Best-selling author Samantha Irby specializes in wringing comedy out of her own personal tragedies. Among her favorite topics: poop (she’s got Crohn’s disease), depression (which she also has), and sex. She writes unapologetically, and hilariously, about the journeys towards accepting all the parts of herself: including her health, her sexuality, and her body. Throughout her writing, food is a recurring character.
You can often gauge where she's at in life by what she's eating at the time. This week she takes us from the Oatmeal Creme Pies that got her through a troubled childhood, to an unforgettable moment with a glazed doughnut when she was in her 20s, to the fights she now has with her wife over condiments. And we ask her: What do you do when the same foods that bring you emotional comfort make you sick?
This episode contains explicit language.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
"Happy Jackson" by Ken Brahmstedt
"Sidewalk Chalk" by Hayley Briasco
"Stay For The Summer" by William Van De Crommert
"Child Knows Best" by Jack Ventimiglia
"Slightly Carbonated" by Erick Anderson
"Still In Love With You" by Steve Sullivan
Photo courtesy of Eva Blue.
Dan Pashman: This episode contains explicit language and mature subject matter. Seriously, like this is gonna get raunchy. You've been warned.
Sam Irby: So we have different approaches to the way that a refrigerator should be stocked. She’s gonna be so mad and I’m like frothing with joy at being able to talk about this.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Sam Irby: Her theory is that condiments are good forever. That's not me. If I can't remember when I bought it, then it goes out.
Dan Pashman: This is Samantha Irby, author of three best selling books, including her most recent, Wow, No Thank You. Sam and her wife Kirsten have been happily married for four years, but condiments in the fridge have become a point of contention…
Sam Irby: I just like to be able to see what's in there and be confident that I'm not eating antibiotics or whatever, like whatever grows on cheese. I just wanna know that I’m not eating that. And she’s the total opposite.
Dan Pashman: I’m listening to you and comparing this to my relationship with my wife. And one of the shelves on the door of my fridge is my hot sauce area.
Sam Irby: Wait a second, you put your hot sauces in the fridge?
Dan Pashman: I know most of them don't need to be refrigerated.
Sam Irby: Team your wife! I don’t care what you say from here on out, team her! That’s a foul on the play!
Dan Pashman: I know, it’s more like that's just where there’s space for them. I don’t want to leave them out on the counter and we don’t have a ton of cabinet space. On the other hand, I keep a bottle of Sriracha on my desk at work and that is not refrigerated.
Sam Irby: Oh god.
Dan Pashman: And that one does develop a bizarre sort of brown funky discoloration at the sort of top part of the bottle that is exposed to air, if you leave it out of the fridge for long enough
Sam Irby: And you don't think about how it's passing through the oxygenated brown part.
Dan Pashman: I do think about that. I do. But like I sort of have faith in hot sauce to kill anything.
Sam Irby: Okay, alright.
Dan Pashman: Maybe they'll be writing that on my tombstone.
Sam Irby: I will come to your funeral and squirt brown Sriracha on your casket.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. Sam Irby has written three books of essays, all about her life and her struggles through it. She finds comedy in her own personal tragedies, sharing details about things that a lot of us wouldn’t even mention. Among her favorite topics: poop, since she’s got an inflammatory bowel disease. Depression, which she also has. And, sex and dating. Sam will tell you everything, and she’ll make you laugh about it along with her.
Dan Pashman: She’s not really a food writer, but food is a supporting character throughout her essays. In fact you can kind of gauge where she is at any point in her life, how things are going for her, what she’s dealing with based on what she’s eating at the time. Because food matters to her a lot.
Dan Pashman: So in your last book, We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, you talked about meeting your wife and one of the early meals you shared together, going out to eat together—you guys had lunch and you write that he housed a giant plate of huevos rancheros and potatoes and sausages in a matter of seconds.
Sam Irby: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: You said, "She wolfed down her food with such ferocity that I felt my pants go damp." And then you write in all caps, "I LOVE PEOPLE WHO LOVE EATING."
Sam Irby: Yes.
