Writers Who Eat: Laia Jufresa in Conversation with Bix Gabriel
This is still how I write, and this is also how I cook.
BG: So you know, for the first time, I’m talking with a writer about whom I know nothing as far as their relationship with food. So it’s really interesting to know about you coming to food as an adult. Tell me a bit about what that experience has been like.
LJ: Obviously, I always ate. [Laughter.] When you start dieting really young, it’s really hard to stop having the mentality of “good food” and “bad food,” and it’s taken me a lot of work to not think about food in terms of caloric [value], what this food is gonna [do]. I understand why my parents took me to a doctor when I was a kid and he told me to diet, and I think it did a lot of damage to my perception of food, of what is allowed and not allowed. Throughout my life as I’ve worked with this, I’ve seen how this plays out in so many other things, and now, I am a life coach, and I coach a lot of people, and the way we relate to food is often the way we relate to money, and to other people, and to so many other things—
LJ: Sex, yes—pleasure in general. So it’s definitely been more of a quest of how to allow myself more pleasure, how to deal with compulsion, because the reason I was a very fat kid was because I started eating compulsively very early on. To deal with emotions.
The first time I ever started thinking about food in that way was reading Geneen Roth, who writes a lot about this. And also—I didn’t grow up near my grandparents, but I had my great-aunt and great-uncle. She is a food anthropologist, so I heard a lot about food in those terms—historical—about food in Mexico. And not only historically, but how it works now. Mexico has an amazing food culture, and it also has an insane obesity epidemic—
BG: I didn’t know that.
LJ: Yes, we are the country that consumes the most Coca-Cola in the world, for example. When I was a kid, my family was kind of weird, because my mom was against sodas and would serve water. And Mexico has a tradition of agua frescas—but they also have tons of sugar. So it’s super interesting how Mexican food traditions didn’t work so well with the American products that entered after the 1990s, because of the way our palates were accustomed to sugar, the quantities we can consume, and all that.
So basically, I am still learning how not to judge food as good or bad, and now I’m a lot more comfortable just being around food.
BG: I’m wondering how much of your relationship with food has to do with gender, if at all?
LJ: I think, in the way it relates to dieting and food image, it has everything to do with it.
I’m in a marriage now going on twelve to thirteen years where I don’t do the cooking, and we’ve lived in eight different places—and it’s always interesting to see how people react to that fact. In some places, it’s like, “Oh, really?” Because still in many places it’s just kind of assumed that the woman is the cook.
I came from rural Mexico, and when I was a teenager, I went to live in France, and I returned after I did my BA there. And one of the things that struck me was people alone eating in restaurants. This was something really rare. Obviously in Mexico City you see people eating alone—around offices. But really I think restaurants are more where you meet people. So in France I learned to love just doing stuff on my own. Going to the cinema, café, alone. When I was eighteen and returned to Mexico City, I realized how strange that seemed. I realized that it was not a thing you saw a lot of—women eating on their own in restaurants, for their pleasure of having a nice meal with themselves.
And so I kind of made a point to do it.
BG: Do you remember what that experience was like going to a restaurant by yourself, the first few times?
LJ: It was scary. That’s why I had to do it. Because it was scary. I mean, that’s why I remember making a point of it, like, I’m gonna do this.
It took me a long time to go and have a fine meal by myself. And now, obviously I haven’t been anywhere in fourteen months. But when I travel because of my books I’m often in different cities alone, and I make a point of trying to do that. When you’re alone, you’re paying attention. Otherwise, I don’t think I pay attention after the second bite.
BG: Now that you, I assume, enjoy food, do you have some kind of ritual as far as food? Whether it has to do with writing? Or making a routine?
LJ: Well, one small thing is that I have chocolate always in the studio. I run a membership for female writers in Spanish. I became a coach a few years ago, and I absolutely love it, but it’s not very accessible because it’s one-on-one. During the pandemic, well I had these two worlds, where I was a coach in English and a writer in Spanish, and I wanted to merge them. So I started teaching a class, particularly because so many women writers I know, with their kids and online learning, they were getting no writing done. So I taught this course, and the course went great, and I launched this membership, and one of the things we’re doing is a marathon in June; from three to four, we write every day. And—because I’m so bad at this, like I told you, the pleasurable part—I’m always like, you have to give yourself a little writing treat after each writing session. So that’s why I always have chocolate.
