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On Grief and Cooking

Read a response to the Yahoo! grieving article here.

My relationship with food is inextricably linked to my mother. She's
the one who taught me to cook and she's the one who taught me to love
food. Pretty much every fond memory I have of her takes place in the
kitchen. I don't really know who taught her to cook, her mother I
guess, but I know that my mother's culinary skills were so far elevated
from those of her mother and sisters that I can't help but surmise that
she must have done a little self-teaching.

My mother was an
artist. She was out-spoken and loud and messy. And she was passionate
about food. She came of her cooking age in the wonderful
Julia Child era

of food. My mother moved to Manhattan after graduating from art school
and, as most NY artists did, she worked as a waitress. Eventually, she
forayed into a career as a food stylist calling her little freelance
business Sal's Eats and using her culinary talents to create
appetizing-looking food for
commercials and advertisements. I wish I could ask her now how this
happened, but I can't. I can only picture my mother, bending over a
jello-mold on a commercial set in a Mad Men-ish type setting, tucking a
strand of long blond hair behind her ear as she adjusts some parsley.

After
she died, cooking became a way for me to connect to her, to keep her in
my life. And just as I could never have imagined my life without a
mother, I can no longer imagine my life without a kitchen.

So,
I'm going to start a new feature here on Life in Chicago, one that I
hope you'll like. It involves food, and recipes, and my kitchen, and all
the things I think and feel about food. It won't be all the time. At
the most, I'll post a recipe or cooking story once a week, but I'm
pretty excited about it and hopefully you will be too. At the very
least, it will be a break from all things BABY.

Before I start
with the recipes and whatnot, I want to tell you a bit more about my
relationship with food and I want to introduce you to my kitchen.

Kitchen 1

I grew up hanging around in my mother's kitchen with her while she
worked. When she and my father got married he allowed her to design her
dream kitchen. In 1981 it was featured in Better Homes and Gardens. When
they met in 1975, my mother was still living paycheck to paycheck in an
old walk-up near Murray Hill in Manhattan. He courted her, proposed to
her and whisked her away to Atlanta with him. My father was quite
wealthy at the time and he lavished gifts upon my mother. He bought her a
little cream-colored Alfa Romeo, opened credit cards for her at Saks
and Macy's, and he took her to Europe and the Caribbean. But I think
that, aside from me, my mother's favorite thing was easily this kitchen.
As a surprise my father had the pictured neon sign made up as a last
touch.

Sal's Eats 

(If
you look closely you can see the same pepper mill in both kitchen
photos.)

When I was 12 my mother opened a restaurant. Naturally,
she named it Sal's Eats, the name becoming a funny throwback to all
those old NY delis named after some Sal or another. We were living in
Florida at the time, and every day after school I would get off the bus
at a stop near the restaurant and spend my afternoons in my father's
office that was off the kitchen, working on math problems and slambooks.

At first the restaurant was just a gourmet take-out shop out of
which my mother ran a catering business. She made her own pates, flew to
New York with my father to buy wines and specialty items like little
imported pots of pesto and tubes of garlic paste, and she tried her
hardest to make foodies out of the hesitant locals. This was 1990, so
you can only imagine what a novelty something like foie gras seemed to
the residents of this small Florida town.

Probably because of
that, the restaurant only lasted for about 5 years. My parents decided
to close up shop, not when they began losing money, but whey they found
out they both had cancer, the literal nail in the coffin. We moved back
to Atlanta shortly after that and I started high school.

Even
though I never really cooked much myself, I spent an inordinate amount
of time hanging around in the kitchen with my mother while she did. I
was her sous chef, chopping onions, stirring sauces and adjusting oven
settings. My mother came alive when she was cooking. I have such vivid
memories of her swirling about the kitchen, her hands fluttering over a
pot as she scattered pinches of herbs into the bubbling goodness below.

