Like most people, I’ve long associated great food with loving, delightful and joyous life moments.
But we don’t only cook and eat in good times. We experience hurt, illness, lack, loss and grief. And yet we must eat. Someone, at some point, must cook.
Across millennia and across the globe, in a duty of love shared by millions, women and men have prepared food for the suffering who could not do it for themselves. These cooks might not have been aware that their act of love was probably also an act of self-healing and self-preservation, that they were seeking to comfort themselves as much as they were trying to serve others. In this respect, I am not unique. I am just one woman who has come to accept cooking in its role as grief counselor.
This is part of my journey of cooking with tears.
One day in spring 2016, we established hospice for my 94-year-old dad at our Columbia, Md., home after doctors had given him only weeks to live. Two years earlier, Eugene Raphael Grangenois — a proud citizen, Democrat and living embodiment of the striver who achieved the American Dream — had come to live near my husband, Steve, and me because he was too weak from anemia to live in Florida. My sister Liz Johnson moved in to help, and my youngest daughter, Ariane, returned from Colorado. Home hospice prompted me to take family leave from my job as publisher of the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Through moist eyes, I began to cook.
Cooking with tears, I now realize, had become solace even before Dad’s final days. The three years before he came to live with us had ushered in a near-steady and staggering succession of personal and professional shocks — grim diagnoses, tragic losses, painful transitions, prolonged suffering and too many deaths — for others in my family, for lifelong friends and even for me.
When I had no words to offer, I had food. When the hour seemed darkest, my food illumined a weary face and coaxed a faint smile. When the intensity of my prayers seemed to require an equally forceful physical response from my otherwise exhausted body, I would labor for hours and escape through the meals I prepared.
Cooking satisfies millions of professional chefs and amateurs like me because it blends art and science. Best of all, during sad or uncertain times, cooking offers a planned sequence of steps, a finite list of ingredients and a reasonable degree of certainty about the outcome. Cooking has a beginning, a middle and a hoped-for delectable end. That makes it a perfect foil for inexplicable events, unimaginable suffering, interminable tests and doctors’ visits, feeble expert explanations and other mystifying occurrences that defy order, negotiation and control. The very act of cooking can serve as a recipe for hope.
Growing up, I had little interest in cooking. Both Dad and Mom were wonderful cooks, if distinctly different ones. But in the 1960s, the dishes most loved by my brother Harry and sisters Liz and Joan were little known outside the tightknit community of Haitians on Mom’s side of the family and Martinicans on Dad’s side who lived mostly in Brooklyn. Even though Dad was born in New York City, he was sent to Martinique at just 4 months old and didn’t return until age 25, a stranger in his native land who had to strain for the promise of America as if he were an immigrant.
At the extended family compound in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, aromatics were often in the air, giving off their tantalizing scent of garlic or onion. Any random Saturday or Sunday, as much as a baptism, a wedding or the arrival of an emigre from either home country was cause enough to break out steaming pots of food, rums, Calypso music and dominoes, and throw a party.
Haiti and Martinique share many dishes. Among my favorites were lambi, a simmered conch stew; pate, a delicate puff pastry stuffed with spicy ground meat; marinade, a tempura-like battered, fiery seafood appetizer; and oxtails and brown rice, made with red kidney beans.
Dad exuded cool, sophisticated refinement in all things, so I never questioned the origins of his elevated tastes, including food. Especially, since on major religious and national holidays, Dad lavished his highly honed culinary skills on us. New Year’s came to mean boudin, a handmade sausage made with fresh pig’s blood. Easter promised rabbit stew and leg of lamb. Fourth of July was a days-long affair of male bonding that included hunting, strong drink, no sleep and the roasting of deer and pigs on spits. Wives and children came later, with the rest of the provisions.
Christmas Eve was the best! Dad would work alone in our Queens Village eat-in kitchen preparing a sophisticated repast while the rest of us went to midnight Mass. We’d arrive home around 1:30 in the morning and be greeted by a platter of sizzling marinade, bitter watercress salad with black pepper and garlic vinaigrette, a sliced baguette, espresso served in demitasse cups, and little shot glasses of Cointreau. Stomachs appeased, we would open Christmas presents around 2:30, go to bed around 3:30 and sleep in.
Always diminutive and elegant, Dad loved good food and never relinquished his preferences or held back his uncensored critiques, even in his waning days.
Undeterred, I felt compelled to cook not only once a day but often three times. Working with my hands and firing my senses was comforting. Concocting recipes, rather than following someone else’s, allowed me greater creative and emotional expression — a healing outlet I needed.
In addition to all the other therapeutic benefits I found in cooking was simple validation. Hearing Dad murmur and nod his approval as he ate, somehow made up for all the normal father-daughter tensions we encountered over the years.
My dishes were not the foods of his homeland or my youth. And Dad’s sweet tooth was a beast that demanded to be fed. For appetizers, I created a caramelized shallot and bacon dip . For dinner, I baked salmon (a favorite) on top of oranges but paired with a sweet and savory pain perdu flavored with orange zest. I roasted Cornish hens and basted them with Calvados, pear and guava glaze.
There was both an urgency and a freedom to my cooking for Dad. I didn’t know which meal would be his last, and it could not be the one I messed up. There was a liberty to preparing and experimenting with rich and decadent foods now that dietary concerns meant nothing to him.
Then, there was this irony: Our most contentious battle when I was a young adult was my decision — over his strident insistence that I seek a husband — to attend New York University, study journalism and then, unmarried, move to Baltimore to begin a newsroom career at the Baltimore Sun. Decades later, now married and a mom, I was in the kitchen voluntarily crafting recipes and cooking, my career temporarily on hold. For Dad.
Dad made peace with his coming demise. He spent the rest of that May telling stories from his youth, and, on sunny days, enjoying Steve’s garden. Surrounded by his children and grandchildren, Dad’s final days were filled with music, rum, dominoes and bountiful pots of good food.
To continue honoring him, I am teaching myself to prepare pate, marinade, oxtails and brown rice. This time, I am cooking with tears of gratitude.
Mireille Grangenois is general manager of WEAA-FM, an NPR affiliate at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
4 to 6 servings (makes about 1 cup)
This salty, savory, cheesy appetizer should be served hot.
Serve with plain toasted baguette-style crackers or plain toast points.
MAKE AHEAD: For less mess and last-minute fuss, cook the bacon on a rack lined with parchment paper for 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the thickness, at 400 degrees. The caramelized shallots are even better when made a day in advance. To reheat this dip, do so under the broiler and pour off any rendered fat that gathers on the surface.
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot or 2 smaller shallots, cut into thin slices (enough to yield ½ packed cup)
4 slices bacon, cooked, drained and cut into small pieces (see headnote)
½ cup shaved or shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
½ cup mayonnaise
Position an oven rack 4 to 6 inches from the broiler element; preheat the broiler. Line a plate with paper towels.
Heat the butter and oil in a nonstick saute pan or skillet over medium heat. Stir in the shallot slices and reduce the heat to medium-low; cook for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they become golden brown, molten soft and shimmering. Transfer to the lined plate to drain and cool.
Combine the bacon pieces, cheese and mayonnaise in a mixing bowl. Add the cooled shallot and stir until well incorporated. Transfer to a small gratin or baking dish (8-ounce capacity); broil for 2 to 4 minutes, until bubbling and a thin crust forms on top.
Serve right away.
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