For nearly everyone, food is the curative elixir we reach for to comfort our souls, whether we are stressed, sick, sad or depressed and to accentuate our joys and celebrations.
The idea of food as comfort to one’s problems and woes is as old as time itself. There is even reference to it in the bible, depending on which version you ascribe to, the verse “Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love” (Song of Solomon, Book 2, Verse 5, King James edition) is a cry for food to comfort a bride flushed with intense feelings of passion. Today, instead of dried raisin cakes and apples, the modern cure for a broken heart is a pint of ice cream preferably eaten directly out of the carton. Do you have a cold? Try some chicken soup. Do you want to clear your sinuses? Eat something spicy. Feeling blue? Have some chocolate. In Jewish culture, friends bring the grieving family food as they sit shiva for their deceased. The first meal for the grieving family is referred to as a seudat havara’ah, which literally translates to “meal of comfort” and is provided by family friends. Comfort food is whatever we reach for in our time of need and it is one way we self-care and express care for others.
In writing about food and family, I often connect events and emotions with food, but not in an unhealthy way. I do not eat my emotions, so to speak. Instead my love of food and cooking makes me aware for food’s presence the way another person may recall the weather or a smell during a seminal event. I take note of food, recalling specific dishes served years afterwards.
Next week marks the seventh anniversary of my daughter Eva’s demise. A surprise pregnancy at 40, I delivered her stillborn less than two months before her due date. It was devastating and senseless all at once. Before I go on I will tell you that in the years since that period in my life, I have come to terms with my loss and have accepted that she was never meant to be among the living. My brief time with Eva was meant to prepare me for something else. Without her, I would not have Ilsa and I am so grateful for both the daughter I am raising, and the one that prepared me to be an older mother. I am not here to grieve a loss, but to acknowledge the healing love I received through food during one of saddest moments in my life.
Even though it was my family that was going through the loss of a child, I can only imagine the reaction people had when they learned of the news of our misfortune. I remember telling a handful of people myself before I decided that I couldn’t handle their reactions or the wave of emotions it provoked in me as I recounted my loss. When you lose a loved one whom you’ve shared a life with or an intense connection, people offer condolences by way of shared memories or point to a legacy that is the deceased’s imprint on this earth. When you lose a child who never had the chance to take her first breath, let alone leave a tangible imprint behind, it’s a lot harder to find words of comfort. I think that is why my colleagues at work decided to provide meals for me and my family as I recovered from the C-section and the loss of Eva.
When my friend and colleague Lora first told me of the plan to provide weekly meals and a bottle of wine on Wednesdays for the following eight weeks, I was moved and humbled by the gesture, but I was amused that my colleagues had committed to keeping me flushed in wine during my recovery. I quipped to Lora, “Wine? Are you all expecting me to drink my sorrows away?” Lora laughed and simply said that people knew that I enjoyed good wine.
So the meals started coming on Wednesdays when Lora would deliver them. During those eight weeks I had lasagna with smoked turkey kielbasa prepared by my supervisor; the most amazing mac ‘n’ cheese and fried chicken prepared by my department’s vice president; coconut pie; a rotisserie chicken from Giant and an unusual but tasty, veggie casserole. On their own, they are perfectly wonderful. But add the dimension of recovering from a loss, than those dishes become an endearing expression of love and comfort. For as much as I love to cook, when I am sad or depressed, I simply don’t cook or eat for that matter. But I did make myself eat those meals in an expression of gratitude and to accelerate my physical recovery.
The evening after the C-section by which Eva was delivered, when I could finally stomach something to eat, I sent my husband out for dinner. My choice for that first meal was sushi. I find the *umami taste, a savory, brothy flavor, to be very comforting. Neither sweet nor bitter, umami has a very centering effect on me. Nineteen months later, when I brought home Ilsa from the hospital, I again choose sushi, this time in celebration of the new life I was bringing home. From pain to joy, sushi, casseroles and wine—and the people who took the time to prepare it all—I will forever be grateful for their comfort.
*For those who are not in the know, umami is one of the five basic tastes along with sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness.