New York Times bestselling author, actress, and screenwriter Tembi Locke joins Zibby to talk about her memoir, From Scratch, which was a past Reese’s Book Club pick. The two discuss the lessons Tembi’s late Italian husband taught her about cooking and enjoying food, what were some of the hardships she faced as a grieving single parent, and why it was so important to her to explain the emotions she felt after her husband’s passing as clearly as possible in her writing. Tembi also shares how she didn’t initially plan to write a memoir about her relationship with her husband’s family before her sister—who helped turn this book into a new limited series—pushed her to try. Read Zibby’s review of the upcoming Netflix adaptation on Zibby Mag today!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Tembi. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your beautiful, amazing memoir, From Scratch.

Tembi Locke: Thank you, Zibby. It’s so wonderful to be here with you today.

Zibby: I feel so privileged that I got to see an advance screener of your Netflix show.

Tembi: You’ve seen a screener of it? Oh, my gosh.

Zibby: I did. It’s so good. It’s so amazing. I have to say, I was watching it — I probably shouldn’t have been doing this. I was like, “Guys, I need the TV. We’re going to watch this. Turn off Nicky; Ricky,” whatever they’re watching. I had my seven and nine-year-old watch with me. I was like, “I’m taking you to Florence.” Then every so often, there would be a racy scene. I would have to lunge and jump on top of them. At one point, my daughter’s like, “Wait, but why is her taking off her underwear?” I was like, “Moving on. I don’t know. Maybe she peed in her pants.” I don’t even know what to say.

Tembi: Yeah, there’s that. That’s a part of life . I get it. I’ve been the mom. My daughter actually has previewed most of the series as well. She’s like, “I can’t with that scene. Can you turn that off? Can you just go forward? I can’t.”

Zibby: It’s so good, though. Are you happy with it? It’s so good.

Tembi: I’m very honored. I’m so proud of all the collective work we did together to make this show happen. It’s just beautiful. The performances are beautiful. Our team of producers is amazing. I am just honored beyond imagination.

Zibby: Was it amazing to work with your sister?

Tembi: Yes. That is the icing on the cake. That’s the cake. That’s all of it. Who would’ve ever imagined in a lifetime to collaborate with your sister in such a deeply personal way around such deeply personal material and then to elevate each other?

Zibby: It’s amazing. I did notice she has a much bigger role in the series than she does in the book. I was thinking to myself, that’s interesting since she’s writing this or producing it or whatever. Wrote herself a bigger role there.

Tembi: We certainly wanted to, in the series, explore — one of the wonderful things about adapting a book, whether it be fiction or nonfiction, whether you are adapting it yourself or another team of people is adapting it, an adaptation can be — hopefully, in ours. When it’s at its best, it’s additive to the original material, which is to say that it does not dislodge or disrupt or take away. The original source material is always the original source material. This is an extended conversation. Celeste Ng says it best when she said, “It’s like a cover of my book.” You’re doing a cover of my book.

Zibby: Like a cover album.

Tembi: Yeah, a cover album of a book. That’s the way she described Little Fires Everywhere. You are pulling forward themes that are maybe in one brief paragraph in a book. In a series, especially a limited series, you can build that out. You can let the audience explore that. We certainly wanted to do that with a lot of the relationships in the book that maybe I don’t spend a lot of time writing about them in the book just to give you context for my first-person experience. On screen, we get to go there.

Zibby: I loved the scene — I actually haven’t stopped thinking about it, when Lino is in LA when he makes that beautiful Thanksgiving dinner and all of those amazing-looking dishes and the peppers and all of that, and then when Amy’s family comes. They just quietly put it on the side. Then he has to say, where I come from, we believe in using the freshest ingredients right from the ground and not things that are — and then eating it right away, and all of this. They’re looking at him like, not so much. Let’s go back to the mac and cheese and the turkey and whatever, the prepared turkey that they slapped down on the table. He was saying also, in Italy, in Sicily, and in Florence, we walk after the meal. That’s just we do. All these things. You keep hearing, why are people in Europe — why don’t they have obesity problems as much and all of this stuff? Then you’re like, look at our supermarket, as you show him walking through in this desert wasteland of packaged products. I found that just fascinating as I make my own food choices.

