Talking food, grief, and the view from the floor.If there is such a thing as a bereavement badass, Zahra Tangorra is it. The Brooklyn chef, writer, feminist, podcast host, and all-around renaissance lady has been through career loss, relationship loss, parental loss, a near-death experience, and somehow come out of it all resilient, dynamic, and focused in a whole new way.
Zahra’s latest labor of love is the recently-launched Podcast, Processing. The Heritage Network podcast — her second; the irreverent and hilarious food podcast “Life’s a Banquet” is her first — creates a space for guests to talk about loss, grief, heartbreak, and how it all ties in to our relationship with food.
Talking Grief Over Coffee
Zahra and I met for coffee on a cold, sunny afternoon in January. Tucked into a small marble table in the back room of Stumptown Coffee in Cobble Hill, surrounded by laptoppers, moms with strollers, and the occasional bookworm, we got deep into discussion.
Zahra has experienced loss in many forms in the past few years. In 2016, she made the tough decision to close her beloved Cobble Hill restaurant Brucie, where she (and her lasagna) earned widespread praise for the restaurant’s warm, familial atmosphere and killer food. Three years later to the month, her father died of cancer. Then there was more loss.
The depth of grief and loss Zahra suffered in such a short time are unique, and her journey forward raw, real, and a testament to a deeply creative mind and resilient spirit. Get ready to be inspired.
You may also like: A 4-Step Guide to Mindful Eating and A Running List of Food + Grief Writing
Questions for Zahra
The following are excerpts of our conversation, which have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and space.
What does the Processing podcast mean to you? What do you hope it means to others?
Processing is an experience that we are all living on a daily basis in so many ways. In terms of grief, processing is a downloading of an unwanted painful experience. Be it death, loss of relationship, loss of job, illness or any kind of ending or break, grief and loss find us in this life — and suddenly we are tasked with how to incorporate these new feelings into our lives. It can be heavy and depressing and dark and bleak and overwhelming, but also beautiful and enlightening. It’s a unique experience of how these situations change and shape us.
A sudden change, a loss, an ending, can render us feeling broken and alone, and my goal with the show is to make people feel less alone, and disarm the fear of loss and the unknown. I hope that processing can serve as a flashlight into the abyss of the grieving process. A hand to hold, and a gentle hug when you need it the most.
What was your lowest point?
I remember when my dad was dying. He was in the hospital for about a month before he died. He lived alone in Asheville [North Carolina]. I am an only child, so I was down there by myself, just me and him. I remember feeling really angry. Angry that he didn’t fill out forms correctly or take care of paperwork. That kind of stuff.
I was living with my boyfriend at the time. And then, like two weeks after my dad died, my boyfriend’s dog died. Then he told me that he couldn’t take it — that it was too much — and he broke up with me. I had to take all of my stuff and move into my mom’s house.
That must have been surreal.
It was surreal. For a while, I was feeling good, like life was on track. I was living on my own and had this great restaurant and my life was really going well. And then my restaurant was gone and my dad was dead and I was living in a child’s room at my mom’s house. And not even my childhood room. Another child’s room.
And what was your relationship with food like at that time?
I really didn’t have an appetite. When I am upset or stressed I really lose my appetite. I just did not feel connected to the joyful part of my personality. I had been excited about food: cooking, going to the farmers market, things like that.
Grief is super physical. Like, I would be completely exhausted by taking a walk around the block and would get sick all the time.
Yes! It is exhausting. I just didn’t do anything I didn’t feel like doing. [Before] I would exercise almost every day. But then after my dad died, if I didn’t feel like doing something, I just wouldn’t do it.
Was that part of taking care of yourself, or just feeling depressed?
Oh, it was being depressed.
How did you take care of yourself while your dad was dying?
I was in fight or flight mode. I was just in survival and maintenance mode, living alone in my dad’s house in the suburbs with his two dogs while he was in the hospital. The quiet and suburbs freaked me out; I am definitely a city person and listen to too many true crime podcasts.
Every day after the hospital, I would go to a restaurant and get myself a nice dinner. It wasn’t like I even had much of an appetite, but it was more just something that I did for myself that felt good. Even if I didn’t eat all of the food, I would still order it, or over-order, and if I got the $100 bottle of wine sometimes, that was fine. It was something good that I did for myself.
Like even if you weren’t feeding your stomach because of your lack of appetite, you were feeling that emotional need for something nice, to take care of yourself. Did you grieve closing Brucie?
Yes, I totally grieved it. I wanted to be an inspiration for women. The restaurant business is so male dominated. I wanted to prove that I was someone who could come in and succeed in that environment. But then things changed. My landlord was going to raise the rent. Wages went up. My energy was being sucked out. I was completely exhausted. I asked myself, “Do I want to be this exhausted? I am 32. Is succeeding worth my sanity?” It was liberating to realize that the answer was “no,” but also really sad to close.
Who taught you to cook? How did you learn?
My parents were both chefs earlier in their lives. They had a catering business in Long Island where I grew up, called “The Lovin’ Oven.” They got divorced when I was seven, and we didn’t have strong food traditions as a family at all, but they were both great cooks. I didn’t get to experience their love of food as a young child because things were strenuous for both of them at that time, but as I got older it started to materialize.
I think I really learned to cook from spending time in the kitchen with my mother on Thanksgiving. Each year I’d help a little more and learn something new. Things haven’t always been easy for Bobbie and I, but we’ve always had Thanksgiving. The cooking and care that goes into the holiday has always bound us, and I think her teaching me to make chestnut stuffing was a turning point in my own culinary foundation.
What foods would you recommend bringing someone who is newly grieving and why? What foods would you recommend not bringing?
I think that showing your love with food is a very kind and meaningful gift. I’m that sense, I’m not sure there’s a wrong thing, really. I think the act of giving food to someone is more powerful than the item itself. It truly is the thought that counts. It’s hard to know exactly what someone needs; it’s hard to know what you need or want when you’re in pain. So to answer that question, I’d say go with your gut, and if the person doesn’t eat if or like it, you can both take comfort in the effort. I’d say the only thing not to bring would be something that’s difficult for the grieving person to prepare. Keep it simple for everyone involved.
What would you say to someone who is grieving?
I would tell them to feel the feeling for a while. That down is a place where you can look around and see the world from a different perspective. See the floor. See the depth. Give yourself time down there, and you will understand where you want to go. There is power in knowing how bad you can feel. When you get through something like that, no matter what else happens to you in the future, you will know you can handle it because of what you already went through.
– Text and interview by Lisa Kolb Ruland
*Feature image by Becky McNeel.