Laura Zinn Fromm has a take on life that for many people could sum up the holiday season: “If food is love, then cooking is even lovelier. And we are all hungry.”
Her book, Sweet Survival: Tales of Cooking & Coping, published in September by Greenpoint Press, is part memoir, part recipe collection. The mixture makes for restless reading. If you go straight to the next chapter, you learn more about her hilariously familiar struggles to shape a sane and loving life filled with all manner of comfort food. On the other hand, the dishes described are often tantalizing enough to make even non-cooks like this reader put down the book and go hunting for the ingredients.
For example, in the chapter titled “Cooking for Hanukah: What I Do and What I Don’t Do,” she describes frantically trying to balance life as a suburban mom with teaching and writing a blog that wins fleeting attention from The New York Times and Al Jazeera, while along the way gathering an unbeatable recipe for braised brisket. She concludes with the line: “Too much brown sugar is never a bad thing,” and that sweet aroma comes right off the page.
The author/cook, a Short Hills resident with a husband and two sons, grew up in a troubled marriage, not far from where she lives now. The dinner table, laden with increasingly delicious food as her mother submerged her frustrations into greater and greater culinary skill, was the one place where good feelings prevailed. Fromm’s own home is clearly far more harmonious, but she picked up the habit of concocting fabulous food whenever the chance arises.
Even these past few months since her book came out, she found herself baking cookies for the audiences attending her promotional readings.
The book isn’t specifically Jewish in orientation, but Yiddishkeit permeates both the anecdotes and the cooking. The recipes are not always kosher, but when they aren’t, Fromm has alternatives to suggest, like substituting almond milk for regular milk in a chicken dish.
She and her family are members of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, the Reform synagogue in Short Hills, where she served on the board. “I didn’t grow up particularly observant, but my best friend in college became a rabbi and then a history professor at Hebrew Union College,” Fromm said. “Because of my husband’s family’s history of fleeing Germany in 1939, I have become much more aware of being Jewish as an adult.”’
As she put it, “We don’t always celebrate Shabbat, but we always have hallah.” She admitted to sometimes buying the ready-to-bake dough instead of making it from scratch herself; either way, you know the Fromm household smells wonderful on Fridays.
She writes about her very good friend, Debbie, who introduced her to Hadassah, about celebrating Rosh Hashana, observing Yom Kippur, and baking for Easter as well as Passover. “My stepfather is Irish Catholic and one of my closest friends is married to a Catholic man, so we are used to merging the holidays,” she said.
While cooking has been for pleasure, Fromm has been a professional writer for many years. She did an MFA in fiction writing at Columbia University, worked as an editor at Businessweek, and has been published in The New York Times, Huffington Post, and other publications, along the way winning the Clarion Award and the Newspaper Guild’s Page One Award for Labor Reporting. She has taught at Columbia and at Montclair State University and currently teaches fiction and creative nonfiction at the JCC Manhattan, through the New York Writers Workshop. Until recently, she also served as chair of Bridges Outreach, a nonprofit that helps feed and clothe homeless families in Newark, Irvington, and Manhattan.