It’s 5:39 pm. The nurse has just called the funeral home. She is bathing and dressing my mother for her final trip out the door and I’m planning what to cook while waiting for the undertaker.
“You still have to eat,” I can hear my mother say.
First, I cut the onion – I want thick slices that will brown sweetly. I cut and I weep. Then I chop the garlic, also in big chunks that you can taste. It opens my pores, and tiny beads form on my skin. Pouring the olive oil into the pot, I saute the onions and peppers over a high flame. Then the peppers, the celery. It’s Easter Sunday – not a holiday my family celebrates, but still an occasion for a Sunday feast.
My mother always loved family gatherings around food. She loved onions. She’d make a tomato sandwich between two thick slices of onion. The aromas from the sauté are wafting into her room. This is a good thing. She will be bathed, well dressed, and smelling her favorite foods when she’s carried out on the gurney.
As the woman who brought me into this world is on her way out the door for the last time, I put mustard seeds into the pot and watch them pop. Add some fennel seeds. Now the okra and the chopped collard greens. When they turn a brilliant green, add the tomatoes. Looking through the spice cabinet I try to find the filé powder. Let it simmer until the undertaker and the nurses have left the house. When the commotion dies down, add the shrimp and cook about eight minutes until shrimp are pink. Serve on a bed of rice.
My mother would have served hors d’oeuvres before the main meal. My father called it fooling around eating. He wanted to dispense with the fooling around eating and get to the main course.
“Your mother is a gourmet cook,” my aunt said frequently. And yet toward the end of her life, when I came to visit, she’d offer to nuke food from Styrofoam leftover containers in the fridge. As my father lay dying, all he’d get was pureed food from a can.
Torn and tattered copies of the Gourmet cookbooks sat on a mantel in my mother’s kitchen, alongside a brass mortar and pestle, and when I was growing up she cooked things as if her role model, Jackie Kennedy, were coming to dinner: Beef Wellington, Boeuf Bourguignon, Soft-Shelled Crabs Amandine. She had a lot of patience with puff pastry, and made little circular tea sandwiches filled with cucumber, parsley and homemade mayonnaise.
I loved her torte with slivers of apple layered over an almond crust, painted with butter and apricot preserves. It was not only a visual delight but sparked that tingling sensation in my lower jaw. The summer I was 10, we went to a resort in the mountains. She wanted to tame my wild unruly curls, smoothing my wet hair over frozen orange juice cans and having me sit under the dryer, resulting in my missing the major social event for 10-year-olds — a Ringolevio tournament. For compensation I extracted a promise that she’d bake apple tortes on demand for a year.
Alongside the Gourmet Cookbooks was an antique clock with an owl face. My mother collected owls. She had a curio cabinet filled with them. Owls made from carved wood, clay, hand blown glass, and owls encrusted with sparkling jewels. There were owl pendants she hung from the side of the mirror at her dressing table, and a series of drawings she’d made of owls. She kept a file of the owl creations my brother and I made for Mother’s Day. When my parents would get into one of their public arguments, my father, as a peace offering, would say that my mother was wise like an owl, and someday she’d come back as an owl.
When I was in fourth grade my mother went back to school to study fashion and interior design. Her classes were at dinnertime, so I became the family chef. Actually that’s what my mother said, but she left everything set up for me to cook – lamb chops or chicken parts or flank steak to broil, frozen vegetables and French fries to heat in the toaster oven. Sometimes I’d make boil-in-the-bag spinach.
Our dining room was papered with grass cloth, and our cat, Heidi, loved to stretch her claws on it, shredding it to bits. One night my mother served me a plate on which lay a chicken leg and thigh. At that moment, something startled Heidi and she tore up the side of the dining room wall, her claws gripping the grass cloth. My parents were shouting at the cat to get down, my brother was saying “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” and I was looking at Heidi’s thigh, and the thigh on my plate. From then on I forsook meat. This was fine with my mother who was happy to buy whatever ingredients I needed to cook my vegetable-based repasts.
My early vegetarian cooking was, in short, disgusting. I was mixing Campbells Chunky Vegetable Soup with cheese and brown rice. I started baking whole grain breads, heavy as bricks, and incorporating seaweed and sesame seeds into brown rice. There were always leftovers. Somewhere along the line I realized I could ditch the can of Campbells and make my own chunky vegetable soups, using earthy brown potatoes, leeks, garlic and cannellini beans.
My mother compared my cooking to peasant food. I liked that. When I was about 10, she chaired a committee that produced one of those fundraising cookbooks – my mother did the cover illustration and design. In the cookbook was a recipe for pistou, and under it in italics, “French Peasant Soup.” It was one of my favorites for years, and I love making it to this day, especially at the end of the harvest season – it’s a great way to use beans, zucchini and basil. I also make ribolitta, which is sort of an Italian version of the same thing.
In college I filled the house I lived in with the aroma of my grandmother’s cabbage soup – Russian peasant food. When my sons were in fourth grade and needed to bring in a dish that was from their ancestral cuisine, I made varenyky – a Russian dumpling filled with potato and leek.
