Interview: Hannah Howard

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We had the pleasure of reading advance copies of Feast (Thanks, Little A!) in the heart of the winter and knew we wanted to feature Hannah and her compelling memoir on our blog. Hannah Howard is a writer with many years of experience in the food world. From working in restaurants to hosting cooking classes and creating videos—she's done it all. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Anthropology from Columbia University and is currently working on her MFA in non-fiction writing at the Bennington Writing Seminars.

Megan Mayhew Bergman says of Feast, "Hannah Howard's debut memoir Feast is a gorgeous, painful reckoning with food, femininity, and ambition - a moving look at a young woman becoming herself in the grueling culture of New York City restaurants." We couldn't agree more.

Thank you, Hannah, for sharing your book and your thoughts with us. And happy book birthday to Feast!

BONUS! Read an excerpt from Feast at the end of our interview with Hannah!


Literary North: What was the initial seed for Feast? Did you know everything you wanted to write about when you first started, or did that change as you wrote?

Hannah Howard: I knew I wanted to tell a story about working my way through restaurants, falling in love with food, and recovering from an eating disorder. I'm definitely the kind of writer who thinks and discovers on the page, through the process of writing itself. The book grew, morphed, shrunk, grew again, and shape-shifted dozens of times throughout the journey of transforming from a bunch of paragraphs and ideas into an actual manuscript. I wrote an outline as part of my proposal, and it looks almost nothing like the finished version of Feast.

LN: Do you have any favorite books/writers in the food memoir genre? Whose writing inspired you as you began to write your story?

HH: Absolutely! As far as memoirs go, I love all three of Mary Karr's memoirs, Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life, Cheryl Strayed's Wild, and Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face. In terms of food memoirs, it was reading Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain and Heat by Bill Buford that made me decide I wanted to work in the restaurant biz. Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones & Butter is my favorite restaurant memoir of all time, and Ruth Reichl's Tender at the Bone is a beautiful book that tugs at my heart. And I have writing heroes who I keep way up on a pedestal where they belong: James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf, Alice Munro, Joan Didion, Junot Diaz.

LN: The first few chapters of Feast were really compelling and pulled us immediately into your story. Did you write those chapters first, or did they come later?

HH: Thank you! I had written them early-ish in the process, but it wasn't until much later that I had the revelation of starting Feast with my epic last binge and using recovery as a frame for the story. I kept obsessively rearranging chapters and scenes-figuring out a structure was one of my biggest challenges. When I landed on something that felt organic and right, it was a huge relief.

LN: Feast describes your path from feeling like an outsider, unhappy with your body and your relationships, to becoming much more self confident and in control of your life. How did writing your story affect this sense of confidence and control?

HH: When I started writing Feast, I felt like I was a good place with my eating disorder recovery. I didn't anticipate how grueling it would be to dig up the hardest, darkest moments from my life and really linger there. I started seeing a therapist again, which was a great idea.

It was only after the writing was behind me that I felt anything like catharsis. Being able to make stories from those unhappy times and share them feels like such a gift. It's given me confidence to hear readers say what feel like truly magic words: that reading Feast made them feel less alone. In turn, I feel less alone. So many people of all ages, shapes, sizes, and walks of life struggle with a destructive relationship with food and their bodies. Telling our stories helps dissipate shame. That's been huge for me.

LN: You write very candidly about your relationships, including with some probably identifiable people in the food and restaurant world. Did you struggle at all with how open and honest to be with regard to other people in your book?

HH: Totally! I'm still worried about hurting people. Feast went through a thorough legal review, where we changed some identifying characteristics and details. My intention was to be as honest and kind as possible.

LN: What advice do you have for young women who want to be a part of the restaurant world?

HH: Work with people you admire. Be a sponge. Read everything you can. Watch food TV. Cook at home. Take a risk. Be kind to yourself.

LN: Can you tell us a bit about your path to publishing with Amazon via Little A? How has this experience been for you?

HH: My wonderful agent, Andrea Somberg, had been pitching the proposal for Feast around. She believed in the project, which helped as the rejections started to roll in. So many of these rejections were truly lovely-they'd rave about the beauty of the writing only to end in an apologetic "no thank you." One of the publishers had put out a food memoir the previous year and thought mine was too close; another thought a restaurant memoir and an eating disorder memoir should be separate projects for separate audiences, not combined into one book. (Ha!)

