Young friends have a baby due soon. At their shower, I watched the mom-to-be unwrap soft blue outfits that made the room go, “Aww.” On still evenings this summer, I sat outside with the dad, talking about how life is about to change.
Now it’s time to start planning the dinner I’ll make for them. I have a signature dish for celebration and a different one for grief. I’m big on making food no matter what, a product of my upbringing. I grew up believing that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. Apparently, I internalized that aphorism more seriously than my grandmother’s warning about giving away the milk for free.
For a new baby’s arrival, I usually go with Chicken Tarragon Crepes. It’s fancy but mild. It’s showy, but it’s only chicken, so how fancy can it be? I chop the tarragon and make the crepes from scratch. I blend the cream sauce—making sure it doesn’t curdle—thinking about the new mother and father in that space of wonder and trepidation that new life brings.
It’s something I do well. But as much as I love to cook for other people, I grew into the role shakily. There was a time my cooking could be almost scary.
In college I lived in an enormous off-campus Victorian that had been cut up into student housing. I had an apartment on the ground floor. The young men who rented the single rooms upstairs were poor and always in need of a good meal. Senior year, I began to fancy myself as the resident “First Lady of the Boarding House” and decided to give my very first dinner party. I hope I didn’t actually call it that because it was five starving college guys who were happy to be shoveling almost anything into their mouths at my kitchen table, which was about two feet from the stove and sink.
I bought a cookbook from the bargain bin at a drug store and trusted the author to guide me. I found a recipe for beef stew, something that sounded hearty and satisfying. I followed it word for word, the way a Fundamentalist might interpret the Book of Leviticus. I trusted every syllable. How hard could it be? The recipe told me to add ¼ cup of cloves to the beef and the vegetables. I did.
As the stew simmered on the stove, all those cloves made my apartment smell like what you’d think Thanksgiving in a Currier and Ives painting might smell like, but somehow it didn’t concern me. By the time my guests arrived, the clove smell was burning the inside of my nostrils. Still, it was food and they were game.
First bite. Up went their napkins to their mouths. There was coughing. Our tongues burned for days.
Years passed and I got better. Maybe a little cocky. So much so that I planned an elaborate Chinese dinner for my boyfriend. We had spent most of the summer apart, and this was to celebrate his homecoming. He had lived in Manhattan and had stories of “real” Chinese dishes he loved, so I had a goal. I did my research. I bought a wok and a rice steamer and got up to speed on ginger and hoisin sauce. The day of his arrival came, and I was in the kitchen chopping carrots and bok choy and picturing how impressed he would be.
The recipe called for four cloves of garlic. Somehow, I’d lived for 23 years thinking that a head of garlic was just another name for a clove of garlic, and in the pre-Google era, I was on my own. It took an hour to chop four heads of garlic, but somehow this didn’t alarm me. You can sort of picture the rest of the evening.
I don’t do stuff like that anymore. I’ve learned how to read recipes. I’ve learned to taste my food as I go. I’m a solid cook, a poised cook, sometimes an adventurous one.
But for all the great food in celebration that I’ve given and received, it’s a simple Mason jar full of hot soup—in grief—that is my strongest food memory. In January 1978, my brother, Rob, died suddenly. He was 26. My parents were out of their minds with grief. Lots of friends and family filled up the house, and it seemed everyone was talking, but nothing was registering.
The doorbell rang. It was our friend and neighbor, Joan, from across the street. It was the first time she and my mother had seen each other since the police officer had come to my parents’ door and opened his horrible, sad speech by telling them both to sit down. I don’t remember what Joan said, but I remember this: She handed my mother a Mason jar of soup across the front stoop. My mother was thanking her profusely. Joan smiled and said, “It’s just Lipton’s. I wanted to make sure you had something hot tonight.”
Sometime in the coming weeks, I’ll probably opt for the chicken tarragon crepes for my young friends when their baby boy is born. Lucky for this couple, there will be no cloves or garlic. But just like Joan’s gift on that freezing night so long ago, it won’t matter if it’s fancy and took hours, or if it’s “just Lipton’s.” I’ll want to make sure they have something hot. That’s all that matters. That’s all that ever matters.