Tembi: Having been married to a chef who was the son of farmers who had a completely different relationship with nature, food, what it means to have a life around the table, he introduced me to a whole other world. I did not have that growing up. I grew up in Houston, Texas. We definitely had Stouffer’s meals in front of The Love Boat or TV or whatever was on at the time.

Zibby: Love The Love Boat.

Tembi: They’re probably rebooting it in some way. Anyway, the point is, being his partner, riding side-saddle shotgun with him for all the years of our relationship and marriage gifted me a whole new perspective onto things. When I was writing the book and reflecting on both who he was and what he taught me, but also the relationship with my mother-in-law, which is a big part of the book, seeing what she also taught me, and holding those two big people in my life side by side, they’re both two love stories. There’s the love story with Saro. There’s the love story with my mother-in-law. Food is a big part of that. Then of course, I definitely have my commentary on the American approach to things. We’re fast and quick and full of all the preservatives to make it last. I think that is not the point. It’s not supposed to be fast. It’s not supposed to last. It’s supposed to be fresh and densely nutritious and regenerative and nourishing and smoothing and all those things.

Zibby: My husband is Italian. He’s not from Italy, but his family’s from Italy. He’s a chef. Not a chef professionally, but he went to culinary school. He cooks for us all the time. I feel like he used to love it so much. Then we had the pandemic where he had to make us every meal nonstop.

Tembi: Oh, gosh. I’m sorry for him.

Zibby: I know. He’s like, “I can’t do this anymore. Food is an expression for me. It’s an art. I love to make people happy.” The kids just look at it, and they’re like, no. What else you got over there? It’s true. I could see some of that in watching the show and your descriptions in the book and how much pride can go into making a meal and feeding someone else and just not having it be a means to an end.

Tembi: It is not a pass-through. It’s not a pass-through to get to the next activity you have to do, if you choose to embark on it in that way. By the way, that doesn’t mean — no one can have a three-hour meal every day. That’s not what we’re saying. It is a taking a pause and with intentionality, settling, ritualizing the settling to go on to the next thing. It’s something that I learned that I still — without Saro here, it’s like he’s sitting right there on my shoulder. Hey, take ten more minutes. Take ten more minutes. Enjoy this moment.

Zibby: I think that’s one of the messages. Our time is limited. Enjoy. Embrace. Slow down. Look around. Don’t miss it all. All of that. I probably should’ve asked you at the beginning, which I usually do, to just describe your book. I feel like most people have heard of or will watch or will read or have read your book. Maybe you should do the one-liner in case everyone’s confused as I jumped into all these — .

Tembi: No problem. My book is a memoir, first and foremost. It is the story of the first three summers that I spent in Sicily with my mother-in-law rebuilding my life after my Italian chef husband passed away. It is both the love story of my life with my husband and everything that he taught me and what we had and our struggles, which were, in part, with his family initially because they were rejecting of me, of our relationship, and then later, his illness. It arcs through that, those three summers as I was a newly widowed woman with a daughter, seven years old, and trying to rebuild my life and ask of myself, how do I go forward? Can he and can the love we had sustain and be a part — I’m asking all of these deep questions about, what does it mean to continue to live when the person who you loved so deeply and who’s been — he was with me for half of my life at the time he passed. The book is an homage to love. It’s an homage to love, both the love of partner, the love of place, the love of food, family, motherhood, but also a kind of love for living, just living, and how we do that and what that looked like for me.

I hope that for readers, they take from it, an inspiration to reach for the big loves and reach for deep, big living. That’s the thing that I learned from both my late husband and from my mother-in-law. It’s also about breaking down borders. What I mean by that is that that conflict with my mother-in-law and his family was largely predicated on diversity of culture, race, language, religion. It was all of the things. It was all the things. They were like, no way. This is not for us. This is not what we signed up for. What the hell is this? The book is also an invitation that if we look beyond that and if we have the willingness in our hearts to see our similarities as greater than our differences, not dismissing our differences — our differences are also what makes us rich. My husband’s Sicilian family, I didn’t know anything about that, but that’s a rich culture that I learned a lot from. Conversely, I have a very rich culture that they have learned a lot from. It’s not an either/or. It’s a yes/and. It can be additive if people look at it that way, embrace it that way. That’s another current, another thread that’s weaving through the book. I’ve heard that from readers who’ve read it who are like, oh, my gosh, I see this in my own family. By the way, it can be two people of the same American culture but of two different religions.

