Poor Man’s Feast: When I Stopped Laughing

Posted inCreative Voices

It was something I hadn’t considered, something that I hadn’t even thought about until a new friend— the kind who shows up in your life fully formed— said to me one day when Susan and I were having dinner with her and her husband: But you’re so funny—

I actually burst out laughing when she said it, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. I turned to Susan, who was driving home.

Did I lose my sense of humor at some point?

Yes— she said.


When your dad died, she answered, without missing a beat.

My father was a hilarious, complicated man; we were so close that the way I speak still mirrors the way he did, almost exactly. Sometimes when I cough, I can hear him, and I find myself looking around to see if he’s behind me. Our storytelling styles and rhythms were the same. Our world views were the same. I learned The Funny from him. I also learned from him that humor and pathos are fueled by the same energy, and therefore inextricably bound to each other.

The only time my father lost his sense of humor was when he experienced a triptych of profound failure: he lost his business, he declared bankruptcy, and my mother asked him to leave, all inside of a year. He literally became a different person almost overnight, who carried his body like a burden. This began to manifest in the way he treated it. He began eating foul food at a greasy spoon on 41st Street; he drank too many Gibsons. He stopped his daily walks; he stopped looking at art, stopped listening to music, stopped reading. His health, both physical and spiritual, plummeted; his heart literally, actually broke. It would be another four years until I heard him laugh again, which, for a man whose life was built upon a foundation of humor and humanity, was forever, and he very nearly didn’t survive it.

And then, Susan went on, when you lost the family—

I took a deep breath.

And when Harris died, she added.

I looked out the window. I started to hyperventilate.

And then, she said, turning to me, you started attracting people who just didn’t laugh, like ever— she stopped for a moment—

It was your new normal, she said, like they spoke your new language, and you recognized each other.

I had never considered it: that everything and every part of one’s life is touched by humor, and therefore, also its loss. That when someone who looks at the world in a manner imbued with a combination of the absurd and the ironic, with oddity, contrast, kindness, and humanity— the things that together make up the seeds of humor— and suddenly that changes, their world changes with it. I knew— or I was told, anyway— that even my writing had changed during that time; my narrative voice was suddenly different. (I explain narrative voice to my students as a piece’s DNA, its hair and eye color, its build and the way it walks.) My editors told me that my voice had gotten chillier, clipped, terse. On some days, when my world was at its worst, I had trouble getting out of bed. I stopped playing music. And when I stepped into the kitchen — the place I went for quiet repair and (heaven help me for saying it) self-care— everything I made, simple or complicated, was inedible. Eggs were cooked to the point of explosion. Roast chickens were incinerated. Toast was carbonized.

And I couldn’t even laugh at myself.

I remember back in 2001, for weeks after 9/11, it was generally accepted that we couldn’t laugh. How on earth could we. We were grief-stricken; we were devastated. We were a world utterly in shock. Thousands had died. People I knew had died. Two days later, I lost my editorial director job in Connecticut—the one that had enabled me to move here from New York. (What will you do now—pump gas? my mother asked.) My father, watching the attacks on television that morning, told me he wouldn’t live another year; he didn’t. Every day, I sat down with the New York Times and read the little thumbnail snapshots of the victims. This one had just gotten engaged to her college boyfriend; that one was about to retire the following week. This one made the very best meatballs. Another had come from a long legacy of firefighters dating back to the 1800s and had just become a grandfather.

It was weeks later when the hosts of late night television, openly weeping, wondered aloud if it would ever be okay to laugh again. It had to be. It had to beBecause humor is sustenance with a caloric weight and density; it feeds our hearts and our minds in the same way that food does. Without it, we starve. As long as it is not at someone else’s expense, it feeds our spirits. It would be another three months before Maira Kalman and Rick Meyerowitz’s New Yorkistan cover appeared on The New Yorker in December 2001. These were all tender social cues: it was okay to laugh again, because it was understood that humor and laughter do not mitigate pain and anguish. They’re just the B side to it, and therefore, they must exist, for reason and balance.

Humor is sustenance with a caloric weight and density, like food. Without it, we starve.

It was a confluence of events that siphoned the laughter and the humor out of me, like gas from a car. Much of it was loss— so much mind-spinning, stunning loss, all of which happened at the same time, that I could barely put one foot in front of the other. That much loss happening all at once changes a person at a cellular level. I could no longer feed myself or my family or my heart or my spirit. I lost the language of laughter and humor. And because like seeks like, I inadvertently attracted people who shared my new lexicon. They were mostly warm, lovely, and kind people, and also utterly dour. They spoke in a dialect that was now familiar to me. The language we shared felt like a mother tongue devoid of the warmly ironic and the absurd— that marriage out of which one is able to see the world in all its hell and its beauty, and still schlep forward day after day, laughing and crying all at once.

I do not know exactly when humor returned to my life, but when it did, it was as though I’d somehow, finally, come home to a language I remembered once speaking, but hadn’t heard for a while. It was like someone took off my glasses, cleaned them, and handed them back to me. Everything changed: my teaching, my writing, my cooking, my outlook. I was able to feed myself and the people I love again. I stopped carbonizing the toast, and stopped boiling the eggs until they were little squash balls. I got out of bed and moved forward into the world.

How to Cook a Hard-Boiled Egg

Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

There are many on-trend ways to cook an egg: there’s the seven-minute egg (very nice in ramen), the poached egg (excellent on buttered toast or on black lentils), or the scrambled egg (which tends to be overcooked to the consistency of, as Laurie Colwin once described it, an asbestos mat). I’m starting here because this is my nursery food; I make it when I’m in need of (no pun intended) coddling and a quick hit of protein. There are as many ways to cook a hard boiled egg as there are cooks, but this method has never failed me. If you’re cooking for a crowd, increase the number of eggs, the amount of water, and the size of the pan exponentially; the method and timing remain the same.

Makes 2 hard boiled eggs

Place two not-fresh eggs (2 weeks old is ideal) in a medium saucepan large enough to allow water to circulate around them. Fill with water to cover the eggs by an inch. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, slap a cover on the pan, and immediately remove it from the burner. Let it rest, covered, for exactly 12 minutes. Drain the water and run cold tap water over the eggs for exactly 1 minute. Drain, peel, and eat, sprinkled with Maldon sea salt, or even better, dukkah.

This post was originally published on Elissa Altman’s blog Poor Man’s Feast, The Beard Award-winning journal about the intersection of food, spirit, and the families that drive you crazy. Read more on her Substack, or keep up with her archives here.

Header photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash.