Food for a Grieving Soul
It seems eerily prescient that my last Snack Attack, A Pocketful of Spring, included my attempts to write a sestina about my mother, Helen and ended with a picture of her and this line: She is edging toward the infinite and my thoughts about that can’t truly be contained on the page, in a poem or even my own heart.
Two days after I posted it, my mother passed away in her sleep. There was no pain, so this was a blessing, but an event I thought I’d greet mainly with with relief has been profoundly unsettling to me. The line I closed my last post with is the truest thing I can say of my feelings about her death except the all purpose response I give when people ask me how I’m handling grief: it comes and goes.
I thought I had been prepared. I wasn’t. I am thin-skinned, snappish, angry, teary, paranoid, blank. Sometimes I find responses from people wanting and then feel guilty that I could have such demands. I find myself wondering how my two brothers are feeling, two men whose emotions I am not as attuned to as to my sister’s—yet I do not pick up the phone to ask them. I think of our parents’ lives like parentheses. Since our father’s enclosing punctuation mark was erased with his death from lung cancer in 1992, my mother’s was still there for 27 years after, like an arm draped around our shoulders, always in the picture. With my mother’s life no longer providing that single parentheses for us four adult children, I find myself surprisingly adrift. “Waa Waa. I’m an orphan,” I bleat to my husband, the Chef, and he laughs at me as I laugh at myself when I say it. But there’s a kernel of truth in my faux drama. I miss that enclosing parentheses mark. ) Without it I feel exposed and unprotected, like someone out on a cliff edge.
For reasons too logistical and boring to go into here there is no funeral. Now I find myself thinking this could have a lot to do with my sadness and my feeling so unsettled after what was, after all, a good long life and a peaceful death at the right time. There are reasons for the rituals surrounding birth, death, and marriage or commitment. There was some comfort in attending my Brooklyn brother’s Shiva, and I think I’ll feel that elusive sense of “closure,” at our own small family memorial in our apartment, when we sibs are finally all gathered together and honor her with our presence and words from our hearts. In the meantime, I turn to what my mother would have, food. Again, I remember the late Laurie Colwin’s paean to the solace of “nursery foods” in Home Cooking. I can so vividly see myself as a child, seated at the Formica table with the Blue Danube soup bowl in front of me, my mother’s fragrant chicken soup steaming up from it. My mother chanted from the Maurice Sendak book, Chicken Soup with Rice, whenever I had any soup: “Sipping once, sipping twice, sipping chicken soup with rice.”
Rice is Nice
Now as an adult , whenever I am in need of comfort I ask the Chef for Marcella Hazan’s Risi e Bisi, an Italian Rice soup, or a mushroom risotto or Giuliani Bugialli’s chicken and rice, hunter’s style. On the Friday after my mother died, and I had stopped any pretense of working, I sought the niceness of rice, specifically a Japanese rice ball—omusubi. But I also welcomed the warming miso soup and the spare white chic surroundings of Hanamizuki Café. Deep in the hard-working wholesaling garment, flower and jewelry display district, Hanamizuki is a thin corridor of calm. I decided to have the lunch special in order to sample two omusubi, which on their own range from $3.25 to $5.25. I had the cha-shu pork ball ($5.25/ea) and kinoko (Japanese mixed mushrooms, zucchini and scallions) ball, ($3.25/ea) a bowl of “Tofu & Tofu” miso soup (chunks of tan fried tofu bob alongside soft white cubes), a small side dish of cellophane noodles and an even smaller ceramic dish of Japanese pickled vegetables, all on a round wooden tray ($13.00 lunch special). Not only does Hanamizuki offer a wide array of omusubi but the cafe offers four different types of miso soup, including “BLT” ($5.25 a la carte).
My snack spotting friend Lydie, who told me about this cafe, said their rice balls weren’t as big or as tasty as the ones in Los Angeles, but for me, on that Friday, they were good enough, especially within the consoling combo of hot soup, cold salad, warm rice balls wrapped neatly in Saran wrap (note: you cannot eat them neatly without munching them from the Saran wrap using both hands.) It was hard to find the pieces of pork in the cha-shu pork ball; I was expecting a big tender chunk of pork in the middle. The kinoko ball was more intensely flavored, woodsy mushrooms and scallions, subtler zucchini notes. Both were made with brown rice—not my usual go-to—but the nutty flavor and chewy texture added needed depth. I stayed a long time, eating slowly, writing on my laptop (they have good wifi!). I’ll go again.
Mom Was a Foodie Before There were “Foodies”
My mother Helen was a big part of my food writing in that she passed on her “live to eat” spirit and discriminating (OK, critical) palate to me. The launching of this website coincided with our moving her from her sweet, neat apartment to the nursing home we came to call “Kabul.” We watched her diminish further from a zesty, opinionated, impatient woman to someone slumped in a wheelchair with crumbs and soup spatters on her clothing, hair matted, unless her dear aide was there to “fluff” her, a Mom word as in “Why don’t you fluff yourself? You never know who you’re gonna meet!” Yet, no matter how much her hunger—and oh, what hunger!—retreated, my brother Martin, my sister Carol and I still brought her culinary treats—whether from our own kitchens, Brooklyn bakeries or the Kabul vending machine. In her last months, Nacho Cheese Doritos became a favorite, I suspect because she needed that highly chemical mix of salt and savory to counter the sad, bland food.
It’s important to note she was discriminating to the end. On the day before she died, when my sister brought her a Rokeach gefilte fish, Gold’s horseradish and the delicious Ottogolenghi almond cake she had baked for my brother’s seder, my mother could tell that the horseradish wasn’t the freshest. The next day, Carol went out and bought a new bottle of horseradish, but it was too late. Mom died that night.
Our mother had a Hollywood and fairytale notion of Heaven. She used to say that when she died she’d be “drinking milk and honey with the angels.” I hope she’s eating and imbibing more interesting things with angels who like to talk and who dress stylishly. I like to think she’s nursing a gin and tonic with a buttery lobster roll, corn on the cob and a crème brulee for dessert.
This post is dedicated to my mother: