Sarah Jio is the #1 international, New York Times, and USA Today bestselling author of eight novels. Her most recent novel, Always is out now. She joins Signature to open up about her divorce and the healing power of food.
I remember my last meal before my husband filed for divorce in November of 2013. I’d devoured a divine vegan lentil burger at a local café with a friend. The meal was delicious and autumn was in full force. Orange leaves dotted the street in front of my house. I remember the way they crunched under my feet when I stepped out onto the pavement in my tan Ugg boots. Not everything in my life was perfect, in fact it was far from it, but the simple joys were getting me through. I inhaled the crisp air. Pumpkin soup was simmering in the slow cooker in my kitchen. Everything was going to OK.
Until it wasn’t. That afternoon, a short man with a goatee, who had been waiting for my return in a rust-colored Honda, served me divorce papers on the street in front of my home.
I never ate the soup that night.
The days and weeks that followed are an agonizing blur. Separation of property and assets. The creation of a co-parenting plan for our three young boys. Moving trucks. Tears, so many tears.
While I had been unhappy in my marriage for some time, miserably so, I hadn’t the slightest idea that divorce was imminent. I remember making a fabulous salmon dinner the week before, with garlic mashed potatoes and a salad with sliced pears and candied spiced pecans. My then husband asked for a second helping.
Cooking has been a way of life for me. Before books, writing about food became my very first career. My first published article appeared in Gourmet magazine, my second in Bon Appetit. I went on to develop and test recipes for a long list of other magazines and contribute to and help produce cookbooks.
But more than a livelihood, food was my passion. I’d spend hours making dough and pitting sour cherries for pies that my ex loved so much. My reward was the oohs and ahhs I’d get when my friends or family tasted my creations. It was pure joy.
But a funny thing happened the day my husband left: Like a pot of boiling water left on the stove for too long, that joy evaporated.
Autumn bled into winter, and winter into spring. My boys shuttled back and forth between two houses. On the weeks I had the children, I’d cook only for them – classic kid food, nutritionally sound meals, of course, but lacking any imagination or heart. Homemade chicken tenders gave way to store bought. Delivery won out over rustic pizza in the oven. I lost interest in old cookbooks and new. My cast iron skillet got dusty.
When the children were with their dad on weekends, I’d sleep too much, or too little. I missed my boys so deeply that I’d step on a Lego in the house and fall onto my knees in a fit of tears (years later, sometimes I still do – some things probably will never change). So beside myself, I lost the urge to eat, or to cook for myself at all. I’d munch on a few crackers for breakfast, if I ate breakfast at all; skip lunch, and have cereal for dinner. Forget about the organic vegetables that used to be stocked in my refrigerator; I was lucky for my mouth to even find a withered baby carrot. I lost twelve pounds. My hair began to thin.
Then, one morning when I was alone in my house, I heard a knock at my door. Still in my pajamas at noon (an awful yellow flannel two-piece with stars on them that I’ve since thrown away), and my house was a disaster. I decided not to answer. But the knocking continued. I pried open the door just a crack and there was one of my best friends. In her arms were flowers, a bag of groceries, and takeout. “Can I come in?” she asked. “I’m worried about you.”
At first I considered closing the door. Shutting her out, just as I had shut out all joy in my life, culinary and otherwise. After all, my family life had fallen apart, and I felt like a failure in the truest sense of the word. But she leaned in, “Sarah, can I come in? Please.”
I let her in, and she cleared off the mess on my coffee table to make way for the small feast she had brought me. Meatballs from a gourmet grocery store we love, hunks of good cheese, red wine, grapes so luscious they looked cartoon-like. “Here,” she said, handing me a plate. “Take a bite.”
I was reluctant at first, like a picky toddler. I’d denied myself flavor and real sustenance for so long, it felt strange to partake again. Natalie encouraged me. “Eat,” she said, pouring me a glass of Syrah.
I remember putting a meatball in my mouth. The flavors burst out like fireworks. I washed it down with the wine – flavors of vanilla and ripe cherries bursting in my mouth – then ate another, followed by a piece of manchego, then a bit of Gouda, with a smoky, crystalline texture that I remember even today.
“Good,” she said, refilling my wine glass. “You know, you’re going to get through this.”
I nodded, tucking my legs against my chest, grateful that she angelically had refrained, likely painfully so, from commenting on my appearance, and my, er, hideous pajamas.
When my friend left that day, I went to bed with a full stomach, happier than I’d been in months, grateful for her friendship, but also grateful that she’d awakened a part of me that had been asleep for far too long.
The next night, I decided to make risotto. Preparing for that meal felt like a battle – with myself. Armed with a proper pot, a slab of butter, good olive oil, white wine, garlic, onion, and a wooden spoon, I took to the stove. I hovered over the Dutch oven, wondering if I had what it took anymore. I stirred in the ingredients, watching the mixture glisten in the pot before I poured in a splash of white wine and broth. I hovered over the stove, breathing in steamy goodness wafting from the pan while my youngest son played with his train set in the kitchen. Risotto facials, I used to call them. I smiled to myself, even though there was no one, no adult, at least, present for me to talk to.
True, I didn’t have a husband eagerly awaiting my dinner creation, and there would be no one to help me with the dishes, but never mind that, I told myself. Just cook.
And I cooked. At first in fits and starts. A pan of burned brownies here, a dull pasta primavera there. But then there was an excellent eggplant Parmesan and a batch of garbanzo bean fritters. Melt-in-your-mouth miso-glazed halibut, with a soy-ginger soba noodle salad so good, it almost made me cry. My life might have been in shambles, but I was starting to remember something I’d known all along: Good food can be … healing.
“How are you doing?” my friend asked on a phone call several months later.
“I’m OK,” I said.
“OK is good,” she replied.
It was around dinnertime. I’d recently started dating a nice man who I liked a lot, and told her that he’d called earlier to see if I wanted to get together for a meal at a restaurant downtown, but that I’d said no.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. “Are you not interested in him anymore?”
“No, I am,” I said.
“Would you rather have a girls night?” she asked. “We could grab a bite at that new place in Pioneer Square?”
“Thanks,” I replied. “But you know, honestly, I think I just feel like staying in. I bought some beautiful romaine and feta. I think I’m going to just cook at home. I haven’t had a Greek salad in a really long time.”
We said our goodbyes and I set down the phone, poured a glass of red wine, then made an awesome meal – for myself.
And I loved every bite.