At some point, I realized that I knew the wonderful poet and writer Morgan Parker, who at the time was an editor for Little A. Morgan acquired Feast. One of the biggest reasons I chose Little A was that I felt like the story was so personal, and knowing my editor beforehand felt like some sort of protection. Morgan was an excellent editor but ended up leaving Little A. My new editor, Laura Van der Veer, ended up being a perfect fit for me and for Feast. She's brilliant in a different way than Morgan is, so Feast got even better.

The whole team at Little A has been patient, supportive, and incredible. I think Little A is the best of both worlds-there's the personal attention and intimate feeling of a small press, plus the marketing muscle and impressive resources of Amazon. I feel immensely lucky.

LN: Are you working on any new writing projects now?

HH: I'm actually writing something about the anxieties associated with second books. I have a bunch of small projects, but am still looking for the heart of the idea that will become the Next Big Project.

LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the last month? The most memorable meal you ate?

HH: I loved Ariel Levy's memoir The Rules Do Not Apply. I also read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy in Kerala, India, where I went with my mom. There's something awesome about traveling somewhere and reading a novel that takes place there-right out the window.

The most memorable meal I ate was a simple dinner I cooked with my fiancé when I got home. We seared some stunning lamb chops on our cast iron with rosemary, garlic, and a little chili pepper. We set off the fire alarm, which is always a good sign. We ate them with roasted asparagus, orzo, and juicy Spanish red wine on the couch with Netflix. Perfection.

Hannah will be at Bridgeside Books in Waterbury, Vermont, on Thursday, May 3, at 6:00 pm.


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Thank you to Hannah for providing the following excerpt from Feast.

 

Tonight when you are ripped open
down to the very seed,
when you feel that hunger, know:
you are not what you pack up now for next year,
you will not be put up on the shelf in jars.

Rena Mosteirin

 

Cookies

On the night of my last binge, New York City is raw. Even my teeth twinge with cold. It’s November, I’m twenty-four years old, and I have just moved back to Manhattan after a stint managing a fine dining restaurant in Philadelphia. I feel at home for the first time in years. Everyone is welcome here, everything allowed. On my worst days, now, I feel pregnant with loneliness, exhausted from loathing my body and the rest of me; I walk east on 95th Street to the park and think, I live here, which is sweet consolation. New York buoys me up and up again. I rarely miss my boyfriend Ari—ex-boyfriend now—although I feel guilty for abandoning him in Philadelphia. He calls me most nights, late. I always regret when I answer.

After looking at dozens of tiny but inordinately expensive NYC apartments—maybe the kitchen consists of one burner and a minifridge; or the bedroom is actually a living room, which the landlord needs to walk through to access her own bedroom—I find a little slice of the Upper West Side which is actually kind of (not quite, but I’ll take kind of) affordable. I sign the lease on the spot.

I love my new studio on West 95th Street, how the light saunters in every morning, the wide countertop that separates the kitchen from my new post-Ari mattress in its wrought iron frame, the window ledges that I use as bookshelves. Mostly I love that it’s mine.

I hang a sparkly red tapestry I bought with my best friend Ursula in Thailand. The quilt on my bed is bright as watermelon. If I lean to the left and squint just so, I can catch the start of the green expanse of Central Park outside my window, past avenues of traffic and scarf-wearing ladies wheeling shopping carts.

My parents invite me to dinner at their friends’ Upper East Side apartment. I walk across Central Park in new motorcycle boots, filled with a particular New York brand of hope. Everyone here is fulfilling vast dreams to make billions, redefine modern dance, launch artisanal ginger ale companies, and they are all in the park tonight: crowds, dogs, tourists, families, the setting sun and its reflection against the still surface of the reservoir, the last few burnt-orange leaves illuminating the trees.

At Joy and Alec’s place, intricate carpets overlap each other. A gray puppy jumps its little legs onto my knees. Joy pours me a glass of wine in a glass as big as their puppy. Alec shakes my hand before pulling me into a hug.

