Over Christmas break, using a free platform and a banner image designed by my wife, book designer Susan Turner, I decided to see whether or not blog readers would be drawn to long form narrative about the intersection of sustenance —in whatever form it comes: at the table and far beyond —- and spirit.

I was assured they wouldn’t. I was told that people really only ever want practical food writing. Quick recipes. In-and-out. How to roast a chicken. How to poach an egg. I had a sense, though, that readers wanted more. And I had more to say then Preheat oven to 375.

I wanted to say Here, sit, tell me your table story, and I will tell you mine.

2008 was, at turns, a remarkable year, and a deplorable one. On the one hand, there was hope, and cause for much celebration. Barack Obama was about to be inaugurated. Elizabeth Alexander would stand at the lectern and read Praise Song for the Day, and the words

I know there's something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.

We needed hope. And we needed sustenance. Our hearts needed nurturing and shoring up. Earlier in 2008, the market had crashed. On September 29th, the Dow Jones plummeted 777.68 percent. Jobs were lost. Homes were lost. We came perilously close to losing ours. A few months prior, my beloved little cousin, the composer and musician Harris Wulfson, suffering from profound mental illness, took his own life a few days before his birthday.

So there was hope. And there was tragedy.

A light here requires a shadow there, wrote Virginia Woolf, in To The Lighthouse.

I sank into a depression that was ineffable. I found myself drawn back to the table and the kitchen, the garden and the walking trails, to the act of sustaining myself and the people I love.

After I was fervently assured that I was wasting my time, I launched Poor Man’s Feast with no plan for it beyond being a place where people could come and read my table stories, and tell me — and each other — theirs. It would go on to be nominated for three James Beard Awards, and win in 2012. When asked what it was about, I described it this way:

Poor Man’s Feast is about sustenance in the face of pretense, and authenticity in the face of the artificial. It’s about simplicity instead of the tarted-up. It’s about kindness in the face of the rude. It’s about storytelling — mine, my family’s, yours, your family’s — and how those stories are inextricably bound up with what and how we feed ourselves and those we love, literally and metaphorically, what we eat at times of joy, sorrow, delight, surprise, fear, and sadness.

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The James Beard Award-winning narrative journal about the intersection of sustenance, nature, and the creative spirit (and sometimes, a recipe).


Elissa Altman is the award-winning author of memoirs Motherland, Treyf, and Poor Man's Feast. Her new book, On Permission, is coming in '24. Her work is read everywhere from the Washington Post to the Wall Street Journal and On Being.