Heartburn for “Heart Burn”
September 4th, 2023
Rachel Handler, Jazmine Hughes, and Marlowe Granados on their connection to a Nora Ephron classic.
Summer starts off with a sickeningly sweet promise, and if you’re lucky, ends with a scorchingly sweet burn. This is a week all about those last days of a season defined by heat: sweaty yearnings, summer songs, ubiquitous slang, and every kind of feeling that could, if you think about it, qualify as heart burn.
Heartburn, the novel, was published in 1983. It is a beloved, flawed work by Nora Ephron that now lives in two formats, print and film. The structure of the book was part recipes, part fiction, and all Ephron, for better or worse. Instantly recognizable as an artistic interpretation/devastating roman à clef about her own marriage and subsequent divorce from her second husband, the work now stands as part of what makes Ephron, the journalist, writer, and filmmaker, such a touchstone for so many: adapted into a Mike Nichols film in 1986, the lead characters were played by Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson with all the complexity that the source materials and central story required. Heartburn is about second marriages, infidelities, home renovations, and spaghetti carbonara. Parts of it are warm and funny, and others are cold and sour; and aren’t all the best experiences of life the same?
Below, three writers—Rachel Handler, Jazmine Hughes, and Marlowe Granados—share the ways these contradictory elements combine (much like, dare we compare, a recipe) to make something so much greater than the sum of its parts. Heartburn is an excellent entry into the genre known as beach reading, or classic summer blockbuster, but as each of them write in their way, it is just like a dish best served cold: savor it any time you get the chance.
A good day—for me, anyway—is centered around two emotions: pleasure (sex, food, drugs, sunshine, a hug from a person under 5) and relief (the sound of my apartment door closing and keeping everyone always from me). And when I can't access either, Heartburn is right there on my bedside table.
It is a first edition but my second copy; the previous, somewhat greasy one I pressed into the hand of a friend reaching for a bad idea, scissors or a plane ticket or a late-night text, forgetting that, in addition to being my favorite novel, it's also how I learned to make mashed potatoes.
How funny it is to love a book about cooking but hate doing it yourself. (I can't even remember the last time I made potatoes.) It's a novel of failed senses, sharp and scratchy as a bread knife: how delusion can cloud even the clearest vision, how songs you've never heard can haunt and ring in your ears anyway. Once your heart breaks, so go the senses. Taste survives the battle: it's a book about cooking, but it's a book about love, and how we show it. I once read an article about a rich woman who always bought her friends copies of the books she loves, and so now I do, too. A copy of Heartburn gets delivered to every friend who's sad. Eat this, I want to say. You'll feel better.
I had come to Nora Ephron first, years before I arrived at the spectacle and intrigue of Watergate (I didn’t have an American education that would include such things), and it was only in the last few years that I had finally made the connection—Nora’s second husband was Carl Bernstein. I had always thought of the character in Heartburn as Nora’s throwaway, cocky D.C. journalist—not the cocky D.C. journalist. This revised context only made the story more gut-wrenching, magnifying the loneliness, and in my mind, increasing its cultural impact (remind me to never marry a famous journalist.)
I return to Heartburn (in both book and film form) each time I go through an emotional reckoning. I always tell people going through a breakup to read the novel to make them feel better. I always lead with, “At least you weren’t seven months pregnant.” As a roman à clef, the novel always seemed to me like the greatest revenge, and to become a Mike Nichols film in all its chalky hues and Carly Simon soundtrack must have been the cherry on top.
What sets Heartburn apart is how well it depicts the most desperate, pathetic stage of a relationship ending. It’s the time when your friends are sick of you crying, you miss the person who betrayed you and are always around the corner from forgiving them. Through Nora’s retelling of it, she turns what would be a run-of-the-mill tragedy to an inimitable text on the dissolution of a marriage. I always think of the last page where Rachel Samstat tells a friend why she must turn everything into a story, “Because if I tell the story, I control the vision…Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.”
