First, there were the casseroles: strange combinations of chicken, canned chilies and potato chips, or green beans, cream of mushroom soup and fried potato sticks. Then there were the Jell-O salads, shaken out of greased Bundt pans and shimmering on cut-glass plates; some salads were clear and some creamy, some with celery or carrots and others with canned pineapple or fruit cocktail. A percolator chirped on the sideboard, brewing church-hall-style coffee, watery and bitter. Coca-Cola, ginger ale, Sprite and tonic water sat on the kitchen table, their condensation rings soaking the tablecloth.
We had no air conditioning, and it was early July. Heat radiated from the walls and from bodies crowded into a house that now seems so small. I was 4 years old and underfoot, dodging the calves and knees of adults towering over me—loud, balding or white-haired men and their wives, coiffed hair stiff even in the wet air. Glass ashtrays, the kind you could kill someone with in a black-and-white film, weighed down tables. My grandfather had just died.
That night, Pyrex dishes were stacked in the sink; others were laid to dry on countertops and tables. My mother cleaned each one slowly in scalding hot water. We had a dishwasher, but she did each one by hand, methodically scrubbing each spot of burned cheese or the odd potato straw hardened against the side of the dish. People said to return the dishes whenever—and, really, to whomever because they all looked the same. In the following weeks, the freezer produced a never-ending parade of lasagnas and chili-chicken bakes. The casseroles were simple, filling meals. They had only to be thawed and put in the oven. Looking back, I’m not sure what we would have eaten without those gifts.
The phone rang incessantly—it never rang so much when my grandfather was alive. I could decipher what callers said by my mother’s and grandmother’s mumbled, concise responses: We’re OK. It’s hard. No, you don’t need to do anything. They wandered the house like ghosts, in shock. My mother scrubbed the floors on her hands and knees weekly, even if they were not dirty. I was put to work dusting. I don’t remember what my grandmother did. For months, my family ate a thawed, creamy hot mix of something. These became the foods that defined my childhood, as if the post-funeral weeks never ended.
Preheat oven. Wash and dry vegetables. Arrange measuring cups, prep bowls, and cutting board. Sharpen knife.
As I got older, I came to realize that food did not come out of frozen boxes and aluminum cans. Sometimes in the summer, my grandmother would take me to the local farmer’s market. I argued with her that the blueberries there tasted better than the ones at the grocery store and so were worth the much higher price—when I was 12 years old. Once in a while, she gave in. In my mid-teens, I read the “The Joy of Cooking,” which had been hiding in the basement, unused, for 20 years. I was given a gift card to Borders; when I came home with “The Silver Palate Cookbook,” my grandmother shook her head. I ogled the produce section at Whole Foods the same way some of my classmates looked at unattainable football players. At times, I annexed the kitchen to sauté spinach with raisins and pine nuts, or roast chicken with onions, lemons and rosemary. But these foods were not my family’s foods, and my mother and grandmother controlled the menus. One day, I would have my own kitchen, I told myself, and I would make and eat whatever I wanted.
I began to cook those resolutions in my early 20s. I bought artisanal balsamic vinegar and prosciutto—not to mention a non-stick madeleine pan and a Dutch oven—with money I did not have. I made food for others, but rarely did others make food for me. I didn’t mind. I controlled my tiny, dingy kitchens with small gas stoves, their blue flames the opposite of the red electric burners my family used.
Then I met John. We both worked at nonprofit organizations. We were underpaid, we found cheap happy hours and restaurants, and we did what we could with inexpensive groceries. He always saw it as a challenge: What can I do with half a chicken, mustard, spinach and Rice-A-Roni?He would run off to the kitchen, seasoning marinades with unusual combinations of spices, which I would try to identify as I sipped from teaspoons. He made bow-tie pasta with broccoli, red peppers and garlic, but there was a subtle saltiness I couldn’t place: anchovy paste. I was impressed. We sat at his small kitchen table in a tiny alcove he brightened with a hanging lamp and some flickering candles. The walls featured some of his photos and paintings. We opened a bottle of cheap Chianti and ended up getting some bits of cork in the bottle. Cliché? Maybe a little. But no one had ever cooked for me—not like this.