Zibby: You can call it another ingredient instead of another thread or current. Another ingredient.

Tembi: Yeah, it’s another ingredient.

Zibby: You are one of my favorite writers of all time. I swear. I love the way you write. I’m not just saying that. I wanted to just read a couple things if I can find them. I dogeared all the pages. Let me read a few things. This is about Saro, but Lino in the play. “I could see now that Saro had appeared in my life and almost instantly created form where there had only been space. He soothed the places I hadn’t known needed soothing, seemed perfectly willing to embrace the parts of me that were wanton, unsettled, unfinished, and contradictory. Together, we had engaged life as two forks eating off one plate, ready to listen, to love, to look into the darkness and still see a thin filament of moon.” So beautiful. Wait, I have a few more. I have a lot more, but I won’t — I liked how you called it — I’m going to mispronounce everything. “Lucia returned again and again with heaping plates of strozzapreti with braised red radicchio in a mascarpone sauce; fusilli in a fire-roasted bell pepper sauce; gnocchi with gorgonzola in a white martini reduction with shaved aged parmigiano. I began to see that Saro was speaking directly to me, each dish an edible love letter, succulent, bold. By the third and fourth courses, I accepted that this chef who wore elf boots was making love to me, and we hadn’t so much as kissed.” I love that.

Tembi: Yeah, yeah, yeah. All I can say is yeah. Actually, thank you for reading that passage because it gifts me back with such joy to just even — the memories alone, I think that’s the gift of writing memoir, really. I didn’t know that when I set out to write the book. I just was like, can I write this? You know. The essential questions are, can I actually put sentence after sentence, page after page, and hold a story together? That’s really the essential question. Along the way, as I was excavating our early years together, these beautiful memories came back to me. When you read that to me, it was like I was right back in Florence again, delighted and in love and seeing the promise of all of that.

Zibby: It’s so exciting. Thinking about you there and now watching and reading it and having these multiple visions and then actually talking to you about it, it’s crazy. You also wrote so beautifully about grief in the most visceral, raw way, which will help anybody who’s ever grieved for anyone. The way you talked about him, you said how Saro had been your soft landing spot, your constant in the steady stream of rejection. You said, “I was in the land of the newly widowed, which felt like floating in the outer rings of Mars while my body was tied to Earth. All morning, it had been like having one language in my head while the world spoke another that pierced my ears like hurried gibberish through a scratchy loudspeaker. My senses were jumbled. Sound was a bitter taste stuck to the roof of my mouth, and sight was a rough touch grazed against my eyelids. At ground zero of grief, up was down, and down was sideways. I didn’t remember where we kept the salt. Holding a knife took effort. I looked down at my feet because I didn’t trust the earth underneath me to be there. Nothing, absolutely nothing makes sense in the known and unknown world except being at home near my bed, in Saro’s kitchen, and in the room where we had said our last goodbyes.”

Tembi: I’m going to be honest. I tried like hell to put language around a feeling that I never felt before. I tried to articulate for anyone who has never, perhaps, had that feeling. You will at some point. You live long enough, you’re going to have it. I had never been in the inner sanctum of deep, deep grief. As I was trying to understand my own grief, I hoped that the reader would be taken into that inner sanctum with me. The way I could do it was to try to picture it and to try to, with as much precision in language as possible, to say what this feeling is. This book came out before we all had a global pandemic, before we had this systemic collective loss, which is ubiquitous. Whether we acknowledge it or not, it’s there. It’s ever-present for us. For those of us who experienced deep losses — I know you did in the middle of the pandemic. Then those words, I hope — there’s comfort in acknowledging and naming. That’s one of the things I’ve learned in my life. When we can acknowledge something and we can name something, it’s comforting. I want to be a namer. I wanted to be a person who could name something. That was a real challenge for me when I was writing the book. I was like, what does it feel like? Literally, sometimes it felt like sandpaper on the roof of my mouth. It felt like all those things.

