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‘Heartburn’ Is Still the Best Book About Food and Breakups

Thirty-five years on from its publication, Nora Ephron’s semi-autobiographical novel is an all-too-human declaration of gustatory independence.
Image courtesy Penguin Random House. Composite by MUNCHIES Staff. 

Sharp as a tarte au citron, comforting as braised beef cheek, Nora Ephron’s slim 1983 book is that rarest of things: a brilliant novel about food. Like all the best food writing—MFK Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me, say, or Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain— Heartburn isn’t really about food.

Fisher was deeply concerned with the relationship between a good meal and the acceptance of the ultimate unavoidable ending we’ll all succumb to eventually, regardless of the smoothies we chug and the ice creams we turn down. For Bourdain, the intensity of the nightly headfirst dive into the high-octane hell of restaurant service was another addiction. This is what drove them to write about food.


What, then, drove Nora Ephron—journalist, screenwriter, director—to write such a book? And why, 35 years on from its publication and its later adaption into a film starring Meryl Streep, does this novel about high(ish) American society still sing as sweetly as a roasted shoulder of lamb on a Sunday afternoon?

Revenge, and near-perfection, respectively.

A semi-autobiographical, bittersweet comic masterpiece about infidelity, neurosis, and pregnancy, Heartburn is a book that yearns to be read in a single sitting. It practically calls out for a languorous afternoon in the park. Rachel, a food writer, is married to Mark, a political journalist. Mark has an affair with Thelma, the wife of a government official. Thelma has “a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb,” and makes puddings that Rachel describes as “gluey.”

Heartburn yearns to be read in a single sitting. It practically calls out for a languorous afternoon in the park.

Mark leaves. Rachel cooks. Rachel eats shrimp curry, chicken stuffed with lemons, and Uncle Seymour’s beef borscht. Rachel gives us recipes for mashed potato, sorrel soup, and bread pudding. Rachel seeks revenge.

Now, at the risk of saying something obvious to the point of being idiotic, food and romance are the same thing. The story of a relationship is a story of food: the gleaming white plate spattered with plump scarlett prawns eaten under a bright Basque moon in the first flushes of love, a pollo ad astra huffed in queasily uneasy silence in a Central London PizzaExpress at the exact moment you have accept the doomed and dismal reality of your situation.


“Every time I make mushrooms, I think of him,” Rachel says of an old lover. She moves onto the next:

“There was another man in my life when I was younger who taught me to put sour cream into scrambled eggs, and since I never ever put sour cream into scrambled eggs, I never really think of him at all.”

This is what Heartburn is made of: humans as food, food as memory, memory as the only thing more real than food.

Praised for her caustic wit, Ephron is the kind of writer who could only ever be American, yet she possessed a warmth and humanity that translated into a universal language.

My experience of life inside the Washington elite, the ins-and-outs of group therapy in uptown New York, or how it feels to present TV shows with titles like My Grandmother’s Cookies may be limited, but I do know that in the aftermath of personal disasters, I, like Rachel, find myself retreating into the kitchen for longer periods of time than is maybe healthy. Fingers slicked with butter, I prod at the oil-stained pages of Giorgio Locatelli Made in Italy, devoting myself to stocks and sauces that’ll only ever pass my own lips. Marmonde tomatoes and Nocellara olives work out slightly cheaper than therapy, after all.

Toward the end of the novel there’s a moment where Rachel, abandoned and heavily pregnant, halts the narrative to run us through a five-page account of just how entwined love and potatoes are in her life’s romantic story. It begins thus:


“I have friends who begin with pasta, and friends who begin with rice, but whenever I fall in love, I begin with potatoes. Sometimes meat and potatoes and sometimes fish and potatoes, but always potatoes. I have made a lot of mistakes in falling in love, and regretted most of them, but never the potatoes that went with them.”

The above paragraph is one I think about a lot, standing out in a book I think about a lot (and read a lot, too). It is the entire book writ large; funny, relatable, oddly wise, and similarly touching. The infinite unknowability of love’s constant quest for an understanding of anyone outside of our self combines with the finite reality of the grain of rice, of the humble potato.

Mistakes are something the cook tries their hardest to avoid, which is why cooking is craft, not art, but life tends to happen outside of the kitchen, and that is where mistakes are an all too regular occurance.

Rachel, like you, like me, has made mistakes, has regrets. But she also has the fixity of food to show that, every so often, following a recipe serves you well. With time, patience, the right ingredients, and a little skill, you can have whatever you so desire. A deep, steaming bowl of linguine alla cecca or fresh-out-the-oven slice of a perfectly done peach pie might not make up for watching a marriage crash against adultery’s rocky shores, but for Rachel, and the reader, it’s a start.

In Heartburn’s case, revenge is a dish best served in the guise of a four-minute egg, and it is all the better for it. Whether you’re in Brooklyn or Brockley, Heartburn is an all too human declaration of gustatory independence.

Read this when you’re hungry, when you’re down, when you’re convinced that you’ll never find anyone good enough to try your pancetta and asparagus risotto every again. It will happen, one day. And if it doesn’t? There’s always dinner.