Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
The Lonely Kitchen
This past 4th of July, my daughter was hosting a barbecue. She invited me and asked if I’d do her a favor and make cole slaw, one of my house specials. I was happy to oblige but also a little anxious. I haven’t done much in the way of food preparation since Michael died. When I went to check my cabinets for vinegar and mayonnaise, I was amazed to see cobwebs draped over the shelves. I was slightly embarrassed, but mostly bemused. When Michael and I would discuss his death, we often wound up on the topic of food. “What are you going to eat when I die,” he’d ask. I’d say, “Raisin bran and cottage cheese and pineapple. No worries.”
I didn’t know how close to the truth that really was – I think I’ve only turned my oven on twice since he died in May, 2017. Once was for Thanksgiving, a dinner I’d hosted for 35 years. Thanksgiving was Michael’s favorite holiday. Over the years I’d worked out my menu and had the planning and preparation down to a smooth operation. But every year as I got older, it got harder. My creaking knees and sciatica made the long hours challenging and physically expensive. When Michael died, I told my kids that I was passing the torch I’d inherited from my mom. My daughter and son-in-law took on the event, requesting sweet potato pies from me and again, the slaw.
When my son came home for a break from his post-doc, I made him his favorite quiche. That’s it. The two times I’ve turned on the oven. I’ve used the burners on occasion to make the chicken soup my kids love. I also wanted my grandchildren to taste what was the traditional warming food that my grandmother and mother made, the steaming soup that made everyone feel happy and homey.
I spent a lot of years being the primary cook in our family. Michael grilled burgers, chicken and steaks but I cooked most of our meals and tried to create interesting recipes. I never loved it the way some people do. I was decent in the kitchen but never deeply invested. Both of us liked to eat but in his late 30’s, Michael’s love of food changed from enjoying it to and cooking it. He planted a huge garden, so he could cook with fresh ingredients and can the rest for use all winter.
Besides the requisite tomatoes and tomato sauce, there was delicious salsa. Perhaps the best treat was the pesto which he froze in ice cube trays, popping out one or two in the cold months for pasta, pizza and bruschetta.
He started buying and reading lots of cookbooks. The first challenges were finding recipes for his favorite foods, adapting and tweaking them, until at last he made a meal that rivaled a restaurant special. He started with simple foods like chili and ribs, fooling around with spices and ingredients until he’d made his own unique flavor. I can’t remember how long he took to create his perfect barbecue sauce. Then came other marinades and basting sauces. Eventually he built two different spice racks for the kitchen to store his herbs, spices and endless oils and vinegars.
As his interest grew, he collected cookbooks and spent hours reading, selecting and sorting recipes, starting with appetizers and salads through main courses, and eventually moving to desserts. Because he was arty, his food presentation was beautiful, full of color and garnishes. I sit in our home, remembering stuffed mushrooms, caprese salads (only when fresh tomatoes were in season, mind you) and marinated cucumbers. I can hear him pounding away with his mallet, flattening chicken breasts for chicken parmesan and hear the vegetables flying up and down in his wok as he flipped them for stir fry. He perfected deep dish Chicago style pizza and incredible kabobs which were laden with meats, vegetables and fruit. He baked bread. His two favorite desserts were a moist gingerbread based on a friend’s recipe which he adjusted to his taste, and jam kolaches that his paternal grandmother baked when he was a small boy. The joke around here was that we’d eat lunch and had barely cleared the table when he’d say, what do you want to do for dinner? Trying to stay lean was impossible for me. He was a foot taller than I was and could eat without ever really gaining weight. For me, it was always a struggle. I’d tell him that I simply couldn’t keep up with him, but he would tempt me and was loving enough that no matter my weight issues, he was always happy with me. I was lucky/unlucky in that way.
As time went on, except for my few treasured specialties that my family loved, I left the kitchen to him. I’d watched what happened with my mother when my dad died. She’d stopped cooking almost immediately, not interested in making the effort for herself. She ate simply, mostly food that required no preparation. I was pretty certain I would mimic that behavior. I’d rather read a book. During Michael’s illness through our five year journey, his ability and desire to eat came and went. He was sad when he couldn’t eat and glad when his appetite returned. During the hard times, I did my best to cook and coax him into eating but the fact was, he mostly enjoyed his own food more than most of mine. Luckily, there were good times throughout that period.
And his great desire to stay alive made him drink the protein supplements loaded with nutrients so that he never physically diminished to the place where many terminally ill patients wind up. When he was well, he continued to experiment with food, but he was mindful that with his dire prognosis, this couldn’t go on forever. Ever the historian, he decided to codify our house specialties, mostly his, into a genuine menu. He spent hours designing this and while at the time, I laughed at him, I truly treasure these creations which honored our life together and make a gift to our kids and grandkids. I never figured out some of the crazy nicknames he assigned me in our life but Barnacle is indeed one of them. Of course, my son sometimes calls me crowbar, so apparently this is a familial eccentricity.
I can’t figure out if I’m going to change and eventually go back to a more traditional eating style, when I might want to actually cook, instead of quickly assembling tuna salad or eating cereal. The kitchen is the last place I want to hang out in my house. The plants in it are still alive and I have dried sprigs of rosemary and thyme hanging where Michael left them. But I wonder if that room will ever feel like so lived in as it did when Michael’s zest for food was vibrantly alive in our home. Our house is very old with nine foot ceilings. I can see spots up there above the island where he would sling ingredients with his sloppy, reckless style that always made me crazy. His food definitely left a wake behind its preparation.
The other day, my grandson was in there with me, looking for the snacks that I keep on hand for the boys. He asked, “Grandma, what are you going to do with all grandpa’s spices? You certainly aren’t going to use them.” His observations feel right, although I’ve yet to empty all the shelves. I guess I’ll wait awhile longer to see how I feel. I do hear that kitchen calling out. I’m just not sure it’s for me.