“Your mom tells me you have a new job. Fairway, huh?” I’m tall, but Alec towers over me benevolently. He speaks with the slightest Greek accent.

“That’s right.”

“I can’t get enough of their smoked salmon.”

“We’re Fairway smoked salmon addicts,” Joy agrees. “And the mini bagels, the mini everything bagels! Come eat. We’re going to sit in the living room like the slobs we are.”

But nothing feels slobbish about this endeavor. Their sofas are upholstered in silk and the giant coffee table is set with porcelain chopsticks and goblets for water. Dissonant jazz plays on the speakers. I wonder if this is how everyone lives on the Upper East Side.

“Did you get a haircut?” my dad asks. “I like your hair.”

He is trying to be nice; my hair is the same as always. “No haircut. But thanks.”

“Well.” Joy gestures to the spread of sushi rolls and slivers of sashimi, gyoza and edamame, little bowls of ginger and wasabi. The feast covers the entire table. “Don’t be shy.”

My dad fills his plate first. My mom pulls a soybean from its green shell with her teeth. At first, I partake like a normal human being, dip a salmon avocado roll in soy sauce, add a dab of wasabi. And then another and another. Everyone is eating; a pause in the conversation.

Then, there’s a shift. Something is awakened in me, a hunger that feels like a foreign, malicious force curled up in my stomach and reaching its monster limbs into my mouth and through my hands. I can’t stop eating. My mom gives me a sideways glare. I know that look, the same one from when I was a kid. It means You are eating a lot and I am noticing and it is not okay. It means You are not a skinny girl and you are not okay. The only thing worse is when she actually says, out loud, “You know, dinner is coming.” Or “Save some for everyone else.” Or “Don’t you think you’ve had enough to eat, maybe?”

I wait for my mom to say one of those things, or something worse, but she turns to Joy.

“How is your aunt? Oh, I’m forgetting her name.”

“June is healthy as a horse, with killer lipstick. We just celebrated her ninety-fourth birthday.”

Mom turns away from Joy to give me The Look again. I see what I usually see in her eyes—embarrassment, judgment. And past all that, I see something new. Compassion?

I am practically snuggled up with Mom and Dad on Alec and Joy’s sofa, but the conversation feels far away. I can’t stop hand to mouth to hand to mouth, no matter how much I will myself and no matter how much I hate myself for my lack of self-control, my irrepressible gluttony. I hate the bulk of my body, and I hate that I am failing to shrink it. I watch the way my thighs squish and unfurl onto the sofa.

Somehow I manage to stop eating sushi before the entire tray is consumed. Joy and Alec’s fluffy dog curls up in my lap, its little head rests, soft on my knee.

“So tell us about Fairway. Do you know the secret of the smoked salmon yet?” Joy asks.

“I only know the secrets of the cheese. I’m starting behind the cheese counter. It’s a temporary situation until they figure out a job in the office for me. But the cheese is right next to the deli counter, where we have all the lox and the geniuses who slice it.”

Joy and Alec’s kindness feels as soft as the pup, and I find it touching that they want to know about the minutiae of my life. I tell them about the light in the morning in my new apartment, Central Park out the window. I tell them about Fairway, the way I spent my first day breaking down a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano, how we use the rinds to flavor soup.

Then dessert is served: a giant plate of cookies, set right in front of me.

“They’re just from the deli next door, but I think they’re the most outrageous cookies in New York,” Alec says, proud of the cookies.

“We’re not really sweets people,” my dad chimes in. He must be using the royal we; cookies are my favorite.

“We really shouldn’t be eating them either,” Joy says.

My mom looks at me again. I don’t meet her eyes.

There are five of us at the table and probably enough cookies for a party of twenty, or even more. Chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, butterscotch, peanut butter. The cookies are fat, round, as big as my face. Everything else fades out of focus. All I see are cookies.

I am Odysseus and the cookies are sugar sirens.

My parents and their friends fade to a fuzzy scrim.

