“It Was Either Laugh or Die”

Laura Zinn Fromm is an award-winning journalist whose new book, Sweet Survival: Tales of Cooking and Coping, shows how food can be a lifeline amidst craziness. The Short Hills resident is about to make two New Jersey appearances.

Laura Zinn Fromm
Author Laura Zinn Fromm
Photo: Jamie Karlin

Fromm holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and teaches fiction and creative nonfiction writing through the New York Writers Workshop. A former editor at Business Week, she has won the Clarion Award and the Newspaper Guild’s Page One Award for Labor Reporting.

On January 13th, Fromm will appear at the Whole Earth Center in Princeton. On January 14, she will appear at the Kings Cooking Studio in Short Hills. On both dates, she will talk about Sweet Survival, her memoir and cookbook.

In her book, she may mince meat but she doesn’t mince words about the heady accomplishments and heavy baggage she is heir to.

“On one side of the family,” she writes, “we have this: A Nobel prize winner, a two-term governor, the provost at a major university, a physicist who helped develop the atom bomb, a psychiatrist, an internist, some lawyers…On the other side, we have this: alleged incest, multiple suicide attempts, a couple of successful suicides, rampant obesity, several divorces, stints in mental hospitals, rehab facilities, county jails and state prisons and what seems like ubiquitous mental illness.”

In each of the 40 essays in her book, Fromm, 50, finds humor as well as pathos in her predicaments, and connects the love of food to staying sane in distressing times.

“I figured it was either laugh or die,” she told me.

Growing up in Short Hills, Fromm and her younger brother looked forward with especially keen neediness to the elegant dinners served by the family’s live-in housekeeper. Every moment under that troubled roof was heightened by the erratic mood swings and multiple suicide attempts of her radiologist father.

As a child Fromm watched Julia Child on TV and was served lots of fabulous fresh food, but she did not cook during her years at Wellesley College or even in her 20s and 30s when she was working at Business Week and living with her husband in Manhattan.

Her parents divorced and remarried several times. Not until Fromm had two sons of her own and moved with her husband back to Short Hills did she consciously connect cooking with sanity and comfort. She then threw herself into cooking classes and “became addicted to reading cookbooks by Julia Child, Craig Claiborne, Mark Bittman and the ladies who owned Silver Palate,” she writes.

She began to build a collection of recipes like the Chicken with Balsamic Vinegar that neighbor Debbie, “my first suburban sister,” brought to the shiva when her father died.

Another friend, Terri, invited her to a class in pressure-cooking. Well, Fromm felt like she had been living in a pressure cooker her whole life, so why not? The class was taught by Arlene Ward, a popular local instructor, “a lovely woman with a fierce attention to detail and a delightful sense of humor,” Fromm said. This led to a friendship with Ward, who will cook with her at the Kings/Short Hills event.

“When your parents have cycled through romances,” Fromm writes, “and countless relatives have landed in the loony bin, jumped off bridges, stabbed themselves in cars, stuck their head in ovens or landed in prison, you start to think that insanity…might be your birthright.”

“And so,” she told me, “I cook, chopping and sautéing through the stress.”

Whole Earth Center
Tuesday, January 13, 2015 , 7 p.m.
360 Nassau Street

Kings Cooking Studio
Wednesday, January 14, 2015, 6:30 p.m.
778 Morris Turnpike
Short Hills

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