Dan Pashman: Now, I do too. I’m with you on that. But I’m curious to hear from you, why.
Sam Irby: Okay. So this is unscientific, but people who eat with abandon are just less uptight, less judgmental, less pinched and fastidious. It takes all kinds, but I want to be around people who messily, joyfully, enthusiastically consume their food.
Dan Pashman: Sam’s attempts to find some joy in food started when she was young. Her parents divorced when she was a kid and they each had their own afflictions. Her mother had multiple sclerosis, a chronic autoimmune disease. By the time Sam was 9, she was her mother’s primary caregiver. Her father was an alcoholic. Sam grew up in Evanston, an upscale Chicago suburb, living in section 8 housing and relying on her mom’s disability payments to get by. Other than financial limitations, Sam’s parents didn’t put restrictions on food.
Sam Irby: They definitely went to the unofficial school of eat to cure your depression. I used to take boxes of Little Debbie oatmeal pies to my room and eat them when I was happy or sad or bored.
Dan Pashman: Sam’s dad had a different comfort food.
Sam Irby: I don't know if this is tragic or like really great. My dad used to eat black walnut ice cream with Frosted Flakes on top.
Dan Pashman: I mean, I would try that.
Sam Irby: I mean, black walnut ice cream is not for everyone. I love it. But, you know, be warned.
Dan Pashman: How is a black walnut different from other walnuts?
Sam Irby: I don't know? You know how like bad coffee tastes kinda like dirt?
Dan Pashman: Like burnt? Like a char?
Sam Irby: Yeah it’s got kinda that charred taste.
Dan Pashman: Now I want to try it.
Sam Irby: Okay.
Dan Pashman: Now I’m googling black walnuts. Most of the walnuts we eat today are English walnuts which have a milder taste and broader appeal. Black walnuts, on the other hand, have a bolder, earthier flavor.
Sam Irby: Mmm. Earthy, that’s it! And like, that was my example of how to self to soothe when growing up. I was like, "Dad? Should we talk about our feelings?", and he's like, "No, here's some ice cream with sugar cereal on top."
Dan Pashman: Black walnut ice cream could only do so much in the face of severe depression. At age 13, Sam attempted suicide. Five years later, both her parents died, just a few months apart. Her mother from MS. Her father essentially drank himself to death. He froze in the street. Sam quit college. In the following years, she alternated between living in her car and living in what she calls a crack house. She worked odd jobs to support herself.
Sam Irby: I remember when I was like 19, I started working for my friend's dad and he was super rich and he had lived in Italy. And I used to do the grocery shopping. They had like vegetables on the list that I had never heard of before. Like, I didn't know what the fuck bok choy was. I had to get some kid at Whole Foods to walk around with me, get everything that was on their list. I was like, I didn't even know you could eat vegetables that didn't come out of a can.
Dan Pashman: It's interesting, Sam, like in reading so much of your work, which I love so much.
Sam Irby: Thank you.
Dan Pashman: One of the recurring themes that I sort of see is like the ways that we categorize and rank each other.
Sam Irby: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: The ways that rich people signal their wealth and superiority, which is often done but not by not always done through food. Food can be like a status symbol.
Sam Irby: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: So I see this as sort of like an ongoing commentary of yours, unlike our never ending system of rating ourselves against others. Why is this something you're especially interested in?
Sam Irby: Uh, I think like having grown up fat and black and poor in a suburb that was fairly like well to do—when you grow up feeling less than and understanding that you have to be extra just to—you know, you have to you have to be the funniest and the smartest and the this and the that to even to compete with people who aren't even as good as you are. You know what I mean? I think that really sets the tone for your life. At least for me, I don't know that I've ever shaken that feeling. And I have never stopped trying to catch up and be good enough and have enough.
Dan Pashman: Even as she started to get a more solid footing, a job at an animal hospital, enough money to pay rent—Sam struggled in her relationships. She writes about all the shitty people she dated in great detail in her books. There was the guy who judged her for not buying organic bananas. The women who would text her “hey u up?”. And then, there was the angel hair incident.
