Clean Eating on the Wild Edge of Sorrow

November 23, 2016 | 2 books mentioned 11 9 min read


Before it was even published, Gwyneth Paltrow’s third and latest cookbook drew me in. I first saw the cover in someone’s Instagram post. It’s an image of Paltrow smiling — a smile so genuine it borders on dorky. She’s holding a bin of fresh produce. Her long white-blonde hair falls unfussily over her shoulders. The sleeves of her oversized sweater are rolled up a bit. She’s not trying to be beautiful. She just is. The title seems confirmation: It’s All Easy.

When I saw a copy at Target months later, I happily picked it up off the shelf. I’d just had my second baby five months earlier. He was in his car seat-stroller combination, the underneath storage basket of which held an array of diapers, wipes, and breast pads.

The photos of the food — a fried egg with its bright yolk atop wilted greens, roasted chicken with crispy skin — enchanted, as did the ones of Paltrow. In muted tones, she stood pensively looking out a sunny window with green, thriving foliage in the background.

Though I eat plenty of eggs, have long blonde hair and two children, live in sun-soaked Los Angeles, in a house with windows to look out of, and am a food professional with a web-based cooking show and a food memoir, these images oozed with a spa-like domestic tranquility that was unfamiliar to me.

The breakfast recipes read like the stuff of blissed out California fantasy: Medjool dates, coconut milk, chia seeds, and goji berries. At my house, breakfast is a shit-show. Sometimes literally. Often while prepping oatmeal for the baby, my two-and-a-half-year-old will scream-announce, “I’m pooping!” from his tiny potty. This is followed by a request: “Come sit with me, Mama.”

But when I hit upon the recipe for “Cauliflower and Kimchi ‘Fried Rice,’” I closed the book immediately, almost instinctively. I put the book back on the shelf and made my way toward the checkout line without it.

I knew exactly why the words fried rice were in quotes. Because there was no rice. They’d substituted the rice for broken up bits of cauliflower. But kimchi fried rice—with the rice—is a family favorite. It’s a dish first introduced to me by a Korean-born friend. She served it to me piping hot in her tiny dining room almost six years ago now. And it’s her recipe that I still use today. It’s, to borrow a word, easy. If I have leftover rice, I can make this meal in ten minutes. It needs no side dish. It’s spicy, sour, and fulfilling, especially with the fried egg on top. If I served up Paltrow’s grainless, eggless version, my husband and I would eat it and then raid the cupboards for pretzels.

Days later, I must’ve still been bothered because I instantly recalled the cauliflower “rice” while reading the following sentence:

Soon we will be left with only the barest semblance of the exuberant matrix that we once had, as the monoculture of modernity plows into the lives of every culture, replacing their traditions with imitations of our own pale expression of life.

It’s from The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, a book I’d picked up despite its title and cover image (an orangey sunset over dark-blue water, reminiscent of a glossy DIY religious pamphlet you might find tucked under your front door).  I’d sought out the book after reading an interview with the author, Francis Weller. The line in particular that sold me was how he described that, as a society, “We experience little genuine joy in part because we avoid the depths. We are an ascension culture. We love rising, and we fear going down.”

Shortly after the birth of my second baby, I was going down. Weller’s notion that this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing gripped me for weeks until I finally bought his book to find out more.

Though I hadn’t tried Paltrow’s kimchi dish, Weller’s words seemed to capture the broader reason why I wasn’t interested, because it felt to be just that: a low-cal, pale expression of life.

Days later, however, I found myself still curious about It’s All Easy. A quick library search revealed an available digital copy. I checked it out and read the introduction, “Keeping It Easy,” written by Paltrow herself. What I found surprised me. She writes:

How to integrate ‘busy’ (anxiety, fullness of schedule, responsibility) with quality of inner life seems to be the issue on the table (so to speak). It’s almost as if the more we pile on our plates, the deeper we long for the simpler aspects of life, which makes perfect sense. But how can we achieve this balance?

Quality of inner life? As far as I could gather, that was Weller’s middle name. We live in a world largely “dominated by the rhythm of the machine,” he wrote, a culture that has “forgotten the basic needs of the soul.”

