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Nora Ephron, Carl Bernstein, and an unknown guest during a benefit dinner in 1977.
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

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Nora Ephron’s ‘Heartburn,’ 40 Years In

Along with an infamous salad dressing recipe, Ephron’s thinly veiled novel gave us the blueprint for the modern food memoir

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Rebecca Flint Marx is the editor of Eater at Home. Her areas of expertise include home cooking and popular culture.

In 1983, Nora Ephron published Heartburn, a roman à clef about the end of her marriage to the journalist Carl Bernstein. The book — Ephron’s first and only novel — was a best-seller. It spawned a 1986 film adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson and, indirectly, the Nora Ephron Movie, a subgenre of romantic comedy characterized by urbane wit and moderate neurosis. Heartburn also presaged the 21st century’s predominate strain of food memoir: plucky but vulnerable, confessional but conversational, most often written by a white woman, and interspersed with recipes that each serve to reflect or illuminate a particular person, memory, or juncture in the writer’s life. Although Ephron was never a food writer, her protagonist, Rachel Samstat, is, and Rachel’s account of her husband’s affair — which she discovers when she’s seven months pregnant — and the subsequent implosion of her marriage is punctuated by 15 recipes, three of which are for potatoes.

If you’ve heard of Heartburn lately, it’s probably because of Ephron’s vinaigrette recipe, which made an unlikely but memorable cameo in the high drama surrounding Don’t Worry Darling last fall. (Please don’t make me get into it.) Or maybe it’s because of Heartburn’s appearance last December in a viral Guardian essay whose author called Ephron “the patron saint of militarized vulnerability.” Or maybe it’s because you’ve heard that Alison Roman, an avowed Heartburn stan, is including Heartburn’s bread pudding recipe in her new cookbook, which comes out this month (Roman describes it as “almost like a dry, caramelized tres leches.”) If you haven’t heard of Heartburn lately, well, here it is again in the form of a 40th-anniversary edition, published this week with a new forward by Stanley Tucci.

The reissue has a truly unforgivable cover, one that employs Shutterstock clip art and a weak font and is altogether unbefitting of an anniversary anything. It’s also unclear why Stanley Tucci, a noted food person but also a noted man, was chosen to write the foreword for a book that is famously by and about a woman telling her own story as a form of revenge and agency. (“If I tell the story, I control the version,” Ephron wrote in its final pages.)

Get past that, though, and you still have a book that has a lot to say about love and betrayal, and the ways that food can be employed in service of both.

In Heartburn, food is many things: a constant, a salve, a memory, a mark of class and identity, a metaphor, a punchline, and, most memorably, a literal weapon. And while certain aspects of the book have aged very, very poorly over the last 40 years — most notably the instances of casual racism, xenophobia, and homophobia sprinkled through parts of the story like strychnine — the way Ephron wrote about food remains improbably fresh.

The food in Heartburn is rooted in Ephron’s own Jewish upper-middle class upbringing and the bourgeois culinary landscape of the early 1980s. Rachel tells us that her mother used to serve lox and onions and eggs on New Year’s Day, and that she herself learned about the origin of hamantaschen while being fingered by a college paramour. She’s the author of a cookbook titled Uncle Seymour’s Beef Borscht, once convinced Isaac Bashevis Singer to make a noodle kugel on the pilot of her cooking show, and has a well-honed comedy routine involving Jewish men who reveal themselves as Jewish princes through their inability to locate butter in the refrigerator. She also name-drops Marcella Hazan, quotes a friend who opines that “pesto is the quiche of the seventies,” and, after relocating from New York to Washington, D.C., for her husband’s job, wistfully recalls shopping at Balducci’s, where the aisles were filled with “arugola [sic] and radicchio and fresh basil and sorrel and sugar snap peas and six kinds of sprouts.”

Although it’s not mentioned, the specter of best-selling The Silver Palate Cookbook hovers over Heartburn: published one year prior, it brought pesto, salmon mousse, and fruity vinaigrettes to aspirational dinner parties across the land (Ephron was reportedly a fan). Food here is resolutely apolitical, barring its ability to inspire strong and contradictory opinions.

The food and recipes in Heartburn help tell us who Rachel is, and who other characters are not: “For one thing,” she writes of her husband’s mistress, “Thelma Rice really didn’t care about food — that was clear from her gluey puddings.” Adam Gopnik once opined that the book’s recipes “serve as both a joke about what a food writer writing a novel would write and as a joke on novel-writing itself by someone who anticipates that she will not be treated as a ‘real’ novelist.” To me, that’s not entirely accurate: some of the recipes read as a joke, but mostly they’re just there, like stones in Rachel’s stream of consciousness or pieces of furniture used to embellish a scene. More often than not they are folded into Rachel’s observations about her life and those of others, inextricable from her thoughts about desire and deceit.