Claire&Sally2

To say that my mother was obsessed with food is
putting it mildly. She had every copy, like ever, of Gourmet magazine,
archived into hardbound binders in her office off the kitchen. She kept
a diary while on the three-week honeymoon she and my father took
through Europe, but the only entries she recorded on its pages were
descriptions of the meals they ate. She was fearless when it came to
food. Not only would she attempt even the most complicated recipe, but
she would eat anything. I remember once daring her to eat the
eyeball from a whole fish she'd been served at a restaurant in Nice,
France. She did so without hesitation, declaring it delightful, and
slightly crunchy.

Although my mother had some of the most refined
food tastes of anyone I've ever met, her favorite foods were liverwurst,
bloody-rare steaks, and salty potato chips. The image of my mother
tipping a carving board to her lips so that she could drink the blood
from a just-carved roast, is one I'll never forget, and one I saw often.
Or the sight of her idly snacking on a bag of potato chips after
returning home from a 4 star restaurant was not uncommon.

When she
died, when I was eighteen, food was the most obvious thing suddenly
missing in my life. My father and I were completely remiss as to what to
eat for dinner.

And so began my own culinary journey.

In
the beginning, I was a terrible cook, but I was determined. After the
second week in a row of ordering Chinese food, I decided to take over
the duty of providing dinner for myself and my father. I was ambitious
in my attempts, but I suppose the complicated recipes I was tackling
(think homemade pestos, pommes anna, and carbonara sauces) were just
dishes I was familiar with, and meals that I missed. Throughout much of
the first year I overcooked, undercooked, over-salted, under-seasoned
and generally failed to hit the mark with pretty much everything I
attempted.

After the first year following my mother's death, my
father and I went our separate ways. He went to California and I went
back to Vermont, where I had been attending college. I lived with my
roommate Tricia,
in a weird townhome a few miles from school. Tricia and I were both
depressed and I rarely saw her. I stayed up until 3, 4, sometimes 5am
most nights, unable to sleep, unable to figure out how to move forward
in the world without my mother.

Finally, I sought refuge in
cooking. I had kept only one of my mother's books out of the pile that
went into boxes for the storage unit, and it was The Joy of Cooking.
Maybe not the most amazing cookbook, but one that was certainly
accessible to a novice like myself. After my disastrous first year of
cooking, during which I hadn't made a very concerted effort to actually
follow recipes, I finally vowed to pay attention to the details.

So,
a couple of times a week, on days when I didn't have too much homework,
I'd head to the local Price Chopper, armed with a carefully written out
list of ingredients, and I would fill my cart, wandering the aisles
slowly, savoring the anticipation of the meal I was about to prepare.
Because I was determined to follow each recipe verbatim, I bought and
cooked meals that served 4-6 on a regular basis. I made bolognese
sauces, souffles, breads, quiches, and cakes.

I would destroy the
kitchen in each attempt, learning the hard way, as I struggled to
quickly stir a scalding sauce while simultaneously attempting to remove
something from the oven, that the most challenging part of cooking is
getting the timing right. Finally, I would sit down to a meal for six,
all by self, the cast of Dawson's Creek on a grainy television set, my
only dinner company.

It's funny, those evenings were often such
lonely and sad ones for me, but I look back on them and the girl I was
then so fondly, that it breaks my heart just a little.

By the end
of the six months I spent in Vermont, I had given myself a solid
cooking foundation on which to move forward. Moving forward meant New
York City and a tiny 5 floor walk-up in the East Village where I truly
honed my culinary skills as I learned to maneuver around a kitchen the
size of a coat closet.

The four years I spent in New York made up
the era in which I learned to cook for two. And the six years I LA Kitchen
spent in Los
Angeles, became the era of parties as I tried (and dare I say mastered)
my hand at cooking for a crowd. Now, here in Chicago, I focus on small
dinner parties, and on cooking for my little family (baby food is
next!).

I've now been cooking for 12 years, and I get better all
the time. I no longer follow recipes verbatim. I haven't for a long
time. I can usually recreate something I ate in a restaurant or at
someone else's home with little or no difficulty, and I have a
rebellious tendency to tweak every recipe I ever do attempt.

