Several years ago I had the great fortune to direct a middle school production of “Oliver!” Little did Charles Dickens know that this dark story of orphaned boys in early 19th century London would be brought to life with such grandeur. Notably, The opening number, “Food, Glorious, Food!” perfectly captures the yearning for comfort food. So good is that opening that you can almost taste the morsels which make the sooty-faced orphans pine. Do we eat to live or live to eat?
When my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in September of 2005, it took nearly 3 weeks for the doctors to make an accurate prognosis. It was imperative that they find the source of the initial cancerous cells first. That wait was almost inhumane, but my mother bore it with remarkable stoicism. I suppose she knew that the cause mattered not at all, the result would be the same regardless of where those insidious buggers began their destruction. Of all the Irish luck, the roulette wheel landed on the adrenal gland, giving her an extraordinarily rare cancer with little evidence of successful treatment, and no positive outcome at the stage 4 level. The prognosis was 3 months to live.
My mother, father and I left that prognosis meeting in silence, each of us digesting the news which was delivered with compassion by an oncologist whose name I don’t even recall. We drove the 10 miles from his office to my parent’s suburban colonial, each in our own stillness Mom was exhausted when we got home and went directly upstairs. Not knowing what else to do, I followed her and asked her what she would like for dinner. Seems a silly question in light of the news, but dinner plans were important in my Irish Catholic home. Throughout my life the day seem to start with the question, “What’s for dinner tonight?”
She sat on her bed, thought carefully and said, “I think I’d like some meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans.” Okay then, that was easy enough. I ran out to the market and got the goods and prepared while she napped, while my poor dad sat in the den struggling to wrap his mind around the inevitable.
Meatloaf is best made with your hands; it’s nearly impossible to meld the hamburger, onions, eggs and breadcrumbs properly with a spoon and my mom’s kitchen had no such modern convenience as the Kitchen Aid mixer. The old fashioned way was best, and there was something cathartic in preparing that loaf and finally pressing it into a bread pan, topping it with a Heinz Ketchup glaze and setting it in the 350 degree oven. Mashed potatoes are more work and in my mom’s kitchen the Foley ricer was the tool of mashed potatoes. Once they were boiled, peeled and cut, the stainless steel contraption would do its magic, smoothing out the potatoes so that just the right amount of milk and butter would create a creamy, fluffy concoction. Green beans take no effort at all. A quick boil and shake of salt and there you are.
Mom had lost significant weight in the months before diagnosis and her appetite had dwindled significantly since the word Cancer had been introduced nearly a month before. In a twist of Irony, she often mused that she wished she had eaten what she wanted during her middle years, rather than battle her weight. Juicy hamburgers and creamy sauces on pasta were traded for white fish and chicken, chicken, chicken after a heart attack stopped her in her tracks in her early fifties. She survived the heart scare and thought perhaps that might be enough medical complication for a lifetime. There is a hint in there somewhere that we ought to live a little more freely while we may.
I prepared her plate of food, which she wanted to eat in her room. On the tray, I put a placemat, silverware and a cloth napkin with a sterling silver ring. A small glass of whole milk was a bonus and I carried it up the stairs carefully. She was awake, but lying down when I walked in. Upon my entrance, she scooched up and rearranged her pillows. In that moment, she may as well have been just battling a cold or the flu. Regardless of the dire information of the day, her countenance was peaceful, tired, but she was, as always, receptive and polite. You could almost forget in that moment that the number of nights in the home she lived for 45 years were nearly over; that nights of peaceful sleep were now numbered. She asked me to put the tray by her side in the empty space to her right.
I sat on the floor next to her for thirty minutes or so, but we did not talk of cancer or doctors or what happens next. As I remember it, we spoke of my children and how long I would stay this visit. We planned my return the following weekend.
Mom didn’t touch a morsel of that meal on that October night. Nor did she eat a bite of the roast chicken, baked potato and broccoli I made a week later. Same for the pork chops, applesauce and potato she requested subsequently. Her appetite was long gone now, and her tastebuds were muddled with medication. It took me some time to understand that it was the smell of those comfort foods she craved; the soothing effect that comes from the aroma of the foods we love.
Mom passed away not 7 weeks later on the greatest food day of all time: Thanksgiving. I’ve grown to love the irony. Her death was met with kindness to my dad from all corners, and that kindness came often in the form of food. His freezer was filled for almost year with casseroles, lasagna, chicken parmesan, chili, and creamy soups. Not a soul worried for him about carbohydrates, salt or sugar intake. Not one person prepared white fish for him in the year following my mother’s passing. Food, high calorie, delicious food, was their show of love.
This musing of mine is brought on as I watch Uncle Bobby’s appetite dwindle to nothing. His most notable activity each day is to go to breakfast and dinner at the assisted living home. He gave up lunch months ago, and sustains himself midday with Oreo’s and Fig Newtowns. He will occasionally slip in a wedge of apple in a nod to health. I puzzle at the menu at “Maplewood”, as it reflects our generations obsession with healthy eating. The menu is fancy and announces “farm to table freshness”. It’s impressive in its breadth and attention to detail, but Uncle Bobby and his dining companions often comically remark on the offerings.
“What’s this, Fra Diavolo with roasted red peppers?”
“”Sea Bass? Where’s the fish and chips?”
“Since when did brussel sprouts become popular?”
I get the marketing of assisted living. I understand that the elegant presentation in the dining room is not really for the residents, but rather the families who are trying to come to peace with the fact that the comfort of home is gone now for these elderly loved ones. So while I understand it, I wish I had the courage to march into that kitchen and meet the chef face to face and announce, “Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, gravy, hotdogs with mustard and relish, spaghetti and meatballs. That’s what they want!”
But like Dicken’s orphans, they will push their fancified gruel around the plate, and fill their imaginations with the glorious food they loved throughout their lives. If they are like Uncle Bobby, they will wish for the midday to come so they can inhale some Oreo’s or Fig Newtowns, or his other guilty pleasure: buttery Ritz Crackers. Food, Glorious Food, Indeed!