SOUL FOOD: THE SMELLS OF GRIEF
Peter was a fresser, a Yiddish term for someone who loves to eat! Our lives joyously revolved around food. In the morning Peter would say, “what’s for dinner?” If it was fish, the corners of his mouth would instantly go south. If it was steak, his face would erupt into a huge grin. Once Peter knew he was having something he liked for dinner, his whole day was better. I still see the smile on his face if I suggested we go to a steak house or his favorite LA restaurant, Chinois on Main.
Now that Peter has died, I have lost my appetite. I have lost the zest for soul food — food that brings us emotional connections. Part of my grief is losing that connection that we had over our joy of eating. My new normal seems indigestible in so many ways. I miss restaurant dining over a glass or two of wine as we ate, talked, and delighted in each others’ company. I miss sitting across from him at the kitchen table, watching him pile lumps of brown sugar on his oatmeal. I miss sitting at the counter at our local restaurant, John O’Groats, eating fried eggs, over easy, with extra crisp bacon as he ordered two glasses of fresh orange juice and a whole bunch of their famous biscuits. These memories are almost harder for me to conjure up than looking at Peter’s pictures. I know food is meant to sustain me, not just nutritionally, but spiritually. I have to figure out a way to eat better by myself, and allow Peter’s memories to bring a smile and a burp, not tears and a need for Pepcid!
Clinical psychologist Dr. Claudia Herbert, from Oxfordshire, England, says cooking can help in the process of grief once the shock of the death has worn off. “Food is a connective aspect in our lives and they would have probably shared many experiences that would have involved the preparation, shopping for or sharing of food and taste experiences — this can lead to memories which can be triggered in a positive or negative way. It may lead to sad or bitter reaction earlier in the bereavement process, but later on a reminder may connect them to the loving memories they shared. It can give them a sense of comfort and eating the food may bring them back to the good times they enjoyed.”
I know that food can be incredibly haunting. The smells and tastes evoke memories of dining and culinary adventures. I still can’t pass the smells of a doughnut shop without tearing up over Peter’s love of that puffy confection. But, maybe if I can cook more, I can work through my grief? I have to nurture myself. I have to prepare a proper dinner complete with wine and turn off all the news outlets!
Here is my favorite chicken recipe which I have created to inspire me to eat better and summon up images of Peter smiling at me while I dine (even though he hated capers!).
POLLO AGRODOLCE (SWEET & SOUR ITALIAN CHICKEN)
Agrodolce is a sweet and sour Italian sauce that is prevalent in Sicily and Southern Italy.
16 chicken thighs, with bones and skin
salt and freshly ground white pepper
2 tablespoons good quality olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 large ribs of celery, finely chopped
2 large carrots, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¾ cup dry white wine
¼ cup good quality white wine vinegar or rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 cups defatted chicken broth
1 bay leaf
½ cup golden raisins
¼ cup pine nuts
¼ cup capers
Garnish: Freshly chopped Italian parsley
1. Preheat an outdoor grill or indoor broiler to high. Lightly coat a roasting pan with olive oil nonstick cooking spray.
2. Place the chicken thighs in the pan, season with the salt and pepper, lightly coat with the olive oil spray, and grill or broil for 5 minutes, or until golden. Remove excess fat from pan, turn, season with the salt and pepper, lightly coat the chicken with spray, and continue to grill for an additional 4-5 minutes, or until golden on all sides. Remove the chicken from the pan to a plate and set aside and keep warm. (If you have a fat separator, you can put any extra juices in the pitcher and pour off all the good juices while discarding excess fat).
3. In a large non-stick Dutch oven or deep saucepan, heat the olive oil and sauté the onions, celery, and carrots over medium heat for 10 minutes, or until just softened, stirring often. Add the garlic and stir for 30 seconds to combine.
4. Add the flour and stir over medium heat until smooth.
5. Increase the heat to high and add the wine, vinegar, and sugar and allow the mixture to boil for a minute or two until almost evaporated. Add the broth and the bay leaf and then the reserved chicken pieces. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer slowly for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
6. Add the remaining ingredients, stir well, bring to a boil, and simmer slowly for an additional 5 minutes.
7. Serve the chicken hot over spaetzle, couscous, or rice garnished with the chopped parsley.
Preparation in Advance:
• This dish is best prepared a day in advance and chilled. The next day, the fat can easily be removed.