But my own mother picked her way around the plate when she ate at my house. Still, she expected me to host all the family gatherings – Thanksgiving, Mother’s and Father’s Day, even the Jewish holidays, which meant nothing to me. She would bring her faux liver pate and tunnel of fudge cake, delivered in elaborate packaging my father had devised, and watch over me as I cooked, making sure I was removing enough of the pith from peppers, cutting everything precisely the same size for even cooking, not using too much olive oil. Maybe because it was green, but she always said I used too much olive oil. My mother didn’t like green cuisine.
Whatever I cooked, she asked if there was zucchini in it. When I’d give her the tour of my garden, she’d point to plants with big leaves and say “Is that zucchini?” I’m not sure what frightened her about zucchini. It was only after her death that I began spiralizing it into spaghetti.
My mother was also afraid of my lettuces. Arugula, chicory, frisee, mizuna – they terrified her. She just wanted romaine hearts in her salads.
When my parents retired to Florida, dining out meant a soup-to-nuts early bird special, divided down the middle, so they could take half home to get two meals for the price of one. They’d nuke it and eat it over the sink so they wouldn’t have to clean up. Toward the end of their lives, the fridge was filled with Styrofoam containers of ancient origins.
For the most part, my mother had stopped cooking, although she’d still bake and prepare elaborate spreads for her bridge friends. This killed my father – why was she cooking for them, and not him? The simple answer was because of his dentures, there were too many foods he couldn’t eat. And he preferred diner food to her gourmet repasts anyway.
It got to the point where, when I’d come to visit, they’d try to feed me from those white Styrofoam leftover containers. “We never touched it,” they’d insist of the mound of solidified butter and mashed potatoes.
My sons and I got into the habit of cooking big pots of peasant soup when we visited, freezing containers of it for them – but of course their freezer filled with the containers and ultimately they had to be thrown out.
Although my mother still read food magazines and clipped reviews for restaurants she wanted to try, I started to notice that, while my father was in hospice care, she had stopped eating. I wasn’t sure if it was because of depression, or because for 60 some odd years she had shared all her meals with my father, and now that he had to eat gruel out of a can she no longer had an appetite.
I started calling her at meal times, reminding her to eat. She had become a Costco shopper, buying large quantities of things that would languish in the refrigerator. She’d tell me about the wonderful price she paid for a package of six red peppers, then complain three weeks later that they were moldy.
When I came to visit, I’d want to cook for her but she said we should go out. I figured she needed a break from my father and the death vigil. We’d go to expensive restaurants of her choosing. She’d pick at the food, take most of it home, and the nurse would puree the leftovers for my father, who would complain that it was awful. Everything tastes awful when you’re dying. Hunger is the will to live.
He wanted it to just be over already — why lie around in bed, eating canned pureed food and waiting when you know it’s going to happen. Let’s get on with it. He asked the doctors and the nurses for aid in dying. They told him God wasn’t ready to take him. He told them there was no god – if there was a god, why would he make my father endure such suffering. He pleaded with me to put him out of his misery.
My father was DIY before there was a DIY. He fixed everything from his first Studebaker to appliances around the house. When he developed plantar fasciitis, he made his own orthotics. Even in hospice care he was still inventing devices he could use to grab onto things while supported by his walker. When the aide bathing him lost his hearing aid, my father picked up his iPad and started searching online for the parts he’d need to make a new one.
In dying, my father would have to do it himself as well. He decided to go on a hunger strike. But at the end of the day he got hungry.
When my father did die, I noticed my mother craving all the foods he’d loved – franks and beans, pastrami sandwiches, pea soup. It’s as though she was mourning him by eating his favorite foods.
When my mother got sick with the cancer that would eventually kill her, I thought I could heal her with kale. “No!” she shrieked. “I don’t like kale!”
“That’s because you’ve never had it cooked well,” I told her, making stracciatella soup with eggs, parmesan and kale. She admitted it was tasty, but she couldn’t eat much of it. I wanted to nourish her the way she’d nourished me. I tried cooking her super foods – a wild Alaskan coho salmon, pan fried in olive oil and garlic. She complained it was too dry. I made avocado salad, roasted sweet potatoes and beets, lentil salad with feta and walnuts. “You eat it,” she said. “I’m not hungry.”
She chose to discontinue chemotherapy because it was destroying her taste buds. If she couldn’t taste, she said, what was the point of living?
Gradually her appetite diminished to nothing as the tumor grew in her belly. The doctors explained that we shouldn’t force her to eat – that anything she ate would only feed the tumor. In the final three weeks of her life she ate about three tablespoons of food, and even that she couldn’t keep down.
After my mother died and we sold her house, I took a curated collection of her cookbooks, kitchen implements, and owl collection. For her celebration of life, I cooked foods from her cookbooks – the faux liver pate, the tunnel of fudge cake. Everyone shared remembrances of my mother, we ate until we couldn’t, and I saw all the guests to the door. As I stood on the front porch, watching the cars pull away, I became aware that I wasn’t alone. I could hear it in the crisp night air on the roof of the house. “Hoo cooks for you. Hoo hoo cooks for you.”
Photo by Dean Pasch