So about the actual cooking of the last couple of months:
The act of cooking, it seems to me, has some universally familiar tactics. Scheduling the oven (and the pots and pans), scheduling the burners — large/ small –, timing cooking events so things finish in a timely manner — squash needs 1.5 hours, custard 50 minutes, and kale chips 10 minutes; squash and custard are chronologically flexible, so if you forget to turn on the timer, you can wing it, but sautéed veggies and roasted kale are easily burnable. All these are what home cooks have always juggled. It’s the bike-riding part of cooking.
In this case, though, a few things were left out — and added in. What was left out was presentation. Except for finding containers for delivery, no need for fine china, lined-up silverware, and flowers. No guests or ideas to keep track of while stirring the compote that should have been made yesterday. No trying to remember the latest Gail Collins bon mot or keeping up with friends’ novel writing. Just me and my kitchen. Even Jer retreated to his computer, because two people can’t work together in a kitchen our size. In the end, the results were packaged into Pyrex containers and sent off looking, well, not like fine dining:
So some of the amenities of cooking were left out, which made my sweating more heat and less companionable anxiety. But then there were some things added back in. Take the chemo cycle, for example. During at least two weeks in the three-week cycle, Jan’s ability to eat depended primarily on purees — what I came to call “mushes”. While she didn’t have her jaw wired shut (there’s a whole cadre of recipes for that sort of problem), she was least unhappy eating things that didn’t touch her mouth before they went down her throat.
It turns out that our ancient Krups blender, bought to make margaritas in the 1980s and now stuck permanently on its highest speed, and our new little cuisinart smusher of nuts and smaller dollops of things, became essential. They got used every cooking session, and washed two or three times, cleaning out the squash to make room for the coconut brew, which then had to be washed out so the shepherd’s pie could be blended. I finally figured out how to take the blender apart to clean it without having to thump upstairs for Jer’s stronger hands. And only once did I turn it on with a full load of coconut flakes and milk (four plus cups) without the lid. That actually brought Jer down the stairs in a flurry, hearing my howl and foul language. He cleaned up most of the resulting snow-flake mess, although we are still finding bits of coconut flesh here and there around the kitchen.
Before the pureeing, however, came the cooking. As I said, I grew up with meat, potatoes and boiled vegetables. Not once did I see my mother saute a vegetable. We kids ate tons of raw fruits and veggies because snacks and sweets didn’t fit into the family budget.
But all those fresh garden vegetables (and later canned and frozen ones) were invariably boiled. Not steamed (the first folding steamer I saw I thought was a miracle), and certainly not sautéed. In my family of origin, steaks, hamburger, pork chops, and bacon were fried. Everything else was roasted or boiled.
And so, that 1980’s summer of Jan’s vegetarianism changed the way we cooked forever. We haven’t boiled a vegetable (except potatoes and beets) for years, and I can be brought to my knees in gratitude by the smell of onions and garlic sauteing in olive oil.
I mention these things because, while my mother’s boiling (or gently simmering) the bejesus out of everything works for the GAPS diet, boiling vegetables makes no sense, either for taste or nutrition. Eating foods with high nutritional value seems like a basic goal for someone undergoing chemo. So our forays into vegetarianism, particularly the things we learned from our favorite vegetarian cookbooks, came in handy.
The old favorite cookbooks — particularly Laurel’s Kitchen and the Purple Moosewood (Enchanted Broccoli Forest) — served to give me the base for what veggies went with what spices — and what to cook when my imagination failed.
While the squash and/or custard baked, I chopped, minced, sliced and skinned the vegetables:
Then I sautéed them in olive oil or coconut oil (coconut oil cooking being a whole ‘nother story), dumped the sautéed veggies and juice scrapings into the very rich stock made the day before, added a slab of roasted meat, and simmered until everything was soft enough to be pureed. Then into the Krups blender it went, where it all became mush. Along the way, I tasted everything to figure out if it was a) edible and b) might entice the absent appetite.
Part of the tasting was to try to determine which spices might hold Jan’s interest. This debate was one I conducted entirely within my own mouth. I knew, from my own bouts with nausea, that when I didn’t want to eat, the last thing I wanted were anxious queries about what tasted good. Nothing tasted good, nothing tasted right, nothing was desired, and if eating was necessary, just hand it over.