I read on. After a paragraph, Paltrow reaches an answer to her own question about how to find balance: “Good food at a table.” A bit further on, she adds, “This book is meant to be a road map: a self-help book for the chronically busy cook.”

The chronically busy cook. It rang a bell.

Pre-children, cooking had been a way to nurture myself, a way to practice patience. It also stood for a fulfilling task with a definitive, often-edible ending. Cooking even led me to a dream realized: my first published book, which I wrote while pregnant with my first son, Teddy.

But soon after he was born, cooking became more of an enjoyable chore, as in: I enjoyed cooking more than going to Target, more than vacuuming, more than putting clean clothes away, etc.

Naïvely, pre-motherhood, I didn’t give enough thought to how I would take care of a child and write, especially given the fact that the writing paid less than childcare cost. With both sets of grandparents living on the East Coast and a husband with a full-time job, I knew I would need help but in a vague, untallied way — not entirely dissimilar from how Paltrow introduces her own hired help: her book’s coauthor. In a single clause, she mentions her “cohort, Thea Baumann.” It sounds very natural, as if no money ever changed hands.

I knew I would need help, but I also hadn’t expected to want to do so much of it myself and still write and look good (or at least as good as I used to) while doing it.

I went into my second pregnancy only slightly less naïve. Teddy had been a chill newborn. Isaac was not. Dinner became less of an enjoyable chore and more like a semi-impossible physical challenge. My husband, Matt, arrived home around six. If we could be eating by 6:30, the kids might then be in bed by eight, which left us a childless hour or two before crashing. This was doable as long as we kept to a variation on pasta or takeout. But this was boring and expensive — respectively.

One afternoon, I was inspired by the idea of cooking some farro in a mixture of coconut milk and chicken broth. I remembered a Heidi Swanson recipe and decided to serve the farro alongside her roasted kale and coconut flakes. I grocery-shopped accordingly. But by the time Matt got home, all I had accomplished was washing the kale and removing the farro from the pantry. Dinner wasn’t ready until 7:30. Teddy still needed a bath. Isaac was in Matt’s arms.

I took my first bite and felt a sharp pain in my jaw. I grabbed the side of my face. It felt like my jawbone hadn’t lined up correctly. I assumed it was a one-time fluke. I took another bite and felt the exact same sharpness. After a few more tries, I reluctantly resigned myself to the fact that I couldn’t eat anything. It was, I later learned, my first case of stress-induced TMJ.

At a basic level, Weller’s and Paltrow’s books share similar aims. Paltrow’s friends wanted her to write a cookbook that was an “antidote to all their busyness.” They wanted “a simple reset of the compass toward wholeness and quality.” Weller is a psychotherapist dealing with patients who wanted guidance through their many types of grief; they wanted recourse for their overwhelming feeling of emptiness. Of course, The Wild Edge of Sorrow is not a cookbook. It offers no photos and no recipes. And so the books go about tackling these goals quite differently.

Weller does specifically discuss wholeness, though. One of his main points is that we have lost our connection to the earth, and in order to feel whole, we need to get it back: “Animals were the first things that we depicted in recesses and cave paintings, the first we conjured in myths and tales. Their ways were integral not only to our survival but also to the very shaping of our souls.”

Now, city- or suburb-dwelling Americans can go years without a proper walk in the woods. Now: “There are no daily encounters with…herds of elk or bison, no ongoing connection with Manzanita or scrub jays.”

Weller writes that this conversation with the wildness of the world is part of “our inheritance.” And as a parent, I submit the idea that this is something that hasn’t been taught out of children yet. One trick I’ve picked up from dealing with screaming babies is to take them outside. It almost always calms them. Or perhaps, in the sense of that ubiquitous airplane oxygen mask metaphor — it works by calming me first.

Most often, you can find my copy of T.W.E.O.S. in my oversize purse alongside the diapers and wipes and pacifiers. Just about every page is marked up, though there is one passage that I have almost committed to memory:

We often feel flattened under the weight of domestication, which smothers the heat and howl of our wild selves. We feel eviscerated, made tame by rules and conditioning that blanket the world with uniformity and mediocrity.