When you’re alone, you’re paying attention.
Also because if I don’t, after two days of not having my little treat, I’ll just go and buy a donut. So I definitely have more of this treat mentality. Other than that—I wouldn’t call this a ritual, it’s more of a dysfunction—when I’m really into writing, then I just graze during the day. And a lot of people have this need to chew—
LJ: When I used to smoke, when I’m really into something and I don’t want to stop, I have carrots and humus, celery sticks, things that are crunchy, it just kind of calms me. Here, where there is a café, I normally break for lunch. Other than that, I don’t really relate my writing with food. Except it’s really important for me to have dinner with my family; that makes the end of the working day.
BG: Is your tradition similar to when you were growing up?
LJ: We only have dinner together. During the pandemic it was different, of course. Once a week, we do a takeout. Which is, very often, Indian. And once a week, I am in charge of cooking.
BG: So what do you make?
LJ: For a few weeks now, I’ve been doing a thing that comes in a box, it’s called Mindful Chef, and they send you an entire recipe, and they send you everything you need. And I really like it—here’s the deal with me: I am unable to follow a recipe.
BG: Why? What do you mean?
LJ: I just can’t follow recipes. I don’t know why. I think it’s how my brain works. For example, when I was living in Argentina, I had one year in my life when I decided, I’m not going to write anymore; I’m not going to be a writer anymore. And Argentina is the best place on earth to have this kind of indecision, because there’s tons of artists who are teaching classes for free. So I was taking all these classes—jewelry making and puppeteering, all kinds of stuff, and the one thing I really couldn’t do in this life was making shoes. Because the measurements have to be correct.
BG: Very precise.
LJ: Exactly, otherwise the shoe doesn’t fit. And I think that’s what happens with me and recipes. If you have to be precise with the quantities, already I’m in a bad mood. [Laughter.] So when I cook, the way I do it, I see what we have and read two to three recipes, and then I don’t read them again and I just do the thing. It kind of works.
I don’t plan things.
Also, people who cook—I don’t know if you’re like this—have this excitement, it’s like people who like to plan their trips, I’m not like that. I kind of wish I could be like that, but I see my friends who love cooking, they love going through cooking books, or the way my husband does, he loves going to the market and seeing what’s there, and taking it from there. All that—I don’t have the love for that.
BG: You know, as you’re talking, I’m realizing that all this—reading recipes online, looking for ingredients, thinking about how the meal is going to come together—this is a lot of work actually.
LJ: It’s not only a lot of work. It’s a creative process. Some people are creative with certain things. I write and I paint. Other people cook.
I had a teacher who said, “There are plotters and there are pantsers.” With writing, there are plotters, people who sit down and plot, write the outline. And there are people like me who sit down and make stuff up. And I think the way my creative process works with everything, it also translates to cooking. So if you tell me to follow a recipe, I’m no longer interested. If you told me to write by numbers—uh, no. So the way you make soups is the way you make books.
So for me, working with what I have—I set myself rules and games. In Umami, the game was that none of the narrators have children. No one knows this about the book, you can’t see it, but for me it was the basic rule of the book, and a lot of the stuff that happens in the book wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t set this rule. So I set myself rules.
When I started writing, in France, from the Oulipo—do you know this movement?—it’s this literary movement that still exists. It’s people, a lot of them are mathematicians, and they write with games. The most famous one is Georges Perec. And he wrote La Disparition.
This is still how I write, and this is also how I cook. And I’m good at that. It’s not complicated stuff. I have a basic understanding of combinations, and what herbs and spices, and what will make it interesting, so I can come up with stuff. Whereas I cannot follow a recipe.
Bix Gabriel is a writer, teacher of creative writing, editor at The Offing magazine, 2021 Periplus Fellow, co-founder of TakeTwo Services, occasional Tweeter, and seeker of the perfect jalebi.
She has a M.F.A in fiction from Indiana University-Bloomington, and her writing appears in the anthology A Map is Only One Story, on Longleaf Review, Catapult, Guernica, and Electric Literature, among others. Her debut novel, Archives of Amnesia, was a finalist for the 2021 PEN Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
She was born in Hyderabad, India, and lives in Queens, NY.