I start with a little wedge each of oatmeal raisin and chocolate chip. That seems a reasonable way to start. But it also seems reasonable that I should try the other varieties, because they indeed turn out to be exemplary cookies—sweet but not too sweet, crunchy but with give, buttery and dense. The cookie sends a rush, electric almost, from my mouth to my brain. The other cookies, from which I snap off pieces to chew on slowly, are excellent, too. And by this point, I haven’t eaten a whole cookie, just pieces, which doesn’t feel like enough, really, so I eat some more pieces, and then some more. It’s a crime to leave a piece of cookie, broken, naked like that, prone on the platter. It’s my duty to eat it. The rush vibrates and surges to my stomach, my temples. My fat thighs disappear from underneath me. I feel the sugar and the butter surge to my toes, as if I have been switched on. I transform.

My mom’s eyes say cease and desist, but more cookies are the only answer to the problem of her embarrassment, and of my own. I willfully lose track of how many cookies I eat. Eight? Twelve? More?

The gigantic platter is empty, save for some crumbs. It takes all my energy, not diving into those crumbs. Still, we laugh and sip our wine like nothing is awry, and the dog sits at my feet now, panting, until it’s time to go home. Everyone hugs me goodbye like I am human, not a cookie monster.

They are wrong. I am all monster, wired, ravenous, manic. I get a cab home because I can’t fathom the interminable wait for the subway or the long walk with myself across Central Park. My face is hot with humiliation.

At my building, I ride the elevator to the eleventh floor. Inside, I don’t take off my shoes. I don’t take off my coat. I go straight to the fridge and empty its contents: leftover pasta, bag of grapes (I leave the garlic cloves, salad greens, milk). I eat the pasta and the grapes so fast I hardly register them. The pasta is lubed up with olive oil, and it glides down my throat. The grapes I inhale by the handful, their skins snapping around juicy flesh.

I don’t keep a whole lot of food in my kitchen for fear of exactly this. Sometimes I manage to go for a week without a binge, a month, even two, but other times I am ravaging my kitchen every night in insatiable panic. In my cabinet: a bag of dark chocolate chips, a box of cereal (the super-healthy kind, but that doesn’t matter when you devour a whole box in one sitting), some dried figs, a half-eaten jar of almond butter. I lay out the goods on my countertop. I will eat every last bit. Waves of nausea pummel me, but I keep going. Heaping spoonfuls of the almond butter, then I scrape out the sides of the jar until my knife scratches empty plastic. The almond goo is glue on my tongue, the back of my mouth, the insides of my stomach. I need to scarf every last bit. I tilt the bag that lines the cereal box down my throat, sucking up the cereal pulp. The figs instantly make me want to puke, the seeds stick in my teeth, but I eat every one, barely pausing to chew. The chocolate chips—they’re the good stuff. I manage to save them for last.

When everything is gone I open the fridge again, and then the cabinet, looking for more food. I am desperate. There’s some raw quinoa, a softening apple I need to toss. The food quiets my panic. Without it, dread rises in my chest, my heart beats gunfire.

I think of going downstairs, out into the night. The fro-yo place is still open. I could get a bucket-sized vanilla yogurt smothered in all the candy and sprinkles and chocolate sauce. I could go to the grocery store and restock my reserves with cereal and chocolate and maybe some more cookies. Cookies for twenty people aren’t enough for me. Not even close. I am possessed.

Somehow I manage to kick off my shoes. They ricochet across the floor.

I use the food because it works. It is an instant cure to whatever ails me, save the paltry price of the morning after—waking up and needing to barf and not being able to, vowing to eat nothing for a day, a week; the self-imposed, relentless suffering. When my friend Amanda didn’t invite me to her sixth-grade sleepover, when my thighs rubbed together under my blue polyester school uniform, when I listened to easy conversation from the solitary confines of my college dorm room and felt loneliness drowning me, food was my friend. And when I won a poetry prize, and the sun shone on a springy day, and my chest swelled with love, with lust, there food was, an ever-loyal companion. Sure, food is my answer to anxiety, sadness, boredom, anger, but also to excitement, possibility, and joy.

And just like starving is the answer, bingeing is the answer.

Life is big and scary. Food is constant, safe, dependable.

Food blots everything out and calms everything down, draws the shades and tucks me in. Cozy. Miserable. Numb.

Feast, by Hannah Howard, is available now.