Since
I've become a mother a lot of my friends have questioned my ability to
continue to put home-cooked meals on the table. I have to explain to
them that cooking is a religion for me. It's a way of soothing and
calming myself, a way of reconnecting with my absent family, and a way
of nurturing my existing family.

I'm excited to share this love
of mine with all of you.

Look for my first recipe on Friday:
Curried Butternut Squash Soup

Find more cooking and recipe related posts here.

Read a response to the Yahoo! grieving article here.

42 Comments

  1. Wow, what an amazing project! I bet her mom would be so proud of what her daughter is doing with this cookbook. Your mom would be proud of you too, Claire.

    Comment by Erica on January 17, 2010 at 10:43 am

  2. I love this idea! Every year on my grandmother’s birthday (Valentine’s Day!) I make her special oatmeal raisin cookies and think of her.

    Comment by Abby on January 18, 2010 at 7:49 am

  3. This is beautifully written. It’s been almost 19 years since my mother passed and I can remember baking chocolate chips cookies in the kitchen with her like it was yesterday. There’s something about using her recipes even today that makes me feel connected to her. Thanks (Claire and Emily) for sharing your stories.

    Comment by Tina on January 18, 2010 at 2:28 pm

  4. Aw, you’re sweet Erica. I think our moms would be proud too.

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on January 19, 2010 at 8:23 am

  5. You should submit the recipe!!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on January 19, 2010 at 8:24 am

  6. Isn’t it beautiful how cooking can make you feel connected to someone in that way? You should submit a recipe to the project!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on January 19, 2010 at 8:25 am

  7. Claire, this blog entry is included in the February 2010 edition of Palliative Care Grand Rounds, hosted this month by the Alive Hospice Blog. PCGR is a monthly round-up of compelling blog entries about hospice and palliative care and grief matters.
    Link: http://bit.ly/cjhX0P
    Thank you for sharing such a wonderful story! What a nice way to honor the memory of your mother and to stay connected. I’m sure you’ve already inspired many people to find their own special ways of staying connected to cherished friends and family who have gone before us. Thank you for that!

    Comment by Jared Porter on February 4, 2010 at 12:09 pm

  8. Wonderful! Thanks so much, Jared!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on February 4, 2010 at 12:10 pm

  9. Wonderful, you made me cry…. as a mom, knowing someday I will have to leave my daughter, the only thing I make sure she will receive when I die are my cookbooks and kitchen ustensils….my treasure for her…….

    Comment by Patricia on September 14, 2010 at 2:15 pm

  10. Your blog was mentioned in an article on Yahoo about grieving, so I came to check it out. My mother died at the age of 93, three years ago. She excelled in home making arts and I loved her almost childlike, inquisitive nature. She loved to cook and bake. Won contests and prizes at the fall fair. Sewed like a dream – making all of her own clothes and ours as children. I have three of her amazing quilts. Shortly after she passed away I was walking down the baking isle of my local grocery and burst into tears. “Oh Mom, Oh Mom” my mind kept saying. I had to leave, I couldn’t get control of myself. We were lucky. Except for the last nine months of her life she was able to live independently, in her own self-contained unit in a seniors center. But after a fall she needed hospitalization and she didn’t last long after that. I miss her a lot. Just wanted to share. Thanks for listening.

    Comment by Mary on September 14, 2010 at 2:30 pm

  11. Reading this brought tears to my eyes. I also started cooking during a grieving period…it’s been a little over 4yrs now. It’s funny how you described cooking as a religion, b/c I tend to feel the same way.

