literary food blog, for readers with good taste.

Leslie Jamison's "The Empathy Exams" & Asparagus, Ham and Gruyere Quiche

The Empathy Exams

Let’s start here: read this.

I knew within three pages that I was going to recommend The Empathy Exams to everyone I know; it’s hard to imagine that there exists a person who could wade through this collection and come out unmoved. In these essays, Jamison firmly has her finger on the bruised intersection of what it means to feel and what it means to feel for others. It only takes a light touch to call attention to the tenderness, to feel our pulse beating through the threads of selfishness and selflessness, of judgment and self-judgment; the inextricable mess of feelings, both involuntary and conscious, that make us up.

The essays weave deftly between medical acting, extreme sports for ultra-marathoners, artificial sweeteners, and what it means to be a woman inherently given and defined by pain, but constantly instructed that to verbalize emotion is to be lessened by it. This collection manages to be a little bit about everything: the difference between feeling something and articulating it, and the formative role articulation plays in the emotion itself; the inability to discuss violence while one is submerged in it, and the latent difficulty of forming a description of it after; the fine line between empathy and voyeurism — that we feel for others most keenly when we imagine their experiences happening to ourselves.

Jamison is constantly guarded against sentimentality, but also challenges our societal insistence that the saccharine and sentimentality are behaviors and emotions to be inherently dismissed. Jamison easily flows through the very contradictions she presents by being both prosecution and defense — laying out the pieces, tearing them apart, and then building them back up again; dancing up to conclusions and then just as smoothly boxing away. The performance Jamison puts on leaves you pouring through the pages until you reach the end, the corner of the last page hooked under your index finger and the understanding that it’s going to take more than a single read to fully appreciate what Jamison has laid out.

One of the most compelling threads running through these essays is Jamison’s unabashed need to continue moving forward even when there are no clear answers. She moves fluidly through this indefinable, unanswerable space, constantly challenging herself, and the reader, to have these conversations even if there are no resolutions to be had. To have these conversations even if the conclusion can only be held for a moment before shimmering in doubt, before a step to the side reveals an entirely new angle.

Asparagus Ham and Gruyere Quiche
Asparagus Ham and Gruyere Quiche

It’s difficult to classify this collection — Jamison’s essays use a base layer of research to dance between lyric essay and memoir in the way the best creative nonfiction does. In honor of that ambiguous classification, for The Empathy Exams I decided to cook a dish that can’t be pigeonholed to a single meal. Quiche is one of my favorite easy dinners, delightful to reheat for lunch, and always at home at breakfast or at brunch. In the same way, The Empathy Exams is genre-ish in the best way possible, simultaneously fitting all categories, but never adequately described by a single one.


Serves 8


For the crust

  • 1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup butter (1 stick), chilled and diced
  • ¼ cup ice water

For the quiche

  • 3 eggs
  • ½ cup unsweetened soy or almond milk (you can also use half and half, but I like a lighter quiche)
  • ½ yellow onion, diced
  • ¾ cup shredded gruyere
  • ¼ lb of thick cut cooked or smoked ham, diced
  • 1 bunch asparagus, woody ends snapped off, half the bunch left whole and half the bunch chopped into ½ inch pieces


For the crust

In a large bowl, combine flour and salt. Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in water, a tablespoon at a time, until mixture forms a ball. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.

Roll dough out to fit a 9 inch pie plate. Place crust in pie plate. Press the dough evenly into the bottom and sides of the pie plate.

For the quiche

Preheat oven to 400º F. Press homemade butter crust (or store bought) into a pie pan.

In a large mixing bowl, mix eggs and milk, season with salt and pepper, and then whisk until light and fluffy.

Add your onions and cheese to egg mixture, stir gently together, and then pour mixture evenly into your crust.

Evenly sprinkle diced ham and chopped asparagus on top.

Lay whole asparagus across the top of the quiche for dramatic effect.

Put your quiche onto a baking sheet and bake for 40-50 minutes. To check if quiche is done, slightly shake pan and once it doesn’t wiggle it’s finished.

Note: Use a store bought crust for an even quicker meal.

Butter crust recipe adapted from AllRecipes. Quiche adapted from First Home Love Life.

Source: Free review copy courtesy of Graywolf Press.

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