Paltry as our salaries were, we splurged on the occasional fancy dinner, having researched the best restaurants in D.C.—the ones where people whispered about the chef’s magic. At Komi, shortly after it opened, we dined on bacon and goat cheese-stuffed dates, drank a crisp and floral white wine, and tucked tart watermelon lollipops in our cheeks while leaving the restaurant, giddy, hand in hand. I remember sitting at the small table across from him, in the dimly lit restaurant, laughing over the stories you tell when you first start dating someone. John’s eyes reflected the tea light, and his big grin told me, Yes, this will work. We will be just fine.
Core yellow peppers, and chop into quarters. Position knife tip against cutting board, and curl fingers back. Slice longwise into half-inch strips. Turn. Slice again by half-inch intervals so as to end up with half-inch squares. Put into a small bowl.
We quit our jobs and began grad school; he moved to Baltimore, and I stayed in D.C. The fancy dinners stopped, but we still cooked, hunted farmer’s markets, found the best cheap restaurants—gems serving up gargantuan amounts of pasta or rosemary-garlic fries. That year, however, John noticed his neck tightening and his left arm going numb. Seven years earlier, he had been treated for a desmoid, a benign tumor in his chest. He began to worry.
That same tumor now had a sibling growing in John’s left brachial plexus, the place where the arm joins the shoulder and where nerves, muscles, ligaments, tendons and blood vessels connect. A desmoid tumor is rarely deadly by itself. Instead, a malignant pearl in an oyster, it pushes away nerves, muscle, anything in the way, cutting off blood supply to parts of the body. The surgeon John chose said removing the tumor would be better than attacking it with chemotherapy or radiation. Later, the surgeon explained there were two ways to operate: take out both the new and old growths or take out the new growth and leave the dead tumor. The first option involved amputating John’s arm. The second involved taking out a quarter of his left ribcage.
“I’m 27,” John said. “I want my fucking arm.”
Several months later, surgeons sawed through John’s ribs, from the back, and removed the new tumor. They placed a Gore-Tex flap under his shoulder blade to support the skin and muscles once the ribs were gone. The surgery itself was bad; the recovery was worse. The first time I saw him after the surgery, he was white and sweating, trembling. The morphine could not work fast enough as the anesthesia wore off, and he was crying. The floor fell away, and white noise filled my ears. A nurse caught me before I hit the floor. A few days later, I saw the surgeon’s work. Instead of John’s defined, smooth back and shoulders, industrial-grade staples held together a cut that ran from where his neck and shoulder joined to just underneath his armpit. John called it “the shark bite.”
Pick five large garlic cloves. Cut one clove in half. Slice finely. Turn. Mince. Put in prep bowl. Repeat.
Back home in D.C., I attempted to finish my thesis. I was also teaching for the first time. John had had his operation about a week before the semester started. The day of my first class, as I was compulsively reviewing my syllabus, my phone rang. It was John’s mother.
John has to go back into surgery. They think the Gore-Tex is infected.”
I prayed my students did not notice how badly my hands shook.
The surgeons thought they successfully removed the infection, and they kept John on antibiotics, but weeks later, the wound began to swell and leak. For the next few months, John was admitted and released over and over. The doctors could not diagnose the bacteria causing the infection or determine its exact location. Nor could they give me back my John. The man I knew and loved had not yet returned to his body. John was perpetually depressed and angry from the constant pain. I visited him on weekends, and we spent most days on his futon, watching terrible movies. Even drugged up on Oxycontin, John knew how bad the movies were. Still, we watched. We would take short walks around the neighborhood, get some groceries, but he tired so quickly we would have to go home.
Then something would happen, and back to hospital we would go. John was wasting away, and no one could do anything. I sat in waiting rooms, watching people scrub floors and wondered what I could do.
Some nights, I got out of classes at 10:30 p.m., drove to Baltimore, stayed with John and drove back to D.C. at 6:30 a.m. At night, the empty Baltimore-Washington Parkway lulled me to sleep more than once, and so I rolled down the windows in November for cold air and chain-smoked for the first time since college. I guzzled coffee that soured my stomach. The mornings were painfully bright and gridlocked; again, I fought to stay awake.
Cut an onion in half, and turn the flat edge on the cutting board. Place left hand on the root. Curl fingers back. Angle the chef’s knife so the tip is against the cutting board. Slice onion in quarter-inch half circles. Weep. Rinse the knife in cold water, and wipe the cutting board. Start again. When finished, put into a medium bowl.
At home, I lived off frozen pad thai. I used to love the peanut sauce over carrots, scallions, glassine noodles and tofu; thinking of it now, I gag. For variety, I’d make instant mac-and-cheese. When I recall the sweet but sour-milk smell of the powdered cheese, my stomach churns.
One night, I went to the grocery store to get fresh food, hoping it would make me feel better. I planned to make pasta with basil and tomatoes, which has four ingredients—pasta, basil, tomatoes and garlic—and takes about 12 minutes to make. I walked into the grocery store, and nausea kicked in. Fluorescent lights and the bleach on wet floors clashed with the piped-in Muzak: “Don’t worry. Be happy.” I was used to harsh lighting and the smell of bleach from the hospital; the music broke me. I walked out, wiping away tears and gulping air.
But my frozen, pre-made dinners were five-star restaurant entrees compared to what John was served in the hospital. I wish I had thought to ask former patients, nurses, even the surgeons or random visitors, “How’s the food at the hospital?” Seems like a trivial question. It’s not. That question is everything.
Shred mozzarella from a ball. Use the second-largest holes on the grater. Try not to grate knuckles; fail each time. Place cheese on a large plate.
Nurses would bring John a breakfast menu on a half-sheet of paper the night before, and lunch and dinner menus arrived in the morning. The menus came with a golf pencil so he could circle the options he wanted, though some were crossed out, unavailable on some wards or to patients with certain illnesses. John was on the thoracic ward; every other patient there had a lung problem, and most of them were frail old men with lung cancer.
The menus highlighted John’s status as an outsider. No exceptions were made when a particular item was crossed out for the thoracic ward. It was cruel; we could even see what the option was.
“Can’t I get the eggs and bacon? Please?” John begged the nurses.
“But I’m only on this ward because my surgeon is a thoracic surgeon! I have an infection!”
What would arrive was usually white or gray, served on a tan melamine plate placed on a beige school-cafeteria-style tray. Styrofoam-flavored dinner rolls. A dry, ropey chicken drumstick. Even the green gelatin didn’t taste properly green, but like saccharine and plastic. Everything came with a margarine packet. Sometimes, the nurses managed to score an extra tray of food for me. We tried not to complain.
We found other options after wandering the hospital corridors, at least when John could move around. We often ate Subway sandwiches. The store was actually in the hospital, so it was easy—and better than nothing, though the sweet, yeast-tinged-with-preservatives smell that hits you a few yards from any Subway began to nauseate me. Occasionally, we would order Chinese food. I doubted the hospital dietician would approve of the salt and sugar levels, so I snuck it in and hoped no one noticed the smell of broccoli with garlic sauce. I occasionally brought cookies or soup to the hospital—small amounts of easily transportable food. At first, I was afraid I would be reprimanded; when I finally realized that was the worst that could happen, I no longer hid the food.
There were a Popeye’s and a KFC nearby, within walking distance of the hospital, though navigating East Baltimore at 1 a.m., when I often got into town, seemed like a death wish. I did sneak in some fried chicken one day, with biscuits and gravy and mashed potatoes. That was a good day, but the questions lingered. How was this healthy? How was this what we had resorted to, after our days of cooking and eating well? We brushed these thoughts away: It was better than nothing.
That became our refrain: “I guess this is better than nothing.”
Focus. Slice one pound of whole cremini mushrooms into thirds. Re-slice any that are too thick. Put in a large bowl.
Back home, I shut down. Weeks’ worth of papers sat stacked on tables and floors. Notes on each stack declared what should be graded first: Those papers had been turned in before the others. I stared at walls for hours, and I stopped sleeping because I was afraid I would miss a phone call with bad news. I stopped returning friends’ calls because I was sick of talking about the situation. After I had not returned several messages, my friend Lauren surprised me by stopping by my apartment.
“I need to be alone,” I sputtered. “The place is a mess.”
She shut the door behind her anyway and set the large bag she had lugged in on the table. “That’s fine,” Lauren said, pushing me out of the way. “But you need to eat. I brought some lasagna.” By some, she meant several large containers. She made her way to my kitchen, popped one in the microwave and put the rest in the empty fridge.
I stood, staring at her, numb.
“You. Sit. Eat,” she said, the Italian mother in her coming out. She looked over her wire-rimmed glasses until I did as I was told. She sat with me, in total silence, as I ate half of the lasagna. It had been so long since I had eaten anything satisfying. The mozzarella, the peppers, the meat, the noodles: real food. Lauren is a great cook, but in truth, she could have served me tuna noodle casserole left over from my grandfather’s funeral over 20 years ago, and I would have scarfed it down and been grateful.
“How about I bring some quiche tomorrow, and you can take it to Baltimore? The lasagna will keep in the freezer. I bet John needs to put some weight on after all that hospital food,” she said.
I knew enough not to say no. Lauren’s father had died of cancer when she was a teenager. She did not remind me of this, nor did she need to. I was relieved that someone knew what to do.
When I arrived in Baltimore a few days later, John was at home. He smiled a little when he saw what I had brought. His eyes focused, opening wide.
Yes!” I said.
He pre-heated his rickety oven; I cracked the window since, even in winter, the oven would heat the entire apartment to 80 degrees. We set the same table from his old apartment with silverware and plates. The bacon, spinach and cheese quiche bubbled in the oven. I made a small salad. Despite appetites diminished from months of not eating, we devoured the meal.
Later, we called Lauren to thank her. At one point, she put aside her phone to chide her boyfriend for sneaking bits of bacon and cheese when she had been baking the quiche.
“See! John ate. You wanted to steal food from a man with cancer. What is wrong with you?”
And, for the first time since we could remember, John and I laughed.
Fill a large pot with salted water. Bring to a boil. Cook a few noodles at a time. Do not overcook. Carefully remove noodles one at a time, and let cool. When ready to use, refresh in ice water and blot dry.
The joy was short-lived. Back in the hospital, John was no longer a “good patient.” A steady diet of painkillers destroyed his appetite, but he knew his body needed food. Once, I left his room briefly. When I returned, he was mustering all of his strength into a bitter, hoarse shout.
“What are you trying to do, kill me?” John asked the woman who had delivered his plate of spinach.
The woman rolled her eyes as I came into the room. On the television, CNN was showing bags of spinach being pulled from the shelves during the E. coli scare that year.
I scolded him. “Shut up. It’s not her fault.”
“Whatever. They have easier ways to kill me! I’m supposed to be getting better, and they want me to eat this shit?”
After Lauren’s visit, I had begun making my own lasagna—something I once rarely made, now the only dish I made. Making it from scratch without pre-chopped vegetables and no-cook lasagna noodles could take up to three hours. Preparation involved chopping everything. A wandering mind could result in losing a finger. I was not yet sure if working with a knife was the safest thing I could do, but it was something. The steady clack-clack of the knife on the board drowned out the loop in my head: What next? What next?
Later that week, I brought up some of my lasagna and heated it in the nurses’ lounge. There was no laughter, but relief.
Pour oil into a large cast-iron skillet. Heat oil on medium-high. Sauté onions and garlic until translucent. Add peppers. Cook until soft. Add mushrooms until their liquid evaporates. Pour in two cans of puréed tomatoes. Simmer.
There was an instant coffee machine on the hospital’s first floor; it promised “gourmet flavored delights!” Craving sugar and caffeine, I pushed the button for some faux-vanilla concoction and waited. The cup dropped down, the whitish froth came through and then some watery-brown liquid followed it. I stared at the cup as if to see if the machine would hand it to me and then tell me everything would be OK. I wondered how everything had come to this: drinking truck-stop chemical imitations of coffee at wee hours of the morning. I closed my eyes, only to be startled when someone tapped me on the shoulder.
It was Pete, one of the nurses on John’s ward. I knew him from the past few visits; he was probably in his late 20s—same as us—and tall, stocky, a little goofy in his clogs and scrubs. I had not seen him this time, but everyone now knew John as the young guy with the freak surgery and me as the girlfriend who slept in the empty gurney stashed in his room.
I told him the room number.
“He’s not on my rotation, but I’ll get him a beer.” Pete had told us how the nurses kept four-ounce cans of beer around for the alcoholic patients so their bodies didn’t go into withdrawal post-surgery. During the NCAA tournament, Pete would sneak beers when his shift was done, one for him and one for John. They would watch the games on the small 21-inch television in John’s room.