    Comment by Amy Drinkie on September 14, 2010 at 4:11 pm

  12. Found this page while wandering on the web. Thanks for sharing your unique memories with us. Looking forward to coming back to this page to see what you have been posting.
    My mother, who is German, comes from a long line of very good cooks. Hearty, healthy meals and scrumptious desserts. After an unfortunate burn that occurred when I pulled a pan of sugar/butter (for candy) off the stove – my mother barred all 3 of us kids from the kitchen. I never saw raw meat until I went away to college and had to shop/cook for myself.
    After years of little to no cooking,(luckily I had a long string of boyfriend who either cooked well or ate out lots) I am again in the kitchen most nights, perusing cookbooks. Sometimes I get it right and sometimes even my beloved dogs will not eat my mistakes. But I’m happy there. Its not the destination , but the journey.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Denice

    Comment by Denice Olig on September 14, 2010 at 5:41 pm

  13. Thank you for your blog. I read today’s entry from beginning to end, it was so interesting….munching potato chips along the way, I might add. :) I too, found your site via Yahoo’s article on grief. My younger sister died unexpectedly last year.
    I don’t love to cook as much I once did (our present financial situation doesn’t allow me to cook the way I would like to), but I know my past cooking/baking has influenced my children. My oldest son loves to cook and enjoys fine restaurants. When he was in middle school, I let him choose a desert to make (or bake) every Friday. On his recent honeymoon, one of his goals was to eat at a Michelin rated restaurant in Spain. They had a lovely dinner at Moo. :) I knew my cooking had impacted my son when during the wedding vows, the bride mentioned his cooking and the fact that he makes chicken soup from scratch for her every time she’s sick (she’s an elementary school teacher) and that’s something I had done for him.
    For my birthday a few years back, he bought me a KitchenAid mixer. Although it’s one of my best pieces of kitchen equipment, I wish I had gotten one at the beginning of my marriage (35 years ago) because it would have seen a lot more action than this one probably will.
    My second oldest son made one of my casseroles for a potluck and got raves from the people that tried it. As one man passed my son’s table he said (not knowing it was the dish that my son had made), “Did you try that dish with the cheese, chicken and broccoli? You’d better get some because it’s almost gone!”
    My third son seems to be gifted with food improvisation; he seems to know which foods will go well with others (i.e. especially when he’s building a sandwich :) and he makes a wonderful pulled pork. This weekend he and a friend made carne asada that he said was delicious.
    My daughter doesn’t cook a whole lot right now, but the few things she makes (she made potato soup from scratch last night, using my recipe) are really good.
    I guess my point is, I’m thrilled to know that what I have baked, broiled, steamed, fried, or just concocted in the kitchen has impacted my children to where they are interested enough in making something delicious to eat–and they do.
    Thank you for your blog. I plan to be a regular visitor. :)

    Comment by Toni on September 14, 2010 at 7:19 pm

  14. What a beautiful story… I lost my mother when I was only 5 years old and I don’t know much about the woman she was. I do know that she had her own garden so I have always assumed she loved to cook like I do. Your story made me long for the chance to learn cook with my mother but at the same time reminded me that I have the opportunity to teach and bond with my children in that way! Thanks for sharing… you are an inspiration.

    Comment by Mandy on September 14, 2010 at 7:25 pm

  15. When my grandmother passed away the only thing I wanted were her recipes that had her handwriting and stains from delicious meals she had made. I ended up taking several aprons and dishes I recalled using growing up through the years and learning how to make her family favorites

    Comment by michelle on September 14, 2010 at 7:50 pm

  16. Your blog has inspired me to cook more. I’m not very good at cooking; throwing in the right dash of this or that as always eluded me, but I like delicious food and would like to give some of your mother’s recipes a try.
    Thank you for sharing her life, passion and art with us.

    Comment by Jess Arthur on September 15, 2010 at 1:49 am

  17. My Mom was also a wonderful cook. My fondest memories are of us in the kitchen, I also stirred and cut and watched. Those special holiday meals are very hard for me to get through on my own now. Even tho my Mom has been gone for 25 years, I find that I cannot (or will not) share her special recipes with anyone other than my two daughters. It’s almost as if I give them away, I also give away that special thing between the two of us. I’m happy that you are able to share.