Sam Irby: I had made this pasta dish with bow ties. And it was a whole thing, right? Look, if you're gonna cook for a person that feels monumental. And he was like, "Oh, I only eat angel hair."
Dan Pashman: What?! Did he have an explanation?
Sam Irby: No, he just kept saying, "I only eat angel hair." And then he went and made a salad and didn’t eat the food I had cooked. And that’s when I knew that we were doomed.
Dan Pashman: Oh my god. I mean there's so many things wrong with this situation to unpack. I mean first of all, even if you don't like the pasta that's being served, you can't choke down a few bow ties just to be polite.
Sam Irby: That's what I'm saying. And it was like a cream sauce with mushrooms. It was very delicious.
Dan Pashman: It sounds really good. And that sounds like the right kind of sauce and vegetables to be going with that pasta shape.
Sam Irby: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: But on top of all that, Sam, angel hair is the most trash pasta of all time.
Sam Irby: It is disgusting. It feels like weird fibers in your mouth.
Dan Pashman: And did you learn something about yourself from that specific encounter?
Sam Irby: Well, to never cook for a man again. And I didn't. I have not made a meal for a man since!
Dan Pashman: Of all the bad dating stories Sam has shared over the years, there’s one in her new book that tops them all. The beginning refers to her having Crohn’s disease, which is an inflammatory bowel disease. I asked her to read it.
Sam Irby: "I wrote about the time I wore a diaper to speed dating because I was in the middle of a Crohn’s flare-up and I pooped in it a little while talking to a gentleman, named Terrence. I wrote about the time I started sleeping with this trainer at my gym who was obsessed with watching me eat whole chickens while he jerked off. That kind of shit can really ruin you, you know what I mean? I was having the kinds of dating experiences that, if I’d recounted them on a therapist’s couch rather than on a free blog that person would’ve been like, 'Hold up, have you ever heard of self-esteem?' And no, I haven’t! Which is why I ate a glazed donut off a dude’s dick one time!"
Dan Pashman: You comment on what the therapist would be telling you if you relayed this story to them. What do you think the therapist would be telling these two guys?
Sam Irby: I feel like the therapist would say to them, "What are you doing with this person, who is so clearly damaged that she's willing to do these things for you?" This is not to say that I don't believe that people can make empowered decisions to do whatever. Right? Like if that's your kink, do it. When I was doing all this stuff, it was definitely from a place of like, "Please like me," which is not the healthiest way to get attention or love or whatever it is you're looking for. I certainly wasn't like, "Yes, I prefer my doughnuts with dicks through them."
Dan Pashman: The other thing that, I'll be honest, I was wondering when reading that and I ask this as a person myself, you know, who likes a whole chicken and a donut, now and again. And you strike me as a person who does, too. Is there any way to achieve like any level of deliciousness in this experience? Like, what's the strategy here?
Sam Irby: Oh, okay. So now that we're not talking about, like the sad part of it. I met this dude, who was a trainer at the Bally Fitness. It was the kind of thing where I was like, "Oh, this has to be coming from a bad place." It wasn't like we were gonna be doing tandem stretching or whatever. And I was pretty broke at this time. He would buy groceries. And I was like, "Oh, maybe I am debasing myself but he's keeping the pantry full." And it required so little of me that it was almost like easy to forget that it was like kind of depraved. I never ate a whole chicken in one sitting. It was actually a pretty good gig. The bad part of it is like I thought like I was having a relationship. I mean, marriage notwithstanding, if someone offered that now, I would be like, "Okay," because I know what I'm doing. I’d be like, "Drop the food off, that's your chair where you sit. This is the table where I sit. Get your pants down. Let's go. And then when it's done, see ya!"
Dan Pashman: Wow, Sam. You've really grown up.
Sam Irby: I know!
Dan Pashman: And now same question, but for the doughnut guy.
Sam Irby: Let me tell you, nothing is more embarrassing than like watching someone like put their dick through a donut hole and like the donut is like hanging— because like in your fantasy, right, you do that in the donut hole and, you know, is snug but it wasn't.
