Spaghetti Carbonara After Sex: The Importance of Food in Nora Ephron’s Heartburn
How do you mend a broken heart? Charlotte Duff digs into Heartburn, Nora Ephron’s autobiographical ode to eating and loving, to explain how a bowl of pasta or the cream of a key lime pie could satisfy more than just hunger.
Nora Ephron was perhaps one of the earliest women to embrace the word ‘hyphenate’- she was a journalist, playwright and author as well as a filmmaker and screenwriter. Her celebrated 1983 novel Heartburn charts the romance, marriage and subsequent break-up of the narrator, food writer Rachel Samstat, from her husband, Washington journalist Mark Forman. It is loosely based on the breakdown of Ephron’s own marriage to Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein. In 1986, the book was adapted into a film, for which Ephron wrote the screenplay. Her divorce famously had a “Heartburn Clause”: Bernstein was permitted to read the screenplay and watch the first cut of the film, after which he could voice any concerns. When asked about his feelings towards the story, Bernstein said, “Obviously I wish Nora hadn't written the book. But I've always known she writes about her life. Nora goes to the supermarket and she uses it for material”. Heartburn is just that – an ordinary story of life and love. It celebrates the joy in the everyday, as well as what happens when it all begins to fall to pieces. Most importantly though, Heartburn is about food.
The story is a slight, and common, one: Rachel and Mark meet, they fall head-over-heels in love, quickly get married and have children. Things begin to fall apart when Rachel discovers that Mark has been having an affair with a local socialite. As well as exploring lust and love, heartbreak and loss, the story is an ode to eating, sharing and cooking food. In the novel, Ephron includes sixteen favourite recipes such as peach pie, pot roast, linguine alla cecca, sorrel soup, bacon hash and mashed potatoes. These don’t all make the final cut of the film, but the few that do reveal the significance of food, and how it is interwoven into the most joyous, mundane and devastating moments of life.
The first meal that Rachel and Mark share is Rachel’s homemade spaghetti carbonara. They eat it out of the same bowl in bed at 4am after sleeping together. Rachel eats hers as a cook would, twirling the spaghetti carefully on a spoon first. Mark eats his by the forkful, telling Rachel her carbonara is the best he’s ever tasted and that he wants it every week “when we’re married”. This moment is one of the most romantic – it captures the headiness of the first days and weeks of a relationship as it blossoms. The first meal after a night together is incredibly intimate – as Rachel echoes with her coy comment, “You probably think I do this for everybody.” The pair then discuss their previous marriages, and both declare they never want to marry again. Of course, the next time we see them is on their wedding day.
Food returns when Rachel tells Mark they’re having a baby. Living in a dilapidated house they’ve bought to renovate, with dust everywhere and builders that have disappeared, they toast their good news by ordering takeout. They eat thick slices of pizza heavy with toppings using a discarded trowel, whilst laughing and giddily singing “all the songs we know about babies”.
In a 2009 interview, Ephron was asked what makes her unhappy. She answered, “a bad meal at a long, narrow table, where I’m seated next to humourless people, but at the other end of the table I can hear wild laughter”. She was then asked when she was at her happiest. She said, “Yesterday – I had a delicious tomato sandwich, on toasted sourdough bread, with mayonnaise”. It's clear that, for Ephron, love, happiness, food and pleasure were inextricably bound together. The iconic American food writer M.F.K Fisher said it best: “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one.” Fisher’s work gave food the power and place that it deserved, and when she died in 1992, The New York Times credited her “artful personal essays on food” with “creating a genre”. Fisher’s writing gave a new and profound meaning to food and to eating, as Ephron’s would come to do decades later.
Whether it’s at a dinner party at home, in a packed Washington restaurant on a Saturday night or with a lazy summer picnic, food and friendship go hand in hand in Heartburn. When friends come over for lunch and Rachel goes into labour, she is more concerned that the roast lamb will go to waste and hurriedly shouts instructions to their bewildered friends as Mark tries to get her out of the door. When Rachel is in hospital having her second baby, her friends come to celebrate by bringing armfuls of her favourite foods: rice pudding with raisins and homemade paella.
After first discovering Mark’s affair, Rachel flees to her father’s apartment in New York. She wearily watches television in the middle of the night, eating mashed potato. She cannot find comfort or solace in Mark, so instead she finds it at the bottom of a saucepan.
Rachel eventually flies back to Washington and they, albeit somewhat half-heartedly, reconcile. Life sinks back into normality, and she throws herself into cooking rich dinners for her husband every night: chicken stuffed with lemon, linguine with clam sauce and pork chops with mustard and cream. It seems like an act of taking some kind of control over their floundering marriage. In trying to become the perfect wife and mother, any doubts surrounding Mark’s affair are quietened. At least for a moment.
Food is a language in itself when words don’t fit. This is true of the last time Rachel and Mark are together – at a dinner party with close friends (some of whom still do not know about Mark’s infidelity) conversation turns to extramarital affairs and how the spouse who doesn’t suspect anything would have to be “living in a dream”. In a moment of clarity, Rachel gets up from the table. “And then the dream dies”, she says. “And the dream breaks into a million tiny little pieces, which gives you a choice. You can stick with it, which is unbearable, or you can just go off and dream another dream”. She takes her famous homemade key lime pie, walks over to Mark, and throws it in his face – a slapstick gesture that there will be no way back from. Breaking down the facade of their happy marriage and instead exposing her pain, Rachel gains the power to leave and start afresh. As Mark looks on, remnants of pie filling dripping off his face, Rachel takes the car keys and leaves.
Food is never just food in Heartburn. It acts as a major player in all of life’s glorious, romantic, messy and difficult moments. Ephron uses food as a reminder of its power: we use food to celebrate the ordinary as well as the extraordinary, and to show someone they are loved. We use it to comfort heartbreak, and to console moments of loss and grief. It’s no coincidence that the pivotal moments of Heartburn centre around food; the romance of a first meal together, the exquisite delight of hearing a child’s first word over a breakfast of cereal and applesauce, the argument over the way someone eats roast chicken, the comfort that only buttered mashed potato can offer, the “it’s over” that only a key lime pie in the face can say.
Ephron’s love and celebration of food proves that caring about food and eating is not frivolous or superficial. Food isn’t just fuel – it’s life itself. When Heartburn came out in cinemas, it received mixed reviews – with critic Roger Ebert calling it “bitter and sour” and saying that Ephron should “have based her story on someone else’s marriage”. It is certainly apt that Ebert chose words associated with taste to criticise on the film. Using her own marriage as a creative outlet might have seemed irrational or harsh to some – but Ephron’s act of uncovering her private experience of pain was certainly a brave one. Her famed mantra “everything is copy” enabled her to regain some kind of control and power over the narrative surrounding the demise of her marriage, as she wrote in Heartburn:
“Because if I tell the story, I control the version. Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me. Because if I tell the story, it doesn't hurt as much. Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.”
Charlotte Duff (@charlottevduff) is a freelance writer and copywriter. She is an English & American Literature graduate and also has a master’s degree in Children’s Literature & Creative Writing from Goldsmiths, University of London.