spare me words like “homegoing,” “graduation,” or “life celebration”

If you have been reading Eat With Joy for a while you’ll know of my fondness for two very old friends of mine, whom I’ve referred to here as Mr. and Mrs. S.

That’s them on their wedding day in 1949–after Edie (Mrs. S.) had served as an Army nurse on a psychiatric unit and after Jack (Mr. S.) had spent nearly four years in military hospitals following a serious injury sustained to his leg on Iwo Jima.

{They were married in the Episcopal church, a three minute walk from my home, and I was always amused when Jack got to the part in the story of their wedding where the rector asked them to kneel. His leg had fused into one long bone–no knee–after his injury, and so he couldn’t kneel. “Can’t kneel,” he said. So they just skipped that bit.}

There is so much I could say about these people. About their kindness and courage and virtue. About how my parents loved them as if they were their own parents; about how they were grandparents to me from the time I was 7. About how my tiny son, undaunted by Jack’s blindness and skin afflictions, climbed up to plant a big kiss on his lips during one of our Saturday breakfasts (which later turned into Saturday dinners.)

About how two weeks from now will mark 92 years since his birth.

And about how, on Friday, he died in the nursing home, holding Edie’s hand.

This kind of death–when a person is very old, when they’ve been very sick and in great pain, when they share our faith and belief in the resurrection of the dead–this kind of death is sometimes shrugged off:

“At least they’re not suffering.”

“He had a good, long life.”

“We will see him again.”

Even when such observations express some truth, they irk me for the following reasons:

1. Death is an enemy, not a friend

Don’t know about you, but I’ve attended too many Christian funerals that leapfrogged over the horror of death to get to the promise of the resurrection. (“I’m happy for brother so and so that he’s with Jesus!”)

Have you noticed that in these contexts, old, sturdy, and thoroughly appropriate words like “death” and “funeral” are conveniently left out in favor of “passed away,” “went to be with the Lord,” “homegoing,” and (my most-hated) “graduation”?

Sorry, but even a tradition that holds fast to the hope of the resurrection shouldn’t shy away from calling death what it is–what the Bible calls it, for goodness’ sake–an enemy, an evil, a wicked and grievous thing.

2. Grieving a death thoroughly is not un-Christian

I have never had the chance to be at a funeral that was primarily attended by people of African-American heritage, but I’m told that keeningcrying out and wailing–is an important part of the funeral in this tradition, and this sounds good to me. It isn’t “grieving without hope.” It isn’t denying the resurrection. It’s a practice that gives full outward expression to grief–“real emotions in real time,” as my dad puts it–and that’s a healthy thing. Where on earth did we get the notion that the ‘Christian’ thing to do is put on a happy face for funerals (excuse me, “homegoings”) and pretend like it’s no big deal, ’cause we’ll catch up with ‘ol Jack at the End of All Things? 

3. Losing people you love hurts.

Doesn’t matter if they were old, or sick, or in pain; if the death was peaceful, painless, expected. Death ends our ability to commune with our beloved ones, and trusting in the promise of Resurrection doesn’t erase that loss–they have still gone, as Shakespeare wrote, to that “undiscovered country from whose bourn [border] no traveler returns.”

Plus, love doesn’t listen to stupid reasons.

I keep thinking of this interview I heard with Jean Vanier, who helped found the L’Arche communities. He tells of a woman who was severely disabled–blind, unable to speak, incontinent, needing to be fed, dressed, everything. And she had been a part of their community for 30 years and was in her 70s. One day a woman visited the house and asked:

” ‘Oh, what is the point of keeping Françoise alive?’ And the leader of the little house said, ‘But madam, I love her.‘ “

And I loved Jack. So I will mourn, not without hope, but still I will mourn.

What about you? What place does mourning and grief have in your experiences of faith and life–and death?

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
change and decay in all around I see;
O thou who changest not, abide with me.

Let Him Eat Steak

or, palliative feeding. Wherein I argue with a 91 year old.

So, I’m still bringing those Saturday night dinners to Mr. and Mrs. S. And this Saturday night, we had a little argument, Mr. S. and me.

I told him I’m going to bring a steak every Saturday night.

He said I didn’t need to do that.

I said,

I know that, and what kind of steak sauce do you like?

He said,

A1. 

I said,

Okay, I’m bringing A1 next week.

He said,

No, it will make a mess.

I said,

I’m just going to buy a bottle and bring it with me.

And he said,

Now you’re making this complicated. Don’t do that! Don’t make a fuss! I take what I get.

{note: and he means it; he does, which is part of why he’s part of the Greatest Generation, I guess.}

And I said,

Fine! I’ll never bring you steak sauce, ever, ok?

And he said,

Good!

When I was little I thought the bottle said “Al” steak sauce–like the man’s name Al, nickname for Albert or Alfred. My parents thought this was hilarious; I still think see the name “Al” if I squint. Plus, “Al” steak sauce sounds friendlier.

As I’ve written about before (Grace and a Steak Dinner) Mr. S’s favorite food is steak. It’s the only thing that he seems really excited about eating. And since his appetite’s so poor, that’s important. So I think he’s going to get a steak every Saturday night for the rest of his life, if I can possibly make that happen.

Maybe it sounds really macabre, but as with last meals, feeding Mr. and Mrs. S is less about health and more about love and grace and comfort–palliative feeding.

palliative |ˈpalēˌātiv; ˈpalēətiv|
adjective
(of a treatment or medicine) relieving pain or alleviating a problem without dealing with the underlying cause

I can’t fix the cancer and the infections and the paralysis and the pain from all those things plus the leftover WW2 injury that earned Mr. the purple heart. I can’t erase the fear, the anxiety, the loneliness, or the confusion. There’s so much that I can’t do.

But I can grill steaks.

And I can bring A1 sauce.

Which is what I plan to do.

In Which I’m a “Good Girl”

The Fannie Farmer Cookbook has a classic recipe for French pots de crème [say "po de khrehm"] a delicious, airy, not-too-sweet chocolate mousse. I made it for Mr. and Mrs. S a few weeks ago and again on Saturday as the finish to a meal of green beans and pasta with meat sauce.

Actually, despite what Fannie says, I think these are not true pots de crème–according to the Wikipedia article, pots de crème are baked in a water bath, like a custard. These are, I think, mousse au chocolat. Oh, well. Fannie was not necessarily known for her command of French cuisine.

Any Francophiles want to weigh in on this? Nora?

Whatever you call it, this stuff is good. Fair warning, though: they contain copious amounts of raw egg. I’m pretty comfortable eating raw stuff–provided that I know it has come from a clean environment–but I don’t feed it to my kids.

Which means more for me, hooray!

Oh, yes. And the “conscience” part. Mousse au Chocolat or pots de crème or whatever you call them typically call for melted chocolate. Yes, I could buy fair trade chocolate bars (see yesterday’s post) but I didn’t have any on hand. What I do have is some lovely fair trade organic Dutch-process cocoa, which we use for making chocolate birthday cakes and hot chocolate.

{here are some cocoa farmers in Uganda who are able to make a living wage selling their beans for a fair price.}

And it can be used to make mousse au chocolat, too!

Maybe not the classic recipe or technique, but it sure was good, especially with super-fresh farm eggs. Be sure your cocoa is Dutch-process–it makes a big difference; it’s milder and much, much smoother.

[Mrs. S. said: "This was delicious. You're a good girl."]

Well, shoot. Just when I think I’ve given to someone who can’t repay, she goes and does just that.

Here’s my recipe:

Melt together over low heat:

6 tablespoons butter

6 tablespoons fair-trade Dutch process cocoa powder

6 tablespoons sugar (fair trade!)

2 tablespoons water

Meanwhile, separate:

4 eggs

Beat the whites until stiff and glossy and set aside.

