Talking food, grief, and “the daily experience of loving someone” with a brilliant reporter to watch.
This is not the headnote I planned to write for this article.
I interviewed New York Times food desk fellow Amelia Nierenberg back in November 2019, not long after she published her viral New York Times article, “For Many Widows, the Hardest Part Is Mealtime.” At the time, I had not yet even launched this website, but the ever-gracious Amelia made time to talk.
I count as one of the many widows whose hardest part was mealtime: I sat across from an empty chair; I cooked for one; I cried in the supermarket. Amelia wrote so incisively and so thoughtfully about food, grief, and widowhood that I thought she might have written from experience. But no. She is just an incredible reporter with an incredible brain: Among other accomplishments, the Riverdale native graduated from Yale in 2018 with both a B.A. and M.A. in history, and has received several journalism awards.
But then Amelia did experience food and grief. I emailed her last week to tell her that I had — finally — scheduled the post with her interview. And then, this:
In this beautifully-written and beautifully-vulnerable op-ed, Amelia writes of caring for her father as he fights Covid-19: removing his dirty dishes, anticipating the loss of him no longer sipping coffee from his favorite brown bear mug.
Food, eating, and cooking hold deep meaning for us all. Since the article’s publication, Amelia posted a picture of her dad eating a bagel in bed. This is a good sign. As of this writing, it seems he has turned the corner. (Bagels and lox from Russ & Daughters definitely count as good medicine.)
Keep fighting, Nierenbergs. Meanwhile, with deep gratitude to Amelia and my very deepest wishes for her father’s recovery, I offer our interview, below.
An Interview With Amelia Nierenberg
This article has been lightly edited and condensed for space.
Lisa Ruland [LR]: How’s your fellowship going?
Amelia Nierenberg [AN]: Fantastic!
LR: I am so interested to hear about your inspiration for your [widowhood and mealtime] article.
AN: Honestly, it was my grandmother’s idea. I started talking to her about writing something about food and identity. She and I are very close; she really raised me. My grandpa died when I was seven, and she stopped cooking anything that I wasn’t eating, for years. I was little at the time so I didn’t really notice. She was just really sad. She would make kid food, but she was only making kid food. It was not what she liked to eat before.
My grandfather was a super picky eater. There’s this idea, especially for women of that generation, that cooking for someone is a role in your family. I live with the most progressive feminist man ever, but I like cooking for him. For [my grandmother], who is 87, it was even more so. The idea of cooking something pleasurable for yourself is something that she and many women of her age struggle with. Cooking without an audience is rare.
LR: How did you approach the article from there?
AN: I spoke with bereavement counselors, and realized that they’ve been waiting to talk about this. The reporting just came out from there. I spoke with many bereavement counselors, many of whom asked patients if I could talk to them. There is also a Facebook group called Sisterhood of Widows, and she did a post for me.
LR: Were you expecting the reaction you received?
AN: I wasn’t. I think that grief is still a hidden and private pain. I have seen this with friends who have lost parents and with family friends who have died. People who are grieving are often very quiet about it. Because that is true as a societal norm, there isn’t that much grief content that exists. So I wasn’t prepared for the fact that I was interacting with a community.
There are trends — the supermarket, holidays, moments where it is hard — but the idea that I was interacting with a subgroup was not real. I have received so many emails. It is shocking how many people have felt so unseen and unsung at the hardest part of their life.
LR: How long of a process was it to write the piece?
AN: Mostly a couple of months. I started talking to bereavement counselors in early July. I was in Chicago in August. I interviewed around 30 widows. Those are really hard conversations. I couldn’t do more than one a day; those are hard conversations to have. And I didn’t want to think of them as “the widows.” I wanted to give them that respect.
Every journalist interviews probably double, if not more, the number of people who are included in an article. Part of the reason it took so long to write is that I spoke to each person for over an hour. It’s a horrible erasure not to include people who have shared so much. That was hard.
LR: Did you learn anything from writing the article?
AN: I learned a lot about what love looks like. I think of what love looks like in mourning and grieving as social processes. In mourning, people always offer an uplifting an anecdote, so the image of remembered love you get in mourning is an image of specific memories. That is always how I thought I would mourn — the thing I would think about the most.
But the more I talked with people who were actively grieving, I saw how little those anecdotes are actually what they miss the most. Everyone mostly misses breakfast and dinner or driving together. It’s the idea that someone is next to you as you walk through your life in things that seem inconsequential at the time. The way that they are next to you is so much of the portrait of love I have gotten to see.
I’m approaching the 18-month anniversary with my partner. We are serious and love each other very much. I think as a partner, it is making me appreciate more the “We are watching a movie tonight and we are not going out to the new restaurant, and that is nice.” It’s the “right now.” The daily experience of loving someone: That is the message.