What Matters: Elissa Altman on Squabs Marinated in Plum Sauce and Moving Past Imposter Syndrome

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Debbie Millman has started a new project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an ongoing effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers, and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer 10 identical questions, and submit a decidedly nonprofessional photograph.

Elissa Altman is the James Beard Award-winning author of the memoirs Motherland, Poor Man’s Feast, and Treyf. An essayist, teacher, longtime editor, erstwhile musician, and personal chef, her work has been published everywhere from O: The Oprah Magazine to On Being, Narrative, and the Washington Post.

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

THE thing? Is it possible to put make love to my wife and travel in the same category? There is so very much that I love doing—having a good writing day, watching one of my students have a moment of revelation, reading a book that captivates me, playing music with other people, feeding a table of my friends, hiking, painting (I’m awful at it)—but travel is possibly at the top of the list, next to my wife. I remember staying in a little apartment across the street from the Cluny Museum in Paris—it was a beautiful place, small and quite monastic, that had once been owned by David Sedaris, who sold it to the chef David Tanis from, whom we were renting it. I woke up very early one morning, and the breeze was coming in through the sheer curtain. I had no sense of what time it was, and I looked over at Susan, who was still fast asleep, and I thought how very, very happy I am.

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

At three years old, I was given a soft-sided, lined notebook. I can close my eyes and see it: it had a marbleized caramel brown cover and a black taped binding. I took it into my bedroom, closed the door, and stared at the blank pages in wonder. I distinctly remember thinking of the possibilities that a blank page holds; the thought thrilled me in a way that would have been impossible to verbalize at that point. But that feeling was all about creative possibility, the idea that one could create something where there once had been nothing. How magical and mind-blowing that realization is, even for a young child.

What is your biggest regret?

Not having children.

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

With the tincture of time and the understanding that we have very little control over loss. I carry heartbreak in my cells—I think we all do to some extent—and it is often very hard for me to move beyond it, so I’ve stopped trying. Over the years, I’ve learned that you don’t get over heartbreak and grief; you metabolize it. They change shape and size over time, but they never leave. Some days I’m better equipped to deal with this theory than other days. Art—the making of it and its presence—helps.

What makes you cry?

Everything.

My father used to say that he cried at supermarket openings.

Like father, like daughter.

Specifically: unfairness, frustration at unfairness, the loss of so many children of color to violence and feeling utterly helpless about it, cruelty, the separation of children from their parents, emotional violence, the shock of losing a friend. But also, beauty: art, being in nature, music, feeling blessed. And always, the absolutely astonishing discovery that one is lovable.

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

It dwindles very quickly, and then I’m on to something else. I often don’t let myself go there at all. The message I got about accomplishment when I was a child was clear—don’t get a swelled head (grandmother), and who do you think you are (parents)? Pride in accomplishment was directly tied to shame in my young life, and I carry that with me today. If I can manage to get beyond the resulting imposter syndrome, I can give myself some peace. That said, I’m a writer, and books—even when they’re out of print because they didn’t hit some arbitrary sales figure—have half-lives, like all art; when a stranger tells me that something I wrote years earlier helped them, I take great joy in that. That’s at the core for me.

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

Growing up in an assimilated Jewish household a generation after the Holocaust, I was always told that there wasn’t one. If you die, you’re dead. Goodbye. The end. But I’ve come to believe far too strongly in the existence of the soul, and of energy, to think that there isn’t something that goes on after the fact. Some say belief in the afterlife is juvenile; believers (or at least those who wonder about it) call the naysayers arrogant. I’m in the wondering camp, and I tend to think that if you’re that hung up on the belief that there’s no afterlife, you probably believe, but you don’t want to admit it. All I can say, is that if there is an afterlife, there better be art, dogs, pastrami, and music. Specifically John Lennon.

What do you hate most about yourself?

How much time do you have?

Chronic impatience. My incredibly accurate bullshit detector (life would be so much easier without it). My tendency towards bossiness, which has its roots in the fact that I’m terrified of almost everything around me almost all of the time. My unfailing belief that people will always do the right thing even when they’ve repeatedly proven otherwise. My tendency to run/flee from challenge professional and personal. Being an artist with no discernible financial facility. My related and almost hysterical fear of money; having too little as I get older and feeling secretly unworthy of ever having enough. My mother was a model, so I also absorbed certain charming aesthetic sensibilities from her; when I looked in the mirror one day, mid-Covid, my grandmother looked back at me. I’m trying to take my friend Annie Lamott’s approach; I am not my cellulite.

What do you love most about yourself?

Unwavering devotion to friends and family. Compassion. The strength to survive significant physical and emotional trauma. A sense of perspective enabled me to deal with most of the neuroses in the last question and find the love of my life.

What is your absolute favorite meal?

One that is prepared with kindness and authenticity and shared with people I love.

Once, in the very early eighties, when I was almost out of high school and just recuperating from a severe case of mono, I was taken for dinner by my stepfather and mother to O-Ho So, a long-defunct restaurant on West Broadway in Soho. After eating nothing
but dry toast for months, I ordered squab that had been marinated in plum sauce and roasted slowly in a clay pot. The server put it down in front of me and removed the cover, and I was enveloped in a heady, meaty, sweet, fruity, spicy cloud that brought tears to my eyes. I remember it vividly; I can taste it as though it were yesterday, even though it was forty years ago.