on cooking through grief

Trays of lukewarm pasta sat on the counter, with the once pillowy ricotta and creamy mozzarella slowly solidifying around the mangled ziti. Day-old ciabatta sat on a cutting board, crumbs strewn about, with a half-eaten plate of chicken marsala resting on the stovetop — crimini mushrooms trapped in the now congealed sauce.

In the corner was a Jenga stack of jumbo Ziploc bags filled with bagels. Sesame, poppy, everything, onion, plain. Untouched. Three tubs of vegetable cream cheese slowly approaching their expiration date in the fridge.

Everything was delivered with the best of intentions — notwithstanding the one-too-many I don’t know what to say’s. And despite my deep gratitude, I found myself wanting, needing it gone. All of it. Every tray of heaping takeout that, had we actually been tasting while eating, would have realized was mediocre. Every pot of potato leek soup, every homemade loaf that remained a mystery within the confines of its tin foil exterior, every supermarket crumb cake, pound cake, cheesecake, and bagel.

I resented grief, and the fact that it made everyone want to feed us, because I didn’t need food.

If anyone ever doubted the strength of my petite, reserved Italian grandmother, all they had to do was watch her pound with abandon at a veal cutlet until it was paper thin, only pausing to adjust her eyeglasses which had slowly slid down her nose.

“This way, they cook quickly,” she explained, while carefully peeling off the clear plastic wrap that bore the brunt of the beating.

From there, the cutlets were dipped in bright yellow whisked eggs before landing on a bed of salty breadcrumbs — a large majority of which had somehow made their way to the floor.

“Don’t worry,” she told me, “that can be dealt with later.”

I listened closely to the crackling sizzle as she carefully laid cutlet after cutlet in the fry pan, stepping back to avoid the speckles of hot oil flying onto the stovetop.

“I think the artichokes are done,” she said, reaching to remove the lid and enveloping us both in a puff of steam. Whiffs of bubbling olive oil studded with chunks of potent garlic and sprigs of thyme filled the tiny kitchen as she managed, through fogged up glasses, to give them a gentle nudge. 

From there, she turned her attention to the spaghetti, which was waiting patiently on cornmeal-dusted baking sheets placed strategically on what little counter space remained.

Although over an hour had passed since making the pasta, the evidence remained: a thin puff of flour lingering in the air, the hefty wooden rolling pins resting in the sink, a dusting of flour on my jeans.

We assumed an assembly-style formation, passing down the baking sheets one-by-one and gently plopping the spaghetti into ferociously boiling water. And then we waited, eagerly hovering, willing the pasta to cook faster.

With the impossibly tall pot growing taller with rising steam, I almost forgot about the sauce gently simmering on the back-most burner — until she suggested we give it one last peek.

“That,” she said — intently pointing to the thin pools of olive oil floating on the surface —  “means it’s done.”

A generous dusting of fine Kosher salt followed, as did a sprinkle of hot red pepper flakes.

I asked if I could taste, to which she responded “of course” in a way that made me feel silly for even asking in the first place. With my hand strategically placed under the spoon, I brought it slowly up to my mouth, gently blowing on the small pool of deep red sauce to cool it down without sending it over the wooden edge.

Momentarily lost in the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity, I marveled at the now empty mason jar of last season’s canned tomatoes and thought that if I didn’t know any better, I’d vow it was magic. Or alchemy. Or some combination of the two.

So when grief entered my kitchen, I didn’t need food. I needed my kitchen to look alive — to smell the oven smoking from a rogue piece of mozzarella, and to feel my bare toes picking up bread crumbs and flour speckled on the cold tile floor. I needed to watch the rays of oil fly onto the stovetop, and to hear my grandmother’s gentle voice telling me that it’s okay, that it can be dealt with later, that it’s not important. I needed a symphony of pots and pans working their magic at once, and somehow always coming together in perfect harmony at the end. I needed fogged up glasses, a stack of dirty dishes, and the patience to let flavors develop, sauces thicken, pasta boil, and my heart to heal.

One thought on “on cooking through grief

  1. What a beautifully written post! The first thing that came to mind is when my Grand father passed away in 1986… I was a kid, and all the women in the house were cooking for the visitors. I remember not having any appetite at all, I didn’t quite understand… Yes, what a precious post!

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