Dan Pashman: Now I really want to go down this wormhole where it's like I imagined him, like buying other donuts and carving out the interior holes or wedging them in to make the hole smaller so that it fits.
Sam Irby: I know. And he could buy like a Boston cream and make his own hole. But then I'd be like, "Uhhh, what is that? Syphilis?"
Dan Pashman: So I think you get the picture of Sam’s dating life in her 20s. Coming up, we hear about the diagnosis she got around the same time. It forces her to change the way she eats. And she tries to avoid becoming the kind of eater she hates. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. What kind of podcasts are you in the mood for these days? You want something that touches on coronavirus, commiserates with you using some dark humor? Or do you want total escapism, fun and silly storytelling? Well, if you check out the last two episodes of The Sporkful, we got one of each of those. In one, we hear the stories behind the dishes you’ve been breaking in quarantine, with a special appearance by cartoonist Liana Finck:
CLIP (LIANA FINCK): I've been breaking so many dishes that I was actually worried that I had some kind of brain disease. I was glad to hear that you are also breaking dishes.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Unless, we both have the same disease.
CLIP (LIANA FINCK): Could be.
Dan Pashman: Now, if you want total escapism, last week’s show is about a feud over a certain processed meat that has divided New Jersey for 150 years. Some call it pork roll, others call it Taylor Ham. We look at what this food is, and why people in New Jersey care so much about it.
CLIP (JENNA PIZZI): It's just this weird thing that New Jersey has and wants to hold onto with the jaws of life to keep part of it's identity.
Dan Pashman: Both of those episodes are up now, check ‘em out where you got this one!
Dan Pashman: Now, back to Samantha Irby. She writes a lot about living with Crohn’s Disease. She thinks it’s important to talk about it, because so many people live with serious digestive problems and feel like they can't talk about it. That’s one of several health issues Sam’s dealing with. I asked her to read another excerpt from her latest book of essays, Wow No Thank You.
Sam Irby: "I got some bloodwork done and found out I’m deficient in Vitamin D, which I already knew because of extreme depression. Thank you so much. I don’t even have time to get into all the shit you need to be doing for your dumb blood and your organs, which you shouldn’t even have to worry about since you can’t see them. Folic acid! Potassium! Calcium! Turmeric! Zinc! B12! Sodium! Magnesium! There are not enough hours in the day for all the mother fucking beans you need to be eating. The bananas, the kale, the eggs, the oats, the salmon, the broccoli, the plain yogurt, the cherries, the brussel sprouts, the flaxseeds, the nineteen cups of unsweetened green tea. I need to know how to get some extra cow stomachs to hold all the shit that’s going to keep me alive, plus all the shit I actually want to eat. Loving yourself is a full time job with shitty benefits. I’m calling in sick."
Dan Pashman: You talk in the book about your various health issues you have.
Sam Irby: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Degenerative arthritis. You dealt with major issues with your period to the point that you had a procedure that was like one step short of a hysterectomy.
Sam Irby: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: And you have Crohn's disease, which can wreak major havoc on your digestion. Diagnosing it requires tons and tons of tests over many months. And then when you finally find out you have Crohn's disease, the treatment can be different for everyone.
Sam Irby: Yes.
Dan Pashman: Tell me about that process.
Sam Irby: So I think my entire life I have had just like raging bouts of diarrhea, but my parents were like, "You just eat the wrong things." They weren't like, "Oh, my God, let's investigate the cause of these problems." They were like, “You had too many oreos today!”
Dan Pashman: Right.
Sam Irby: That's it. So then I had my first big attack, where I ended up in the hospital. I was napping. I woke up. My stomach was in just blinding pain. And it was distended and red and hot. And I was like, what is happening here? And I went to the emergency room and it turns out my intestines had swelled and twisted, kinda like a pretzel. And they were going to operate. I got a whole bunch of injectable steroids. And luckily that took the swelling down enough that they were like, "Okay, we won't cut you open, but you're gonna have to stay in the hospital." And I ended up staying there for two weeks. And that's when we kind of started all of the testing to figure out what it was. So that was 2005. I was 25 and I'm 40 now.
