Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Loss, Grief and What Comes Next

Since Sunday, I have eaten two milkshakes, chocolate peanut butter ice cream, a whole pizza, donut holes, two huge scoops of cheesy artichoke dip, and a lot of coffee, all on top of my normal three meals a day. That much is unusual, even for a pregnant me. I must be trying to eat the grief away.

Early Sunday morning, my co-worker died quite suddenly of complications from a cancer that she did not know she had until three days prior. Death is certainly never easy for those of us left behind, but deaths such as this leave me feeling scared and helpless. How does a 28-year-old woman leave us so quickly, with little warning? Should we be angry, or grateful that she left this world with little trauma? How do we begin to process so tragic a loss?

Grief strikes us all so differently, and in the midst of our own grief, we are surrounded by everyone else's. Navigating other people's sadness is difficult and exhausting; we want to do the right things and say the right things, but do not always know what those are. While we battle our own sorrow, our internal monologue is rapid-firing insecurities: what do I say? what do I bring? do I leave them alone or offer condolences? is it okay to laugh, or is it too soon?

Often, we compensate for these insecurities with food. We eat, just for something to do. We make food, because the bereaved need to eat. We gather to snack and drink, to draw comfort from a crowd. We stop eating, because it seems unimportant. We toast the memory of our departed, and try not to weep because it is their memory and not their presence that is left to us.

Eating also tethers us to our own existence, proof that we are still here even though our loved one is not. Alongside the constant eating of the last few days, I have also found myself hugging my children even more than usual, watching my husband sleep, and spending more time with my other co-workers to assure myself that they are still here. I think grief amplifies our human tendencies, if only because we need to subconsciously feel connected to this world that is now less one dear person.

The next few days promise to be a cyclone of more eating, a tearful farewell, and a transition from the freshest of griefs to a more subtle sadness, as the shock wears off and life pushes us to move on. I am comforted, though, that our workplace is an institution of history. We value the past and the stories of those who have come and gone. It is our instinct, then, to keep people's memories alive. Despite our grief, despite the nonsensical loss, we will surely do our best to honor the short life of our co-worker and friend and ensure that her history is not lost.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Budget-Food, Defended

The other day I was at the salon for a Mommy Time-Out, partly because it was overdue and mostly because I had a Groupon. As I waited for my appointment, I caught the conversation between the two women next to me, and it set me a bit on edge.

One of the women mentioned a commercial she had seen where the voiceover suggested a dinner of Campbell's soup poured over rice. "Can you believe it?" she said to her friend. "I mean, these people think they're cooking but they're really not. Can you imagine serving that to your children?"

It made me wonder if she realized that "these people" could actually be the person sitting next to her; in this case: me. I also wondered if she had ever been poor, or even a little strapped for cash. Because the reason that people, the poor misguided non-chefs that they are, serve that to their children is that it costs about $2.50.

I serve food like that to my kids sometimes, not because I cannot cook or because that is all they will eat or because I do not like lovely things like risotto and shepherd's pie or because I have no concept of the amount of sodium in a can of soup. I serve it because we are on a strict food budget, and also, soup mixed with rice or noodles takes about five minutes to make.

I think a lot of us have a pretty good idea of what it is like to eat cheaply from necessity. When Chef Matt was little, his grandma would serve him and his cousins Creamettes with ketchup, and they loved it. When my uncle was laid off, my aunt was feeding her family of four on three dollars a day. When I was broke and living alone in Maryland, I would sometimes eat tortillas with butter for dinner.

Perhaps the lady at the salon had never needed to eat "poor food." Maybe she never had to scheme how to get vegetables and grains and proteins into her kids for a buck or two. Or maybe she could not remember post-college years when one-dollar party pizzas were a daily staple. Lack of first-hand experience sometimes leads us to say things.

It was the assumption that people who are pouring soup over rice are ignorant that bothered me. We cannot assume to understand why everyone makes the food choices that they do, or that people who mix two ingredients for dinner cannot otherwise cook. If we assume anything, it should be that a lot of people are doing the best they can. Sure, some people cannot cook or will not cook or are okay with cooking by means of opening soup cans. But that does not entitle them to disdain.

The frustrating irony for me is that we love to cook and love to feed our kids things like Brussels sprouts, and one of us is a professional whose heart beats first for his family and second for beautiful foods. But we, like so many other people, do what we have to do, and sometimes that means we feed our kids soup and rice.

That lady maybe went home and continued to think that an uninformed public believes they are suddenly Mario Batali the minute they whip out a can opener. To which I say: Whatever. I went home and made tortilla pizzas with spaghetti sauce and shredded cheese. My kids ate it all up, and it cost me about $2.50.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Be My Valentine on the Other 364, Too

I could do without Valentine's Day. It creates a lot of expectation, for both single and attached people, and makes love seem a little generic. If I were to shelve the cynicism and seek out the "reason for the season," I think I would find that it is certainly about love, but about expressing love in a particular, enormous way.

Chef Matt has to work a long day tomorrow to feed the 150 reservations coming into his restaurant to celebrate love. What is so ironic to me is that his loves -- me and the kids -- stay home and eat macaroni and cheese while he fans the flames of other loves with some amazing surf 'n turf tasting menu. And I know for a fact that there will not be any heart-shaped boxes of chocolates on my nightstand to make up for it.

That is the way I like it. Each year, the holiday comes and goes at our house with little to no fanfare. Maybe we are unusual in that sense, but after nine years together, I find that romance is best served on our own terms and without needing the nudge during the most unforgiving month of the year.

Matt once said that not every day is Valentine's Day at our house, which is absolutely true (case in point: a Kitchen Widow nervous breakdown last weekend or the cyclone of early-morning chaos that is Matt's Friday). We have our own relationship flaws. But every day has a piece of the spirit of Valentine's Day -- he sends me thoughtful text messages, and I leave him the leftovers he likes -- and because of that, we do not celebrate on February 14.

Instead, the day I celebrate another trip around the sun, which also falls this week, has much more meaning to us than the sonnets and flowers and candy hearts. Seven years ago on my birthday, he asked me to marry him. He could have asked on Valentine's Day, in a public place or some romantic spot, but instead it was just me and him, a card, and a ring in my apartment, late at night when his shift was over. And that has defined love for us for all our married life: just me and him, nothing fancy about it, fitting in time together whenever we can.

It cannot be a bad thing to celebrate on Valentine's Day. By all means, go in to my husband's restaurant and have your romantic dinner there. Tell someone you love them, especially if you have not in a while. But then pretend that every other day of the year is also Valentine's Day. If we are grateful for every minute we have together, and allow our gestures to be commonplace, I think we inch closer to what has become the one part of the holiday that rings true for me: Love Big, or Go Home.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Stealthy Little Late-Night Food Stealers

I was sitting in the basement this evening, watching TV and blogging after a rather normal-level harrying day with the kids, and I heard the telltale pounding of a child out of bed. I had already been upstairs twice to deposit him back in his bed, and two flights of stairs twice in 15 minutes was already too much for my unwieldy pregnant self.

So I ignored him. I figured that he would find a book or get tired or come downstairs. Sometimes a mommy just needs to watch "The Shawshank Redemption" and let the little monsters figure out when they are tired for themselves.

But this was perhaps a time when I should have hauled myself up off the couch a little earlier. He had been tromping around upstairs for about 20 minutes and, eternally frustrated that they never seem to be as exhausted as I am, I stormed upstairs to wrestle him back to bed.

As I passed the kitchen sink, I noticed crumpled papers that had not been there before. Upon closer inspection, and investigation in the fridge, I discovered four American cheese wrappers that had been clearly licked clean. These were not cheeses that were cleanly unwrapped; someone had gnawed the cheese out of the plastic.

And there he was, peeking around the corner, totally oblivious to his incriminating trail of evidence. I asked him if he had eaten any cheese, and he counted off on his fingers: "I eat one, two, three, four cheese." An honest thief, at least.

This is not the first instance of sneaky kids stealing food. The other day, he had crept downstairs in the middle of the night and then snuck into bed with us afterward. It was not until the morning light hit that I saw the smear of chocolate on his lower lip and chin. The fridge revealed two chocolate desserts pockmarked with little finger holes.

His sister is equally guilty. We rarely catch her in the act, but she has not quite yet learned to hide the shiny Hershey's kisses wrappers at the bottom of the bathroom garbage.

It makes me wonder a couple of things. Am I not feeding them enough? Am I raising devious little crooks? Should I be locking up anything that is easily unwrapped?

Or perhaps I should take note from an earlier moment of child-thievery. A few months ago, I caught our son digging in the fridge and chased him away, but did not see that he had something in his hand. Thirty seconds later, he came running back in the kitchen, howling as he frantically spit out chunks of blue cheese.

That is the lesson, then. Populate our refrigerator with nothing but smelly cheeses and obscure vegetables, and hide all the Hershey kisses Prohibition-style, in hollow books and under false floorboards.

And maybe sedate them before they go to bed.