    Comment by Connie in Kentucky on September 15, 2010 at 9:09 am

  18. Claire, your story was so beautifully written. I so much enjoyed reading it.
    Although my mother is still alive, her health isn’t the best. Several years ago she moved to a different state and I do miss her.
    Out of the blue I decided to teach myself to sew because in part, that is how I remember my mother. She recently came for a visit and it was so nice to be able to share my new love of sewing with her. It brought her so much happiness to see me doing something she herself loves so much.
    I know somewhere up in heaven your mother is smiling down on you in your kitchen. :)
    Thank you for sharing it.

    Comment by tejae: heart artist on September 15, 2010 at 9:43 am

  19. What a lovely ritual to share with your mother! Im sure it will always be a comforting way to connect with her.

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 15, 2010 at 10:16 am

  20. I think youre right — preserving those recipes for yourself and your daughters is a very special way of keeping that connection alive. What a gift for your daughters!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 15, 2010 at 10:16 am

  21. Its definitely a good day if Im inspiring someone to cook! Consider it a gift from my mom….

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 15, 2010 at 10:28 am

  22. Aw, thats so sweet. I have a few books of my mothers that are all stained and sticky, and I love them.

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 15, 2010 at 10:31 am

  23. Yes, even if your mother isnt here, you can still work to be a great mother and source of inspiration for your own children!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 15, 2010 at 10:34 am

  24. Such sweet stories about your connection to food with your son. Sounds like he really picked up such a passion for it from you. How amazing that he makes chicken noodle soup from scratch for his wife! Wish my husband did that. What a gift youve given your son.

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 15, 2010 at 10:37 am

  25. Wow, how interesting that you were barred from the kitchen. But how fortunate that you had such a wonderful cook in your mom!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 15, 2010 at 10:39 am

  26. It really can feel that way — like a religion. Glad Im not alone in feeling that way.

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 15, 2010 at 10:40 am

  27. How lovely that you have her beautiful quilts to wrap yourself in when you miss her!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 15, 2010 at 10:45 am

  28. Shell love them!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 15, 2010 at 10:46 am

  29. Thank you for sharing. My daughter just turned 18 and off at college I cannot imagine leaving her now at this point in her life. Your mother also left you with love, strength and creativity…. I love to bake and I’m an ok cook who constantly rotates the same recipes for dinner, constantly getting caught in the “Chicken again” cycle…… I’m going to take some inspiration from you to make sure I leave more of a legacy for my daughter and son. Something they can connect with….. And cooking is so enjoyable… Thank you again…. and i can’t wait for the recipes, the blog is already added to my favorites…

    Comment by Carla on September 15, 2010 at 10:47 am

  30. Maybe try sending your daughter some tasty care packages at college! Before she died my mother used to send me butterscotch bars and it was so comforting to have something shed made when I felt so far away from her.

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 15, 2010 at 10:49 am

  31. That is something that I was thinking about… But she plays a sport and is in training right now. So I text her inspriational quotes before each game. But when her season is over I can’t wait to do the care packages…… :o ) Thank you so much….

    Comment by Carla on September 15, 2010 at 11:04 am

  32. Aw, sending quotes is just as nice too. You sound like a great mom. :)

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 15, 2010 at 11:05 am

  33. THIS IS THE BEST BLOG EVER!!! Your mother was a beautiful woman and you are also beautiful. I can see that you look a lot like her.
    I lost my 44 year old downs syndrome brother October 5th, 2009 and I’m really having a hard time with missing him so very much. He was my best buddy and I raised him because my mother has been mentally ill since his birth. He loved to eat and I would let him help me in the kitchen with all the recipes. He loved to open cans for me but I had to be right there so he wouldn’t get hurt. His favorite dish was homemade pizza with mozzarello cheese, fresh tomatoes and bazil. I haven’t made it since he died so I’m going to make it for dinner tonight and celebrate my “Sweet Bubbie”!!! Thank you Thank you Thank you for the wonderful blog!!!!