Dan Pashman: Sam says her Crohn’s isn’t as severe as what some people deal with. She’s never had to have a major part of her intestines removed but it still took her a long time to figure out how to treat it. Early on, she went on an elimination diet, which means you cut out all of the possible triggers from your diet to the point that there are only a couple of things you can eat. Then, you slowly add foods back to determine which ones make you sick.
Sam Irby: It really does feel like playing Russian roulette, especially because like some of the things that are the best for you as a human, right, you know, like all the roughage and all the all the fiber and the this and the that is really hard on a person with digestive issues to eat. I remember once I had eaten two apples in a day and thought that I was going to give birth.
Dan Pashman: Right, right.
Sam Irby: That’s how severe the pain was. And then kind of like trying to work a full-time job while being like, "Uh-oh. I don't know if this is gonna come out so good." That period of time was really rough.
Dan Pashman: So if you're a person who sometimes eats to feel better emotionally, what effect does Crohn's disease have on you?
Sam Irby: The worst case scenario is that if I eat something to feel better with complete disregard to how it might make my body feel, later, when it's wreaking havoc on me, I, 1) feel worse about the thing that I was trying to eat to feel better about, and 2) feel like a bad person for putting my body through whatever nightmare.
Dan Pashman: It just feels like a really shitty paradox.
Sam Irby: Yeah. And I like all the parts of eating, like I love to cook and I love to cook for people, and I love to eat with people. I think any time you get a diagnosis of whatever kind, it's like, "Oh, what a relief."
Dan Pashman: Right. And you have like an answer, an explanation for what's happening.
Sam Irby: Yeah. Yeah. So like there's that part of it that's like, "Oh thank God. And there's meds for this and procedures for this. Great. I'm insured. Excellent. Thank you. This is great." And then there's the sinking feeling of like, "It's a disease that messes up my favorite thing. How sad for me."
Dan Pashman: Was there a specific moment soon after your diagnosis when you realized that this was going to change your relationship with food?
Sam Irby: So one thing was, I hate to plan. I'm not a planner. It fundamentally changed who I was as a person. There's no like casual eating anymore, right? There's like, I can eat this at this time. I need to figure out what my reaction to it is. And who at twenty-five doesn't want to be anything other than carefree? Right? Because like I said at the beginning, I want to be fun and be around people who are fun. And the least fun thing is the person with all the dietary restrictions and problems.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Sam Irby: And then I was that person, where I had to be—So I didn't do anything socially for a long time, at least not where food was concerned.
Dan Pashman: Sam has been on various medications, but now she’s not on any. Her Crohn’s has been in remission for a few years. She maintains a gluten-free diet, which is a common prescription for Crohn’s patients. But Sam is still a sucker for the latest wellness trends. Like the time she heard about a footwear designer who swore by alkalizing her body. Here’s Sam reading from that story in her new book.
Sam Irby: "I go to the doctor every other day and never has one of them told me about alkalization. Alkalining. Alkalinization. That needs to be alkalized. I'm in awe of people who talk like that with a straight face and let me tell you the shit stuck. So now I start my morning by drinking some room temperature water from the pitcher on the counter with a few slices of meyer lemon from those little bags of them that you can get at Trader Joe's. It has done absolutely nothing for me, from what I can tell. But later on, when I eat an entire jalapeno and pepperoni pizza and feel bad about it, I can think to myself, "Bitch. Remember when you alkalized?", and feel clean.
Dan Pashman: What's the most extreme wellness routine or product you've ever tried?
Sam Irby: Oh my God. I know what it is because it mocks me every day. First of all, I will get into any wellness thing that doesn't require actually changing my life or habits. So like I'll take whatever supplement, whatever powder—I'll do it. And I got from goop.com these—oh, it's a mush..I think it's mushrooms. This mushroom powder called manuka puriems or something like that. I can email you what it's actually called. But for the purposes of this, like who cares. Nobody's gonna go buy it because they're all smarter than I am. But I read these—I'm a sucker for these profiles where like beautiful young women talk about their day and what they consume. And I read this one from a footwear designer and she said that she put some of this powder in her coffee every day. And it's like nature’s Adderall. It makes me feel so focused. And I'm like, which, you know, I would love to feel focused. And I ordered a $48 tub of powder that I use two times.
