Food and Grieving

As those of you who subscribe to our newsletter know, I lost my grandmother at the beginning of the month. She was a great inspiration to me both as a cook and as a woman, and I’ve had a very hard time of grieving. While her death wasn’t a surprise, it was still something that I just wasn’t ready for. She’s been such an important part of my life, that I just couldn’t imagine her not always being there.

The death of a family member is always hard. The rituals of closure and the tedious details of closing out a life that isn’t your own are both a comfort and the hardest thing you will ever do. In helping sort through her things, I learned things about her that I never knew and things that I had forgotten about. She wrote notes on any piece of paper that she had at hand. She kept all of her financial papers sorted and organized. She had a drawer of greeting cards available for any occasion. She never threw away an empty jar. She never stopped liking beautiful lingerie.

She was an unconventional woman in life and in death. She didn’t want a funeral service or visitation. While not having that closure was hard on her family, her wishes were followed. Instead of all of that, we hosted a memorial service for her in the apartment building where she lived to make it easier for her friends to come together to say farewell to her. We decided that we should offer snacks and encourage people to talk about her and remember happy times with her, so I volunteered to prepare the food. Luckily, Paul loves me and helps me keep my sanity, because there’s no way it would have gone smoothly without all of his help.

As I decided what to serve, I thought a lot about her and about the things she liked to serve people, about things that would make her happy to eat. Since she couldn’t eat chicken, I decided right away that I wouldn’t serve anything with chicken in it, but that left a world of things that I could serve. Paul helped me, and I finally decided on a menu: cheese straws, pork rillettes with pickled vegetables, pimento cheese with toast points, key lime cookies, and cheesecake squares. A little bit of an ambitious menu, but all things that she would have loved.

The rillettes were started first since they needed to age before serving. As we cut up all of the pork, Paul and I talked about her, about how much she would have liked to taste this, how much she would have enjoyed serving it to her friends. As the week progressed and we worked through the other dishes, I felt more and more like she was with me, that she would be happy with this one thing that I could do well for her.

Each recipe brought back memories. The cheese straws reminded me of the days when I was small and wouldn’t eat much more than cheese. She always humored me and would bring home special cheeses for me to try. I still have an abiding love affair with cheese that started with one of the port wine cheese balls she bought at Christmastime. She loved pimento cheese, even though she didn’t make it herself. I wouldn’t touch it when I was little even if it was a cheese food. The pickled vegetables were store bought, but they still reminded me of being in her kitchen when I was little, watching her can pickles. One of the cheesecake squares that I made were based on orange marmalade, a flavor that she taught me to love. And then there were the key lime cookies. She was famous for her key lime pie, and while I couldn’t serve that, I could make cookies that brought that flavor back.

They were happy memories, and when the service was done, I realized that I had said my farewell to her through those dishes. I had made peace with her being gone. I think that I’ll always associate those foods with her, but I won’t be tearing up over a pimento cheese sandwich. No, I’ll smile because my thoughts won’t be of the grief of loss, but of the joy of memory.

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