    Comment by Penney on September 15, 2010 at 12:52 pm

  34. Hi, Claire. I really enjoyed this post and am glad you’ve found some comfort for your loss. I lost my father almost two years ago very unexpectedly. He was my mentor, hero, best friend… Food has always played a big role in my family. My mom had a catering business for 10 years and my father loved to cook and entertain. I attended culinary school and my brother has a restaurant, so it’s in our blood. As I was reading this, I was thinking about things that have given me comfort after he passed – one image that always comes to my mind is my daughter (she’s 4 1/2 now but was almost 3 at the time) and my mother making the Thanksgiving dressing. They both had a towel over their shoulder (that’s my mom’s signature trademark in the kitchen!), and I have the cutest picture of them. Her dressing is one of my favorite things about that holiday and I just dream about it every year! My father LOVED his family more than anything in this world and especially his grandkids and the joy they brought to his life. He loved when we all got together and food was always an important part of any family gathering. As I watched my mom and daughter cooking, I realized that his spirit is still alive in my kids, myself and my mom, and we love to do the things he loved… although it sucks without him, we still know his presence surrounds us.
    My 4 year old daughter helps me in the kitchen all the time and I love that I will be able to pass such wonderful memories onto her when I’m gone. My mom is a wonderful cook and I have SO many memories of cooking with her. I know that when she’s gone, cooking some of her favorites will bring me peace and I hope it does the same for my two little ones. Thanks for sharing (sorry this comment is like a novel!!).
    ~Carroll

    Comment by Carroll on September 15, 2010 at 4:02 pm

  35. Yayyyy recipes!! Love it love it love it

    Comment by Courtney on September 15, 2010 at 8:08 pm

  36. Let me know if you try any of them!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 16, 2010 at 1:42 pm

  37. Thanks for your lovely comment, Carroll! Its amazing how much cooking can tie a family together. What an incredibly ritual.

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 16, 2010 at 1:44 pm

  38. Thank you for your sweet comment, Penney. It sounds like you were an incredible sister. I hope you made the pizza!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 16, 2010 at 1:48 pm

  39. Your story warmed my heart and brought tears to my eyes. For the longest time I’ve found solice in my kitchen, cooking for my family and remembering my father. He passed away twelve long years ago when I was only 17. I guess I was more of a daddy’s girl than I realized because I find myself doing things that we did together to find comfort, lol. It’s not often that dads teach their children to cook but he was an amazing cook and always dreamed of starting his own restaurant. This year is going to be my first time to actually host our family Thanksgiving dinner – I’m terrified yet excited at the prospect of bringing my daddy alive in my kitchen. I know that all in attendance will remember those wonderful foods from long ago that he cooked for us all with love and care. Thanks for your story, you’ve helped me feel a lot less weird about what I thought were my odd rituals :) And you are very right being in the kitchen cooking with a loved one is an unforgetable bonding experience. That’s why I share that experience with my own two sons as often as possible!

    Comment by Crystal on September 16, 2010 at 2:42 pm

  40. Oh, I bet youre going to have a fantastic Thanksgiving. It will be such a great way to remember your dad and feel him in your life again. Plus, theres so much fun cooking to be done around that time!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 16, 2010 at 2:44 pm

  41. Yes!! Thanksgiving and Christmas were always some of my favorites simply for the time I got to spend in the kitchen with my dad. I can’t wait to see some of the recipes that you post. Maybe I can incorporate some of them into the feast as something new to try. I’ve read some of your other blogs recently and I think that you’ve inspired me to blog a little myself. Writing these things down seems in some way cathartic. Thanks for allowing myself and so many others a glimpse into your life and your grieving process. Keep blogging!! :)

    Comment by Crystal on September 16, 2010 at 3:24 pm

  42. Ack, pressure to post holiday recipes! :) Thanks for your kind words.

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 16, 2010 at 3:25 pm

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