Dan Pashman: And did you feel focused?
Sam Irby: No! I just—you know what I did? Speaking of the Crohn’s, I spent the whole day worried that whatever was in it was going to give me diarrhea.
Dan Pashman: Also, you want to know what's actually nature's Adderall? Caffeine! Which exists naturally in coffee and tea, which are natural products.
Sam Irby: Yeah, see! I want so much to believe that there is a magic pill or potion that is like the key to happiness and getting work done that I don't even logically think about any of this stuff. I don't logically think like, "Oh, she drank it in coffee. It's the coffee, I think. Get me that powder, immediately."
Dan Pashman: You have this line in the book that that I thought was really compelling. You write, “I have been stuck with a smelly, actively decaying body that I never asked for. And I'm constantly in the receiving end of confusing, overwhelming messages for how to properly care for and feed it." And this idea of your book and this is a theme you touched on a few times in your writing. The times of feeling outside of your body, that being in your body is sort of an incomprehensible machine that you kind of pilot but can't really control.
Sam Irby: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: And I would imagine that at times it's sort of a feeling of desperation with that. And that may also be part of what these sort of magical elixirs—what makes them appealing.
Sam Irby: Yeah, because it's really easy to feel like you're doing something wrong. Right? And like you're depressed because you're doing something wrong or this is happening cause you're doing something wrong. And specifically, when it comes to my body, it has helped me to think of it as what it is, like cells and chemicals and hormones that I am absolutely not in control of.
Dan Pashman: So some of the struggles that Sam wrote about in her earlier books are still struggles, physical health, mental health. But as I said to her, it does sound like some things are better. She’s learning how to manage her health issues. The new book is dedicated to the antidepressant Wellbutrin. She now lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan with her wife and step-kids. She’s a New York Times best selling author, even writing for TV. So her finances are improving. I asked her, "Has any of this changed the way you eat?"
Sam Irby: Yes. I mean, let's be honest. When you live with a person all the time and they see all of the parts of you, it's really hard to keep some of the bad things hidden. So I try to have more salads and try to put things on a plate and sit down with them.
Dan Pashman: Wow, Sam. You’ve really sold out.
Sam Irby: I know. I know. I can't even tell you the last time I ate a burrito over the sink, which is my preferred way of eating a burrito.
Dan Pashman: I gotta say, Sam, I follow you on Instagram.
Sam Irby: Oh no.
Dan Pashman: And you post food, it seems like most of the stuff you post looks pretty nice. I mean, I saw a very lovely frittata there recently.
Sam Irby: Oh, my God. Yeah, I am. See, that's the thing. I am a good cook. And when I have people to cook for who can praise me...
Dan Pashman: Oh, I got it. Got it. Okay.
Sam Irby: That's part of it, too, right? Is like now I live with people and I can be like, "Uh, did you see that thing I made? Delicious, right?" So I would say that I cook things that are nicer looking. And I try to present them well because they're being served to people. And I have fewer over the sink moments.
Dan Pashman: That’s Samantha Irby, her new book of essays is called Wow, No Thank You. If you want to win a copy, sign up for our newsletter by Friday, May 29. If you’re already on the list then you’re automatically entered into this and all our giveaways. So you want to be on that list! Sign up now! Go to sporkful.com/newsletter.
Dan Pashman: Next week we nerd on seltzer, big time. I'll talk with the hosts of the podcast Seltzer Death Match, and Dan Souza from Cooks Illustrated’s and I will spend a lot of time on the science of carbonation. That’s next week. While you wait for that one, remember to check out our last two episodes: one about broken dishes and escapist cooking in quarantine, the other about New Jersey’s Pork Roll Taylor Ham Wars. Hey, if you’re listening in Stitcher, please make sure you favorite our show. Go ahead. You can do it right now, that ensures you never miss an episode. Thanks!