Beat the yolks until very thick and lemon-colored, and then beat in the cooled, melted chocolate mixture. Beat in:

1 teaspoon each of vanilla extract and rum or brandy

Gently, gently, gently fold in the whites. Spoon into small cups or glasses (about 1/2 cup in each). Chill, covered, for 12 hours.

Serves 4-6

Comfort the Afflicted

So my friend Mr. S–who is in his nineties–is in a great deal of pain. He has been in pain for most of his life, in fact, because he fought in the Pacific during WW2 and received a wound that has remained open, painful, and constantly infected ever since. But now he’s got some kind of affliction (cancer, maybe?) on his face and he is almost completely blind. When I saw him on Saturday night, he was in so much pain that he would pause, close his eyes, and be silent for a moment before continuing to speak.

this has very little to do with the post except that my son’s dinosaur/dragon drawings really do make the kitchen a happier place to cook and blog!

He’s never been a complainer. Not ever. Maybe that comes from being an old-fashioned Yankee; maybe from being part of the Greatest Generation; maybe that’s just who he is (and maybe some of each.) But lately, he has been more willing to admit that he is in pain. He has even mentioned some of his war experiences–something I’ve never known him to do. He feels very alone and forgotten. (Mrs. S is there, of course, but staying in a nursing home can still be pretty depressing and lonely)

Bringing dinner on Saturday nights, then, feels like much too little. It can’t take away the pain. In fact, he’s in such pain that he can’t manage to eat much anyway.

We keep going, of course. With food. Because even if he gets down just a few bites, it’s a few bites of something that tastes good and, hopefully, brings just a bit of comfort.

(I should add that Mrs. S has no problem enjoying her food. She eats quietly, deliberately, and heartily.)

This week, I was going to make a variation on the Tuna Noodle Casserole in the Fannie Farmer Cookbook (11th. ed.), substituting canned wild Alaskan salmon for the tuna. However, I forgot to put the salmon in, so it was simply Noodle Casserole. It was, if I may say so, quite good. But it wasn’t much like the recipe in the book. (I’ll share it soon. Spoiler: is topped with crushed potato chips, which you leave off at your peril.) Mrs. S. loved it. Mr. S. took only a few bites, but pronounced them ‘good.’

these are LOCAL potato chips! makes them healthier; I’m convinced of it. Oh! And another delightful monster drawing.
can’t believe I forgot the salmon. my mom wisely pointed out that having salmon in might’ve filled us up too much and cut into our appetite for chocolate mousse.

fresh mint and “french dressing” (a vinaigrette)

I wanted to start the meal with some kind of salad that would be seasonal and easy to eat, so I pulled a few beets from the ground, plucked some fresh mint and made a beet and mint salad with vinaigrette. (I don’t even like beets that much–except for beet cake, of course–but this was good, too.) To my surprise, Mr. S. ate almost all of his. Beets can be comfort food! Who knew?

beets are such a great color.

Of course, I had to make something chocolate for dessert because Mr. S. loves chocolate and because a creamy noodle casserole just calls for some kind of chocolate pudding as a finishing course. So we had a French chocolate mousse, made with the help of my beautiful new Kitchen Aid mixer that my mom got me for my birthday. Oh, yum. I made it with Dutch-process cocoa, sugar, butter, brandy, and eggs. (Mr. S. ate a good bit of this. Mrs. S., who is very quiet, gave a hearty “yum!” after her first bite and scraped the dish clean.)

I love this kind of cooking: it’s comfort food–soft, easy to swallow, creamy–from real ingredients. And when you’re cooking for old people and sick people, what can sometimes be comes a liability when cooking for others (for example, lots of cream and butter) is actually an advantage (calorically-dense foods are often just what sick folks with poor appetites need.) I love cooking for my old friends.

