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This new book connects food and feelings through tales of love, loss and chicken

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A few years ago, actor Zosia Mamet was watching a video of her friend's 2-year-old son eating his first popsicle. First, he recoils with suspicion, then leans back in with some curiosity. A moment of confusion arises as the coldness touches his lips again. And then, with committed resolve, the boy shoves the popsicle back into his mouth, and his whole face suddenly erupts with ecstatic glee. It occurred then to Mamet how closely entwined food and emotions are, how much we attach to the meals that we ingest, all the feelings, the memories, the comfort and sometimes the disorders. So she set out to collect essays about what food conjures up for people. And the so-called potluck of words is entitled "My First Popsicle." Zosia Mamet joins us now. Welcome.

ZOSIA MAMET: Thank you so much for having me.

CHANG: Thank you for being with us. So, you know, there's such a wide array of thoughts and feelings around food in this book. Your own essay, I mean, it's a very happy one, right? Like, it's about Christmases at your grandmother's house in Massachusetts growing up. But you also reveal elsewhere in this book that you had an emotionally fraught connection to food. You struggled with anorexia. Can you talk about your relationship with food, like, how it's been both a source of pleasure and pain in your own life?

MAMET: I think everybody has some sort of disorderly relationship with some form of food on some form of the spectrum. But as someone who is a survivor of anorexia, you can very easily be viewed as just a victim. And I think many addicts struggle with this whereas what I actually prefer as a word is a survivor. You know, I think people who struggle with those types of demons, if you can get through the hard part, you come out the other side much stronger and in a much deeper relationship with yourself.

CHANG: Absolutely.

MAMET: So, yeah, I really - I wanted people to feel the highs and the lows of the varied relationships that all of us have with food. And I feel like the contributors just blew me away by really delivering on that.

CHANG: Yeah, absolutely. There are ups and downs with food that all these essays kind of have the reader experience. Like, I was struck by how prominently food figured into breakups in this book. Like speaking for myself, I was once dumped over falafel, and it's never been quite my favorite thing to order since then, which is why I was so impressed with Andrew Bevan, who was dumped over meatballs and will still tell you to this day that there is nothing more exquisite than dining alone on SpaghettiOs with meatballs.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "MY FIRST POPSICLE: AN ANTHOLOGY OF FOOD AND FEELINGS")

ANDREW BEVAN: (Reading) Isn't it curious that when we are either extremely happy or in supreme pain that we turn to the same food for assurance and, more importantly, reassurance? It was time to reframe and regain custody of these reliable - albeit heavily artificially preserved - balls on my own now very bite-sized terms.

MAMET: I love that essay so much. It really got me in the funny bone. And these experiences are so universal. It's so true. I mean, whether it was you were 15 and it's the first time you got broken up with and you were eating Swedish fish and you'll never eat them again or you think this is the man you're going to marry and it's Valentine's Day and you're eating meatballs and, you know, spaghetti bolognese will never be the same for you. But it really just goes to show that, absolutely, we all - like Bevan said, we turn to food for comfort and assurance and reassurance. And also sometimes there are those foods that become essentially nuclear for us because they hold so much emotional weight.

CHANG: Exactly. And sometimes, we use food to literally, like, help us pick up the pieces after a painful rupture with someone, to find our way back to ourselves again. Like, I'm thinking about Stephanie Danler's essay, "Shallot Vinaigrette," about how making this very simple condiment again helped her work through her depression after her divorce because it was, like, this simple act of self-determination.

MAMET: Absolutely. And what really struck me about Steph's essay as well is that it was almost as if she went dormant as a human a bit within her depression, which I think any of us who have struggled with that know that feeling so well. It's as if you kind of check out from the world, and it becomes muted to you. And the things that you love you seem to not love anymore. And there's that feeling of, like, will I ever feel things again other than sadness? And that the simple act of self-determination, as you say, was whipped up in cooking for herself, and the minute that she started to cook for herself, it's as if her senses turned back on. And she remembered that she loved to do this thing. And that was kind of the gateway to her awakening again as a human being.

CHANG: Totally. I'm thinking now about Rosie Perez's essay on the Puerto Rican stew pollo guisado. Like, it was this dish she most associated with her aunt, who was basically the maternal figure in her childhood. Here's Rosie Perez reading a section of her essay.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "MY FIRST POPSICLE: AN ANTHOLOGY OF FOOD AND FEELINGS")

ROSIE PEREZ: (Reading) There are days when the depression hits hard. To help the blues go away, I remember Tia, and I pull out a big Dutch oven and begin cooking. That same comforting feeling comes back each and every time I cook it for myself or my husband or family or friends. It just touches my heart in all the right and good places.

CHANG: What about you, Zosia? Do you have a particular dish like that, one that can quiet your anxiety, bring you back to, like, a happier, simpler time?

MAMET: I always joke with my husband I will, without knowing it, any time I'm eating rice, just say out loud, I love rice so much.

CHANG: (Laughter).

MAMET: And it just comes out. I just - ever since I was little, I just love rice so much.

CHANG: White rice, brown rice, all rice?

MAMET: I do not - I'm rice agnostic. I like all rices. I am allergic to dairy, but I just slather it in fake butter. And we cook a lot in this house, but we keep it pretty simple. My husband likes to refer to me as a rustic cook, which I think is a lovely euphemism.

CHANG: For?

MAMET: You know, just, like, not that great. I'm, like, OK. But it's like - I can cook a simple - a solid, simple meal. But honestly, anything that's sort of, like, a chicken or a fish or a meat with some veggies over rice, that - it's just...

CHANG: That hits the spot.

MAMET: It really hits the spot. Yeah.

CHANG: Zosia Mamet's new book is called "My First Popsicle: An Anthology Of Food And Feelings." Thank you so much for being with us.

MAMET: Thank you so much for having me. It was a real pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Sarah Handel
Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.