time I walk into your apartment, is, “What can I get you? Tea?” (I’ll overlook the part about how you then ask me if I want hemp milk in it, the thought of which chills me to my bones.) I think food, offerings of food and drink, are such a beautiful part of friendship. I think I have told you about how weirdly sentimental I get when people split fruit with me—like, “here, want half of this orange?”—because it’s such a primitive gesture and triggers some uncanny ancestral memory in my cerebrum, and it also speaks to the fundamental good of human beings. We humans have been splitting fruit with each other for millennia. I know some animals do it too, but we split fruit with people outside our family, or herd. This is not a question yet. I guess my question is, do you feel that way too? Do you offer food as a gesture of something?
I have three things to say to that. First, asking about the tea has to do with you. How I want you to stay a while, forever, always. And tea is a good start. I keep ice cream in the freezer because I know how you prefer it not only to hemp milk, but to world peace, puppies and winning the lottery. Second, asking that question has to do with my childhood. My mother is not much of a cook but she is a professional at making people feel at home: sitting them down on the couch with a good book, tucking their feet into a wool blanket when she’s only just been introduced. My father was a more traditional in his home-making. The Iraqi Jews believed in being generous hosts: dried fruit and nuts for days when any Tom, Dick or Harry dropped in. Third, asking that question has to do with always wanting everyone to feel comfortable in my presence. If you get my name wrong, I will not correct you. I don’t want you to feel weird. It’s not a question of allowing myself to be walked all over—which I won’t allow—but with something that you and I talk about often: empathy. How some writers have it in spades (I’m not assigning judgment to that at the moment): they rely on it, are burdened and motivated by it, and it’s what allows them/compels them to write about people who are not themselves. That is the case with you and me, which means that we can imagine standing at the door awkwardly, not being offered tea. So we ask: tea, ice cream, a soft place to land?