I’ve known some kids whose doctors prescribed that they drink this stuff straight. I have to use coffee as an excuse to drink it myself. #loveheavycream

I don’t kid myself that this food is going to work any miracles. Sometimes, for Mr. S., at least, hunger for food is obviously a distant second to hunger for company. This past week, I was pretty sure he would’ve preferred a dish of pain meds to the dinner I brought.

But maybe the comfort is not just in the food. Maybe it’s in the fact that with the food I bring hot, black coffee–his favorite–into a nursing home where the coffee is weak and tepid. Maybe it’s the way my mom insists on helping him cut his food and tells him that he’s not allowed to argue about it. Maybe it’s that we bring cloth placemats and real china and make a big fuss over them in a place which provides quality care but no extra touches.

Maybe we can’t eliminate pain in this broken, hurting world. Actually, I’m sure we can’t. But maybe we can offer each other comfort–the temporal comforts of hugs, puddings, hot drinks–that points to an even greater Comfort–the hope of One who shared our brokenness to the point of allowing himself to be broken, but rose again, securing our healing and wholeness and that of this whole broken world.

Grace and a Steak Dinner

Mr. S’s favorite food has always been steak. He’s a meat-and-potatoes kind of man. As in, pizza is, for him, “ethnic” food. His roots go down deep in New England-style cooking, and the rich influence of US immigration on American cuisine has done little to alter his palate.

He’s always been a great eater, Mr. S. And Mrs. S was, in her day, a great cook. After their retirement, they ate in restaurants a lot, because Mr. S wanted to give her a break from the endless multiple-course cooking that she did day in, day out for many decades.

When I was little, Mister and Misses (as we called them for short) used to have my family over for dinner, and, more commonly, would take us out for dinner. These dinners were, invariably, meat-and-potato affairs: steak and baked potato, hamburger platters, and the like. Mister always ate very slowly (“I don’t eat. I dine,” he would insist) but he ate quite a bit.

These days, though, Mister’s appetite isn’t very good. And although, these days, slabs of meat rarely feature in my cooking, I decided that I would suspend my own preferences and make an old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes dinner for Mister and Misses’ Saturday-night meal.

mushrooms dissolving in butter. um yum yum.

I consulted Fannie on the particulars, of course, and prepared, according to her wisdom, a broiled rib-eye with a mushroom cream sauce, roast potatoes, and green beans.

This here mushroom cream sauce? TOTALLY great on green beans.

And for dessert, a chocolate chiffon pie in a (gluten-free!) chocolate-coconut shell, all at Fannie’s direction.

what a mess! it actually turned into a good pie shell, though.

and the finished pie. yum! next time I want to make a mocha one.

(The first custard filling came out dreadfully. I washed it down the drain, and told Misses about it at dinner. “That happens sometimes, oh yes,” she said in her quiet, gracious way.)

curdled custard. gag me.

Mister still didn’t eat much, but he thanked me several times. “I don’t mean to belabor the point, but this is really special. The closest thing we get to steak here is a Salisbury steak that’s only 1/2″ thick.”

(Misses has never been much of a talker, but she cleaned her plates with relish.)

This meal got me thinking. On one hand, a meat-heavy diet is something I’ve got all kinds of concerns about. On the other, I see my friends, in their 90s, with very few comforts and pleasures in life. I might be happy with some vegetarian curry and brown rice–but a meal like that would do nothing for them. And so I can’t help but think that a steak dinner is the best I can do for them.

So I did it. And, oh, they may thank me, but honestly, for how glad I am to cook for them, and watch them enjoy some comfort food, I should be thanking them.

And maybe that joy is just a taste of the reward Jesus says we’ll get when we invite those who can’t repay to our banquet. (Or, you know, bring the banquet to them.) Maybe this meal is unsustainable on a global scale. Probably it is. (The veggies were from the garden, though.) Some people say old folks don’t even have sensitive taste buds any more. Maybe they don’t.

But maybe pouring expensive perfume on the feet of a man who’s about to die is an extravagant waste, too.

And then again, maybe not.