Zibby: It was beautiful. It’s really beautiful.

Tembi: Thank you.

Zibby: It’s practically impossible to capture, but I feel like you did as good a job as can be done with the limitations of words. Let me just see if there was one more. The way you wrote about parenting through grief, I can’t find it now, but the fact that no matter what, you still had to be a mom. You still had to cope with all your feelings and deal with your daughter’s feelings and get her to school. You had your stepmother in particular, which was such a lovely relationship that you wrote about, who was such a help. Just the fact that you can’t stop. Kids’ needs don’t change. They still need everything. They still have unfettered joy in the saddest of moments. That’s just the art of being a kid.

Tembi: That duality of simultaneous converging griefs in one household, mine and my daughter’s, and then me having to experience, own, process, attempt to navigate my own feelings while also understanding hers — I didn’t have the experience of childhood grief. That’s not in my lived experience. I was also just trying to, with curiosity, understand what her world must feel like while being the person who got the lunches ready, and the clothes needed to be washed, and somehow tend to her heart and answer the hard questions that I didn’t sometimes want to answer, but I had to. I felt like I had to. I always say mothering through the depths of grief perhaps is the hardest part of all of it in a lot of ways for me. Listeners probably can recognize. You’re doing two things at once, if not more than two. It’s a lot of emotional labor. It’s tiring. I always say, have your people who can help you out. If you’re someone who is near and dear to a grieving parent, fill in. Please, step up. Fill in.

Zibby: It’s true. They always say, don’t even ask. Just send food. Just drop something off. Pick up. Show up. Don’t be afraid that you’re overstepping. There is no overstepping in grief, I feel like. No one’s ever like, she was such a pain when I was grieving. Nobody ever says that.

Tembi: No. I had people who literally dropped Tupperware off. They would drop off the food. Then I’d have all this Tupperware. The part of me in my grief who was like — I’d be a little bit like, I don’t know what to do with all the Tupperware. It’s just too much Tupperware. Somehow, that was a tipping point for me. I just couldn’t handle the Tupperware. Someone’s like, “Just put it back on your porch. We’ll take care of it.” There was this cycle of, Tupperware would come with food. Then the empties would go out. Then they would refill. They would go out. I was like, oh, my god. It was like the trains ran on time. The food was handled. It gave a little bit of ease inside of the storm.

Zibby: That’s so nice. You just have this way with words and analogies. It’s really special. It’s really amazing. I think I read in the author’s note or somewhere that you’re doing another memoir about parts of your family and a secret you uncovered or something. Is that right?

Tembi: There is a book coming. I can’t tell you when because I don’t know yet. I’m circling the wagons around that one.

Zibby: Did you write it yet, or you’re writing it now?

Tembi: I’m in the process of. It’s not fully formed. It’s very nascent in its coming forward.

Zibby: In the book, you track your acting career at the same time. Are you still pursuing that actively?

Tembi: Yeah. Never Have I Ever, which many people might know, is a series on Netflix, wonderful series. I play the mom, Fabiola, in that series. We wrapped the fourth season, fourth and final season. I’ve had the pleasure, while I’ve been working on From Scratch, of popping into that series and showing up. Then we’re producing right now a lot, which isn’t to say that I won’t act again. I’m in the process of producing and perhaps a new project.

Zibby: That’s exciting.

Tembi: I know.

Zibby: Awesome. Your face just lit up, so maybe that’s what you’re really into. The way you wrote, and I know I’m like a broken record over here, was really beautiful. Yet in the book, you didn’t talk about a lifetime love of writing or anything like that. It was about your love of art history and acting and food and everything. Then here you go just whipping out this absolutely gorgeous memoir. How did that happen?