About three-quarters of the way through the book, when Rachel is cooking Lillian Hellman’s pot roast for a demonstration at Macy’s, she relays the recipe by way of making a point about the way romantic fantasy is presented as fact. “I’m very smart about how complicated things get when food and love become hopelessly tangled,” she says. And yet, as she demonstrates the pot roast, she realizes that food had become a way for her to maintain the fantasy of her own relationship:

“I loved to cook, so I cooked. And then the cooking became a way of saying I love you. And then the cooking became the easy way of saying I love you. And then the cooking because the only way of saying I love you. I was so busy perfecting the peach pie that I wasn’t paying attention.”

It’s a neat if poignant commentary on that other fantasy that often gets presented as fact: food, as we are too frequently reminded, is love, a shorthand way of conveying purity and depth of feeling, with crumbs. That’s perhaps where Heartburn still shines brightest: for all of Ephron’s obvious love of food and cooking, she never succumbs to the sticky sentimentality that has afflicted so many other writers on the subject. (That isn’t to say there’s zero sentimentality — in prefacing her three potato recipes, Rachel notes that she’s regretted the mistakes she’s made in love, “but never the potatoes that went with them.”)

But as deluded as Rachel may have been about the state of her marriage, Ephron herself remains sharp and clear-eyed about food, love, and the ways we confuse and intertwine the two. Although cooking is a form of love for Rachel, it’s most consistently a form of control, certainty, and escape — the whole point of cooking, she says in an aside about how people like to insist that cooking is a “creative” pursuit, “is that it is totally mindless… It’s a sure thing in a world where nothing is sure.”

Heartburn shows its age in its portrayal of domesticity. Rachel, like many women of the time, has aspired to marriage (a woman’s desire to marry, we’re told, is “fundamental and primal”), and she even moves back in with her husband, Mark, after leaving him over his infidelity. This is a world in which almost everyone is heterosexual and married, and almost everyone is unhappy in their marriage but disinclined to do much about it. The alternative that Ephron presents for women is narrow, grim, and reactionary. Rachel recounts how in the ’70s, women who left their marriages “discovered the horrible truth: that they were sellers in a buyers’ market, and that the major concrete achievement of the women’s movement in the 1970s was the Dutch treat [splitting the bill in today’s parlance].” Marriage, by contrast, is presented as safe, at least if you’re a middle- to upper-class white woman: Yes, your husband will probably cheat on you, but at least you’ll have a kitchen where you can cook for him, along with the option of hired help, to boot.

Ephron is often compared to Laurie Colwin, a prolific novelist who also wrote a lot about food — please read Home Cooking if you haven’t already — but while they both write with great wit and charm, Colwin’s portrayal of domesticity was more hardscrabble, rooted in tiny, terrible kitchens and culinary disasters. The domesticity in Heartburn is very much about keeping up appearances and holding on to the familiar, even if the familiar is slowly killing you.

And yet: domesticity also functions as a career, the thing that has given Rachel both her own source of income and a name for herself. Eventually, Rachel weaponizes it, first by selling the diamond ring that Mark gave her so that she can afford to leave him for good, and then by baking a key lime pie that she subsequently throws in Mark’s face. (In real life, Ephron reportedly poured a bottle of red wine on Bernstein.)

That said, this isn’t a book that invites or rewards probing analysis of its gender politics. It’s a satiric revenge novel that doesn’t take itself terribly seriously, even if it views heartbreak as a serious matter. Like the movies Ephron would go on to make, it remains primarily a refreshment spun of equal parts humor and anguish. What do we get from reading it now? Presumably a lot of what readers in 1983 got from it — minus its more regrettable parts, it’s an entertaining if somewhat one-note read. But we also get a crystal ball of sorts: the book is being reissued in an era of peak food-narrative saturation, when everyone seems to have a personal essay or memoir or TV show that hinges on the highly specific ways in which food has informed and defined their lives. For better or worse, there is a lot of writing out there that is still trying to be Heartburn, whether it knows it or not.

What else does Heartburn give us? That vinaigrette recipe, the selfsame one that was named as a party to the dissolution of Olivia Wilde and Jason Sudeikis’s romantic partnership. At one point in the book, Rachel refuses to tell Mark how she makes it because she doesn’t want him sharing it with Thelma — it “was the only thing I had that Thelma didn’t,” she says. The recipe finally appears on the book’s penultimate page, when Rachel makes it for Mark the night before she leaves him. It calls for only three ingredients: Grey Poupon, red wine vinegar, and olive oil. This is the only recipe I’ve made from the book, and I can understand why Rachel — and, if rumors are to be believed, Jason Sudeikis — felt territorial about it. It takes about two minutes to put together, has perfectly balanced flavors, and, as Rachel promises, is thick and creamy. Like heartbreak itself, it is timeless.

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