It helps me stay connected to them, even after they're gone.
By Kathleen Volk Miller
I had to have my roof redone a few months ago. The man doing the roof was a man I had just begun dating, and he had his friends helping, doing my 100-year-old 20-pitch, two-and-a-half story house for about half of what my neighbors had paid.
So I cooked. I made hot lunches the six days they were there — barbecued beef on crusty rolls, chicken soup with spinach and tortellini, carved ham and cheese, buffalo wings and pepperoni bread. These meals were accompanied by side dishes like homemade cole slaw, carrot and raisin salad, tortilla chips with cheese. I timed desserts to come out of the oven just as the men were finishing their lunches — chocolate chip cookies, cherry dump cake, brownies, plum cobbler. Each morning I had donuts or coffeecake, muffins or Danish waiting on the kitchen table. All day, I made sure there was a fresh pot of coffee available.
I was so happy to do this for them. So happy to have one say I should market the cole slaw to local delis; to have another ask me to marry him; to have them tease the man I was seeing mercilessly, telling him he didn’t deserve me. I was a happy hausfrau. My mother had died less than a year before, and I “called her up” for ideas and to thank her — to thank her for my cooking skills and for the simple fact that I was happy to please these people through food, as she has given me that character attribute, too.
We’ve always noticed the connection between sex and death, but food might be more complicated. Cooking for someone, and even eating, might be the antithesis of death — it’s an act of optimism. We expect the guests to show up. We expect to be around long enough to burn the calories. It’s overtly primal, of course, a base instinct, and “I’m hungry” is more acceptable to say aloud than “I’m horny.” Food satisfies. Eating is a sensual experience. Going out for a lovely dinner or cooking a meal for someone, then having sex with them, is a perfect date, a perfect way of sharing time, of sharing ourselves. When someone dies, food memories stay connected to them; smells and tastes can bring them back.
When my mother was still alive, and her back was too bad for her to stand in the kitchen peeling potatoes, I had taken over the responsibility of “Mom’s Potato Salad.” That’s what we always called it and what we still do, and though I’m a mother, too, even my own children know whose it is. When my brother came in the kitchen the first time I had attempted to replicate her potato salad, he kissed me on the cheek and said, “You nailed it.” There was no greater reward, no greater compliment, except for when my mother said, “You did it. It’s yours now.”
One time, she tried to read me the homemade bread recipe, and I was eager, writing it all down, anxious to master this long-time Christmas-and-Easter-only bread. Halfway through the long and complicated instructions, I stopped writing. She knew it, and said, “You’re not going to try this, are you?” I just started laughing, surprised yet pleased that she knew. “Mom,” I said, “I just don’t think I can do it.” And she said, “You could. But it’s okay. Maybe next holiday.” Optimistic.
And last week, my Dad and I were alone in his storage basement, culling through boxes whose contents were a mystery to him. We found lots of things that made us laugh, lots of things that hurt our hearts, often concurrently.
Then he found the recipe card box. He said, “I don’t think there’s anything in here she made often; we haven’t opened this box in 20 years.” I said, still, “I’ll take anything in her handwriting.” And we found out he was wrong. These were the recipes for things she made so often she no longer needed the cards.
We gasped when we read “Banana Bread.” We laughed when we found the one for barbecued beef, as I no longer need the recipe either. We both got misty-eyed over how many called for crushed pineapple, Dad saying simply, “She loved crushed pineapple.” I kept them all, and made her "Harvey House Cole Slaw" for the first time this past weekend. I nailed it.
I sent a dear friend home with an extra loaf of pepperoni bread, his favorite, the food item he’s thanked me for for 20 years. He texted me the next day — “hmm.” And then, “pepperoni bread massages my heart.” I texted back, “I’m glad.” I am.
After 10 years of living next door to the same family, the women of the household only recently let me know that her family stands in their driveway, sniffing in our direction, then comes in the house and tells her how good it smells next door. I had no idea this had been going on, and even though I wasn’t feeding them, somehow, there’s even gratification knowing that our dinner wafting into their driveway will be part of their memories.
Of course we know that food is love, that our relationship with it is ingrained early, and frequently, it is instilled by our mothers. I am a professor, a writer, and an editor. My mother graduated high school, got married, and had five children. I love that I still love to cook, that she gave me this, this urge to feed, to please this way. I can’t see it as sexist or demeaning. When my husband was still alive, he mowed the lawn, maintained the cars, painted, and hammered when things needed painting or hammering. I cooked.
Another faculty member and I once had a conversation on this topic, on the division of labor in the home. When I told her that my husband and I had what might be seen as very sexist, traditional roles, she went into a flurry of protestations: “Why should the cooking be your responsibility? Why should you cook dinner every night when he is perfectly capable of cooking his own dinner?” My response: “Look. I have no desire, ever, to push a lawnmower. We are each doing what we want to do for the household.” She could not be assuaged. She accused me of adapting to my socialization, not doing what I truly wanted.
I remember sitting there, watching her face redden, and thinking, “I want to have my husband call me on his way home from work and ask me what’s for dinner, and when I answer, I want him to say, ‘Sounds great, honey.’ It’s a good language for us to speak.” And that’s what he and I continued to say to each other.
About five months after he died, I was making spaghetti and meatballs, and it was raining. The kids weren’t home yet from their after-school activities. It was winter. It was only about 5 p.m. but it was pitch black outside. I thought I heard a car pull up in the driveway and then I thought, “Don will be so happy when he sees what’s for dinner.” And then I realized that it couldn’t be him, that he would never pull up in the driveway again. I slid to the kitchen floor, sobbing. I couldn’t stop crying and didn’t sleep that night. I had to cancel classes the next day. I stayed in bed. He had died five months prior, but the realization, the true ownership of the knowledge that I would never cook for him again, put me into a state of grief I had not yet been in.
When he was alive, he’d walk in the back door and his eyes would go to the stove, rather than me, and I loved it, took no offense at all. Happy, happy that my cooking could please him. When I first met him, his vegetable repertoire consisted of corn and peas. I took great pride in turning him on to ratatouille, cauliflower sautéed in garlic and Italian breadcrumbs, broccoli steamed and buttered, snow peas with lemon. He frustrated me by his gag reflex to mayonnaise, though I managed to hide it from him in dishes all the time; his love of Stovetop made me question his character, but I got over his addition of ketchup to a steak.
It’s been three years and there are certain dishes he loved that I still can’t make.
I have interns at the university where I teach, and one of the first things I show them is where I keep the cereal bars and the Hershey kisses.
When my brother and his family come to visit from Pittsburgh I make “Welcome to Our House Soup.” When I have buffet parties, after 15 people have eaten, the buffet looks as full as if no one has come through. But, see, that’s what my mother did. Just tonight, my daughter thought she was invited to a friend’s house for hot dogs (Hot dogs! Hot dogs for dinner!) and then got called back and was told there was not enough. My daughter said, “Mom. If I invite someone to dinner and you’re afraid there’s not enough, even though there always is, you add another side dish, you go to the freezer and you just…make more.” I want her to see it that way, that if we turn someone away from our table, we are turning them away.
My children and I skew the national statistics by having dinner together at least four nights a week. We will sit around the table for half an hour after we’re done eating, enjoying the talk, not wanting to break off just yet, into our separateness.
Eventually, regretfully, we will, and I’ll go back into the kitchen, prep tomorrow’s coffee for myself, pack their lunches — three different kinds of sandwiches for three different kinds of kids. I will pack their lunches while the smell of dinner is still in the air, and I will find this satisfying, a celebration of our life, optimistic.
Of course there have been failures. I forgot to put the lid on the chuck roast, and so it wouldn’t pull apart, no matter how long I kept cooking it. The time I made a baked ham for a Jewish couple, not thinking they followed Judaic Law. (But it was okay anyway, as I had also roasted a turkey breast, and made three types of salads as side dishes.) I’ve set chicken on fire on the grill, and I once locked us out of the house with pork chops in the oven.
My husband died at 45 and won’t ask me what’s for dinner anymore. But the kids will. And they’ll ask if their friends can stay, and they can. I will cook for other men, but not whole chicken legs stuffed with spinach and cheese, because that was one of my husband’s favorites. I cannot call my mother and ask her how she made the green peppercorn sauce for the strip steak, but I can remember watching her make it, I can remember what it tasted like, and I can try to make it own my own. I can make Mom’s potato salad.
I like food. I like to cook. I like sex. I’ve survived the deaths of my mother and my husband. But I get to feed people. I can hope that people will remember my hummus, my pumpkin chocolate chip bread. I get to keep coming out from the kitchen with dish after dish or plate after plate and the people say, “Thank you.” And the people are pleased. And so am I. • 28 September 2007
Kathleen Volk Miller is co-editor of the Painted Bride Quarterly. She has published fiction, personal essays, and articles in numerous publications, including Red Booth Review and the Philadelphia Inquirer.