Tembi: That’s such a great question. Let me just say, I wrote all my life, mostly in the form of journals. I was a journaler. That doesn’t mean I journal every day. I do not. Months and months might go by, and I didn’t journal. I can also say I’m the kind of person who has my journals from when I was fourteen years old. I have them in my possession. That tells me a little something about a part of me that is somehow seeking to make sense of my lived experience because I’m constantly going back to the page. Usually when something is amiss or wrong or I’m mad about something, I’ll go and just sort of vomit it all on the page. When my husband was diagnosed — you talked about my acting career. When he was diagnosed, what shifting was that I couldn’t work as much as I had before because I was his primary caregiver. I really needed a place to be creative. I needed a place to explore some of the deep changes and feelings that were going on in my life, and so I signed up for writing classes at UCLA, mostly as a place that I could write from home. If I couldn’t go on set to act, I was like, oh, I could write at home. Through the duration of his illness, I was writing with no ambition of writing a book, no ambition of publishing. It was just like, I need to do this for me. I thought, maybe I’ll make a one-woman play, maybe. It was something like that. I was thinking of it from the lens as a performer.

After his passing and time going on, my sister said to me, who is an accomplished novelist, award-winning, she said, “You should write a book.” I said, “What?” She said, “You should write a book.” She goes, “In fact, if you don’t write the book, I’m not going to talk to you because you need to write the book.” If you know anything about my sister, she’s hardcore in the most beautiful way. What she was doing was holding space for something I couldn’t quite see yet and I wasn’t ready to step into. I sat with that for a couple more years. Then I was ready to write the book. That’s really the arc of it. I really wrote the book thinking, well, this will be a new life adventure, trying to write a book. I thought if ten people read it, if fifty people read it, if a hundred people read it, I have done what I needed to do, which is put the story on the page. That was really my primary objective so that when, later on, it was written and it became a Reese’s Book Club pick and all the rest and the Netflix and all the things, who can imagine something like that? You don’t. No one imagines that. I said, let me write the best book I can write for now. It opened up a creative vessel, or channel, I should say, in me, writing. I can never close that channel. It just has to stay open. I’m blessed to have found that later in life. Who knew?

Zibby: It’s so funny. There are all these authors toiling away being like, if only I could be a Reese’s Book Club pick. You’re like, I’m just going to do this thing on the side.

Tembi: In a way, gosh, the blessing of no expectation. I had zero. Also, I didn’t put a lot of stuff on it. I talked to Christine, my editor, when it came. I was like, “Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe this shouldn’t –” It felt so big and so vulnerable to put it out there. I was terrified of it. I wanted to resend it.

Zibby: I know that feeling.

Tembi: I wanted to say, you guys gave me some money three years ago to start to write this. Take that back. I’ll take all those words back. We’re good. Let’s call it even-steven. It was never an ambition in that way. I didn’t start out thinking, I want to be a — I was like, I just want to write this story and do the best I can with it. Now it feels really scary to share the things that I wrote. I’m happy she didn’t take me up on that offer. I’m happy that we’re here. I’ve grown a lot.

Zibby: I’m also really happy. This was absolutely beautiful. The show is amazing. I just feel like when you write about someone you’ve lost, you’re introducing them to all new people who never had the opportunity to meet them. In that way, you don’t actually keep them alive, but what a gift to have everybody else get to know him and to see that beautiful love story that you had and to witness the sadness but also the love. How you said that this is part three of your marriage, is being the widow of him, of sorrow, it’s just absolutely beautiful. I’m a huge fan.

Tembi: Thank you so much, Zibby. Thank you. Thank you also for articulating it in that way. I do feel like he’s been with me throughout this whole experience. He’s with me now. It’s just beautiful. Love goes on.

Zibby: Do you believe in signs, or no?

Tembi: Absolutely. I can have a whole other podcast about Tembi reading the signs, the tea leaves, the signs, the things. You know what? Why not?

Zibby: I agree. I totally agree. Tembi, thank you. Thank you so much.

Tembi: This has been a pleasure and an honor. Thank you for your work. Thank you for elevating all of these voices. I have been watching you at a distance. I really appreciate the work you do and elevating voices and writers. I’m so happy to have been here. Thank you.

Zibby: That’s so nice. Hopefully, our paths will cross in person one day. That would be nice.

Tembi: I’d love that.

Zibby: Take care. Thank you so much.

Tembi: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

FROM SCRATCH by Tembi Locke

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