Everyone eats food. It’s a source of comfort, love, nourishment – and at times, pain, bribery, control, and reward. Many of us remember and associate the food we ate, where we ate it, and with whom with good – and bad – events.
People can love food but be traumatized by it, too. Food can be used as control in prisoner, famine, or hostage conditions. People with eating challenges become so traumatized by food that it is seen as the enemy rather than nourishment. Soldiers and captives associate certain foods with the enemy and often will never eat that food again.
Food has always played a major role in my large Greek/Russian restaurant family. We have big get-togethers and a whole lot of food. After many of us traveled, certain beloved food and wine from other cultures became incorporated into our family menus.
Recently – and sadly — food played a front and center role for my family acting as a rubber band, band-aid, and a source of comfort and nourishment.
My Mother-in-law, Arla, died suddenly last week. She was two weeks shy of her 87th birthday, seemingly in good health, active, and involved. Eating out was her passion and a defining part of her life. Fittingly, the last time I saw her, four days before her death, she had had lunch at Nobu with her friends and had invited her grand-daughter-in-law and her great-grandson, Jack, who is lovingly named after her husband. She followed this by dinner on the same day with my husband and me at a well-known Upper West Side restaurant. When we arrived, she was waiting for us at the bar and during dinner, as she usually did, she critiqued the menu, food, décor – and the wine.
Exactly one week later, food and drink played a major role the night before her memorial service. Immediate family, having arrived by car, plane, and train gathered at a restaurant (which she would have approved of) to eat, drink, and reminisce. It was a much needed opportunity for communal sharing – with animated commentary on the choice of wine – none of which my Mother-in-law would have drunk having preferred dry, cold white wine that made your mouth pucker.
After the memorial service there was an open house at my apartment. Fittingly, food and drink provided a focus, nourishment, and conversation starter. Even the caterer – who had become Arla’s friend, generously made a gift of the food in her honor. Prompted by salami, cheese, fruit, cookies, coffee, wine, soda, and sparkling water, everyone seemed to have a story to tell that related to special food – or drinks – or restaurants – or trips — and Arla.
Our family always joked that she kept cans of soda in her apartment for years and years that ended up being off-tasting and flat. I’ll be darned if the first bottle of Coke, opened by her nephew and purchased two days before, wasn’t flat. Was she smiling?
Her brother suggested we serve only American red wine knowing she wouldn’t have drunk it – didn’t this make him feel better and lighten the mood?
Her good friend, an actress, went straight to the coffee pot. Even though it was close to 1PM she needed her morning coffee – she’s usually just getting up at that hour. Wouldn’t Arla, who was always up at the crack of dawn, coffee in hand, have smiled?
People ate, people drank, and people told stories. Little kids and babies ate. The dog scarfed up crumbs. My oldest son shared some jellybeans with his brothers and cousins that he took from his grandmother’s ever present and always full jellybean bowl on the day she died. “Fresh ones,” he said, “she must have just filled it up.”
The communal spirit – initiated by the unexpected passing of a mother, sister, mother-in-law, grandmother, great-grandmother, aunt, sister-in-law, and dear friend – was aided and supported through the comfort and familiarity of food and drink.
On the way to my apartment after the service I was in a cab with one of my sons and Arla’s brother. As the cab alternately rocketed and crawled down Ninth Avenue we passed one of my favorite food stores in Manhattan – Poseidon Bakery. Their spanakopites (spinach pies) and tiropites (cheese pies) have graced many a family event. I commented on this is we passed the store. “Maybe we should stop,” I said, mostly in jest. My son smiled and her brother Steve cackled and turned with a certain look in his eye. Arla would have loved it.