“I’m baking cookies this weekend. I’ll bring some for you,” I said. I turned and began to walk away.
“Hey! Don’t forget your coffee!” Pete said. He handed it to me.
I nodded my head in lieu of thanks.
Nodding and talking about food were the only forms of communication I had—unless I was growling at med students who did hit-and-runs in the early hours, with surgeons explaining John’s case as if he were a chart in a slide show.
John was young, and I was young, and pale food, pale people and the smell of disinfectant surrounded us. We were supposed to be out with friends, drinking and eating our way through the glow of our late 20s. Now, John was sick, weak, in pain and trapped in a hospital at the mercy of experts who admitted they could not diagnose the infection consuming him. No one knew what was wrong. I was watching the whole scene unfold, at arm’s length, stupidly impotent. I was 4 again, navigating through people I didn’t know, hoping for someone to bring my family back.
Pat dry handfuls of basil and parsley. Chop as finely as possible. Stir into the sauce. Remove pot from the heat.
The real relief in making lasagna, even more than the peace derived from an hour of chopping, was that the dish was a cancer-fighting superhero. The lasagna—and I—would win. As I researched cancer-fighting foods, one Web site told me that garlic “appear[s] to increase the activity of immune cells that fight cancer and indirectly help break down cancer-causing substances. These substances may also help block carcinogens from entering cells and slow tumor development.” Garlic could fight tumors.I cheered. Then, I learned that mushrooms have a protein that can attack cancerous cells and possibly prevent them from multiplying. The lasagna had one pound of mushrooms. They would stop the growth, too. I read elsewhere that tomatoes have high levels of antioxidants, which may fight free radicals and cell damage. Cooking tomatoes strengthens these powers. The lasagna would fix everything.
Now, I look carefully at the hedging words: may, appear, suspect, indicate. The research explored what could prevent cancer, not cure it, but magical thinking told me I could save John.
Spoon and spread sauce into a greased 9-by-11 pan. Avoid any vegetables for this layer. Place noodles in one layer. Do not overlap. Spread sauce with vegetables over noodles. Sprinkle mozzarella evenly over the layer. Repeat three times. When finished, scatter remaining cheese on top. Bake until golden and bubbly. Remove from oven. Cool. Cross fingers. Serve.
Most of the time my small kitchen smelled like days-old trash and coffee grounds. Bare counters were lonely from lack of use. Yet, on the days I cooked—when I spent hours chopping and crying, blaming the tears on the onions and my torn-up knuckles—my apartment was no longer empty. The smell of softened onions and garlic mellowed in warmed olive oil filled the rooms. It smelled like a place where people were healthy and comforted. The sauce always overflowed since the cast-iron skillet was too small, but I believed the extra iron the sauce might absorb would strengthen John. Tomato sauce spattered the walls. My fingertips stung from garlic and tomato soaking into the knife nicks, and my raw, gnawed-on cuticles burned. But I could feel the pain, and that, too, quieted the panic.
Sometimes, I still like to believe the lasagna saved John. In fact, what saved him was the infectious diseases team that diagnosed his bone infection and found the right intravenous antibiotics. By then, he had already moved back to D.C., and we moved in together, making frequent trips back to the hospital in Baltimore until he received the correct antibiotics. The I.V. pole was a fixture in our apartment for a few months; once a day, John would hook himself up and sit as antibiotics dripped into his veins. Within a week of beginning treatment, John began to laugh again. He spent that summer in our garden, weeding and pruning. We had the best tomatoes, green beans and zucchini we have ever had. He made tomato, cucumber and dill salads, and zucchini stuffed with rice and sausage. On my nights to cook, I fixed meals with all the cancer- and infection-fighting ingredients I could find.
Even now, I keep a box of recipes in the back corner of a large desk drawer. This box will be the first thing I run to when my older family members get sick, as they inevitably will, and I learn what it is like to lose the people who raised me. This will be the first thing I run to if John gets sick again. A tiny voice tells me that next time, I will be ready. In times of crisis, the last thing my family does is cook, and so that will be my job. Now, I understand all of those casseroles that friends brought us after my grandfather’s death. They mixed cans of condensed soup with frozen green beans and placed shimmering Jell-O-filled molds in the fridge, the liquid sloshing in shaky hands, to assure themselves they could control their fears, that they could help others—and themselves—keep going.