During my previous 44 viewings of Heartburn, I had always thought of myself as a Rachel Samstat type: neurotic, dramatic, self-absorbed; a writer who's kind of a bitch but in a self-aware way and who really loves her friends and family; a person named Rachel. However, upon this most recent rewatch, I realized I am actually a Mark Forman. I am a moody shopaholic who stands up in the middle of meals to sing showtunes. After decades of protestations I, too, have reluctantly bought into the Marriage Industrial Complex, and now find myself wed to a wonderful person who makes me a delicious dinner every single night while I do nothing to help.
In the interest of being less monstrous and maybe even avoiding my inevitable fate of randomly leaving my husband for a tall goyishe person, I decide to turn the proverbial tables and make my husband spaghetti carbonara and serve it to him in bed like Rachel does, and see if I could thusly alter my tragic Mark Forman destiny.
Things begin poorly. The store does not have pancetta or guanciale and I panic and buy soppressata, which my husband Adam says is fine but I can see is spiritually wrong. I try grating the pecorino and parmesan into a small measuring cup and the cheese gets all over the counter. How the fuck do people cook? I begin to turn more Mark-like and grumpy as cheese falls around me like snow. “Grate it on a plate,” suggests Adam, who is not supposed to help me; he is supposed to be flitting about buying socks and cheating on me. "Then how do I measure it?" I ask, crazed. “You pick it up with your hands and put it into the cup,” he says. l say I didn’t want cheese on my hands and he points out I already have tons of cheese on my hands. I explain that I don't want more cheese on my hands and he remarks that I am being “a little bit obstinate.”
In the movie, Rachel breezes into bed post-coitally with a gigantic beautiful bowl of carbonara at 4 a.m., giving the impression that she whipped it all up while barely thinking about it, still happily dickmatized. It's second nature to her, this deceptively complex dish that requires isolating egg yolks and heating serving bowls. I am struggling to chop the soppressata into small squares. “Why are you using a steak knife?” says Adam from the couch. I grab the huge chopping (?) knife instead, and we both become visibly nervous. He stands up quietly and chops the soppressata for me but pretends not to be doing it, then kisses me on the cheek and says he loves me even though I was “rude about the cheese.”
I put the chopped soppressata in the oily pan and he says to the room, "This is just a thought I had that I am saying out loud, not to you. There is less fat in soppressata, so one might need more oil to make it feel more like guanciale. But this is not information for you, just for the universe.” I then (rather flawlessly, if I do say so myself) execute the rest of the dish, pouring hot water into the serving bowl, cooking the pasta perfectly al dente (one thing I do know how to do well) and stirring it into the soppressata pan, removing the hot water and pouring the pasta into the steaming bowl, quickly stirring in the cheese/egg mixture. I add a lot of pepper, then lurch to the bedroom with my heavy bowl with Adam trailing bemusedly behind.
We sit weirdly in bed, like strangers on a first date. The pasta is propped up between us on a pair of pillows. We each take a bite. It’s good, not great, not the “best carbonara I’ve ever had” that one might “want once a week when we’re married,” but how bad could it be? It's eggs, cheese, carbs, pig. Adam says it is “not exactly carbonara, but in the ballpark." I blame the soppressata and my personality.
My dad, who cooks for his family every night too, says making food for people we love is a holy act. I wonder if I can fundamentally change myself this way. I suppose I will have to see if I can make dinner another time without becoming visibly annoyed. Adam and I move to the couch, where we agree the pasta actually tastes better; there was something incredibly fucked up about eating it in bed.
- Jazmine Hughes is a staff writer for the New York Times magazine. She won the 2023 National Magazine Award for profile writing.
- Rachel Handler is a features writer at Vulture and New York Magazine who covers movies, TV, music, pop culture, and bucatini.
- Marlowe Granados is a writer and filmmaker. She is the author of Happy Hour, a novel the New York Times called “confident, charismatic and alive to the pleasure of observation.” Her recently launched Substack "From the Desk of Marlowe Granados" features her advice column, essays, and more.
- Ohni Lisle is an illustrator in Brooklyn NY, whose work focuses on shapes, bodies, and light.