Weller isn’t just talking about domestication in the form of homemaking and child rearing. He’s talking about all the ways modern life has tamed us. He’s referring to our general and pervasive lack of wildness. Forget scrub jays! When I mince garlic, I can’t even let the tiny pieces spill over the edge of the board without faint panic, followed by quick tidying. I may be making something wholesome and nutritious for my family, but I’m also flexing a brand of white-knuckled control over my environment.

And while I don’t think that Weller would disagree per se with Paltrow’s proposed remedy to the stresses of modern life (“good food at a table”), or that Paltrow would disagree with Weller’s (Step 1, Part A: Go outside.), I do think their road maps look pretty different.

Flipping through the pages of It’s All Easy feels like a house tour. And that’s by design. It’s a cookbook but one that falls under the aspirational/lifestyle genre. The imprint it’s sold under even says as much, Grand Central Life & Style.

And we don’t just see images of Paltrow; we see her in what we assume (or what we are meant to assume) is her home. We see her kitchen, her dining room. We see her splayed out on the couch. We see what appear to be her things: her sparkling-clean Chemex, her teapot wrapped in a knitted cozy, her stylish and seemingly unused measuring spoons, her children. There’s no clutter, no dirt. The rooms are bright and airy. There is one photo of what looks like a Parisian apartment building; it’s out of focus, blurry, like in a dream.

In Target, when I first scanned these pages, this world, this home beckoned. It made me believe that life could be ordered, understated, and easy — both in spirit and task. It’s an alluring notion, wish fulfillment. But I realize now that that’s no way to live. At least for me.

I’ve tried it. I’ve tried to live perfectly, pristinely, above the fray. I’ve chased down Teddy countless times to wipe his oily hands before he touched the couch or the bed, both of which have a strict “no shoes” policy, which he dutifully, almost sadly, abides. I tried to erase the signs that I recently birthed and breastfed two humans. I’ve doubled up on sports bras while working out to Tracy Anderson via Youtube as Isaac stared up at me from his Bjorn Bouncer. For Christmas last year, while nine-months pregnant, I requested a Goop-endorsed “clean” $170 bottle of face oil (and got it from my mother, my very own personal Blythe Danner).

I followed Paltrow’s soft-hued, self-restrained road map and maybe even experienced moments when I believed it was working for me, when I finally did fit back into my jeans, when I splurged on some expensive minimalist earrings and felt pretty wearing them, when everything looked good, easy. I might have also convinced some of the people who watch my cooking web series or follow me on social media.

The real problem with aspiring to a spotless life, however, is that, best-case scenario, upon arrival you realize that there’s nothing there. It’s like a wooden facade on the set of an old Western movie. It does exist; you can touch it, but you can also knock it over with a single push.

Last night, I followed Paltrow’s recipe for congee — a thick soup made by simmering rice in chicken broth until the rice starts to break down, the starch becoming part of the broth.

Isaac is nine months now, so while I minced the garlic and ginger, he sat in his high chair, eating slices of turkey and chopped cherry tomatoes. Teddy is almost three, and though I’d long ago wanted to wean him from his pacifier, I’ve found that if I give in and let him have it, his entire demeanor changes. He relaxes. He asks, “Can I lay a little bit, Mama?” Of course I say yes. He turns around, grabs his stuffed bear, and climbs in bed.

By the time Matt came home, dinner was far from being ready. The house was a mess — our bed sheets that Isaac had spit up on that morning were still in the wash, something sticky was under my bare feet, our dog was whining for Isaac’s turkey — but the congee eventually thickened up. I fried us all eggs, topped it off with scallions, shoyu, and some mixed greens. We ate it in a hurry, as we do most nights, Teddy eating alongside us. It was good, not life-changingly so. But then again, I’ve learned that that’s a lot to ask from a meal.

's food memoir, Bon Appétempt, was published in 2015 and her debut novel, Wildcat, was published February 2022. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, McSweeney’s, The Millions, and USA Today. She also co-created the podcast, Mom Rage. She lives in Los Angeles with her family.