Orange High School '98 grad and NY Times Bestselling Author Jessica Fechtor returned to her Orange roots this week where she shared her story, her writing talents, and her incredible baking skills with OHS students and staff. Her memoir Stir includes many of the favorite recipes she created as part of her healing journey after she nearly died when an aneurysm burst in her brain at age 28.
"Getting well means finding your everyday. I found mine in the kitchen," she writes in Stir.
Fechtor spent two days with Orange High School students and staff, encouraging them to pursue whatever makes them happy in life. After graduating from OHS, Fechtor went on to major in music at Columbia University…but even then wasn’t sure of her future career path or how to answer the question ‘What would you do if you could do anything?’
“For a while I thought maybe I’d be pre-med; I thought about law school…but possibility is really noisy,”she said. “I realized when I got sick that the real question we should be asking ourselves is ‘What would I do if I could do nothing?’ Because then there’s just a kind of quietness about that.”
But it took her illness to help her realize that. At age 28, Fechtor was a married, Harvard graduate student when, while she was running on a treadmill, an aneurysm burst in her brain. Multiple surgeries led to a piece of her skull being removed. She lost her sense of smell (which has returned) and the sight in her left eye (which has not returned). She said she had to rely on people to do everything for her…even butter her toast. As she recovered, the answer to the question ‘What would I do if I could do nothing?’ came into focus.
“As I got stronger and was able to realize that what I really wanted to be doing when I had the strength to do one thing was to have this inspiration in the kitchen and then just sit down and write. There was a certain kind of clarity that I had that I never enjoyed when I was thinking about the endless possibilities of where my particular talents and interests could take me.”
Fechtor, the author of the blog Sweet Amandine and a PhD Candidate in Jewish literature at Harvard University, now resides with her family in San Francisco. In her book “Stir” Fechtor not only shares the story of her illness, but the recipes that helped her fully recuperate.
“There came a point where I don’t think there was any scan or
doctor who was going to say to me that ‘you are fine’ in a way the I would trust that that was true. Instead, I just needed to figure out how to live again, my normal, everyday life,” said Fechtor. “Being in the kitchen and cooking and baking and then writing about it allowed me to notice the little bits of normalcy that were beginning to sprout up all around me and to register them and to believe in them once again and to believe in myself and my health and my own life once again. That was incredibly powerful and important.”
Teachers Wanda Marwaha and Anne Fuller (also Fechtor's classmate!) and School Librarian Joanna McNally were especially instrumental in bringing Jessica back to her Alma Mater to speak to the students. They knew she could make a difference in their lives.
“Having Jessica Fechtor as our inaugural OHS Visiting Author for two fantastic days provided a unique opportunity for students to connect with someone from Orange,” said Mrs. McNally. “Not only was Jessica engaging, she came across ‘as real’ to students I spoke with. It is rare for students to have an opportunity to interact with a writer, let alone a NY Times bestselling author, who brings her love of writing to life with food from recipes from the book as well as writing tips.”
And Fechtor was more than happy to oblige when it came to returning to her roots. She devoted two paragraphs in her acknowledgments in Stir
to her own Orange Schools teachers including her sixth grade teacher Deb Delisle, who “made a special place for me beneath the spider plant to sit and write,” and high school language arts teachers Nancy Brunswick, Bob Hastings, and Jan Morgan for "teaching me how to think about words on a page. Of the many competing voices in my head when I write, yours are the ones I listen to.”
Along with hosting Writers' Workshops and offering multiple presentations to Language Arts classes, Fechtor also shared her expertise in the kitchen. She re-created one of the first recipes she prepared after her return to the kitchen – buttermilk biscuits – that she attributed to helping her realize what normalcy was. She also created braided Challah and shared one of her favorites – Marcella’s Butter Almond cake – with all of the students and staff who attended the seminar. The verdict? Perfect—on all fronts!
"The fifty minutes I spent with Jessica Fechtor was an eye-opening experience as an aspiring writer,” noted ninth grader Ta’Mia Fannin. “It was surreal that an Orange High School graduate stands in the position that I someday hope to be in. Her words also encouraged me to keep reaching for my dream, even with the nuisance of obstacles that I may face along the journey."
“The way I figure out what I think and what I feel is by writing,” said Fechtor. “What I wanted to figure out is why food was so important to me during this period of recovery and why had it always been so important. And I realized early on that my kitchen had something to tell me…and it felt really good to listen.”
...And that is the icing on the cake.
To view all of the photos from Jessica Fechtor's visit, please visit our Facebook page by clicking here.