So I didn’t bug her about what she liked or disliked. I just tried to taste and decide, all by myself, what might entice. And so, the rack of organic spices grew. The hunter-gatherer found more things organic than we ever imagined.
Along with organic spices, I discovered the miraculous quality of cauliflower. For the person whose system can’t tolerate potatoes, it turns out that a good shepherd’s pie (normally topped with mashed potatoes) can be topped with sautéed, pureed cauliflower.
And I bet most of you don’t know that cauliflower simmered (we try to stay away from the “boiled” word) with almonds and then pureed can taste sort of like french fries. I know; I tasted it.
Which brings up another attribute of cooking for the chemo patient whose immune system is compromised. Cooking for such a person involves an inordinate amount of silverware.
Jer, whose modus operandi is to do the task that is before him, once quietly mentioned that the number of spoons and forks that needed washing after I finished cooking was a bit, well, amazing. And that’s because I grew up in a household where the amount of salt, sugar, and pumpkin pie spices needed was determined by throwing some in and tasting. Were the peas were boiled sufficiently, and was the canned spaghetti sauce sufficiently hot? –stick in a spoon, taste it, and find out. Beyond my early training, it also was clear to me that most of the recipes in the Internal Bliss cookbook and that I found on the web were over-salted and over-sweetened. Then there was the checking of the purees to make sure no solid bits were left to catch a sore tongue. All done by dipping in a spoon and sticking it into my mouth.
In short, I had to taste what I was cooking. But every time I tasted something, the spoon was put into the dishwashing pile (we don’t have a mechanical dishwasher, only human ones) because it could only be used once. The pile of tasting spoons and sometimes forks was, in fact, astonishing. As was the pile of pots and pans and dishes in general:
So Saturdays, Mondays, and Wednesdays, I did my 3–6 hour cooking dance. The choreography was mapped the day before, the props all rounded up and available, and first thing, before breakfast or paper, the cooking began. Mostly it was a physical activity, whipping the eggs for the custard, stirring the saute, grabbing the boiling-over stock from the stove, setting the timer, blending and pureeing, and mushing and chopping. I would eat a banana in a lull in the cookery, or spoon out a bunch of pureed squash for my own breakfast as I finished the meals for Jan.
But even as this was happening, I would be thinking. Mostly I thought about the choreography of cooking foods. But sometimes I found myself feeling guilty. What if I was pushing Jer away from the cooking because I wanted to be a martyr. What if he felt left out of the process? I finally asked him and he was once again astonished — given all the other chores he was already doing and given his cooking style, he couldn’t imagine wanting to join me. He didn’t want to watch me bumping around the kitchen and so went to his computer to await delivery time. He appreciated what I was doing, and was content to do his own part.
Then I felt guilty because I wasn’t seeing much of Jan. She and I both know that we are too excitable around one another; we talk too much; laugh too much; have too many stories to tell; too many ideas to share. So I had resolved not to see her except when she was in one of her good weeks, and then only under controlled conditions, when I swore to myself that I would be very very quiet and very very calm. But even as we propped her into the recliner with a warm blanket, the conversations were exciting — and exhausting. Neither of us could resist carrying on too energetically. So I saw very little of her during these months. Jer would sometimes see her when he delivered the food, and Rick and Sam kept us updated by phone and email on her doings and physical state. But what kind of mother was I that I wasn’t by her bedside, cleaning up her kitchen, doing her laundry or mopping her brow?
That guilt, however I rationalized it out of my brain, morphed into another strong emotion: I began to be enraged when people who knew about the cooking efforts would say things like “what a good mom.”
I brushed away such comments — I knew that those who said these things were trying to be complimentary and kind — but ultimately I found myself standing in the kitchen, whipping the custard, having internal arguments about “good mom.” I’m not a nice mom, I thought, I’m not a good mom, I by now (silently) shrieking while chopping an onion, I’m not who this is about; this is about Jan Marie Underwood, fine teacher, best writer in the family, organizer of all kinds of events, socially wonderful, morally and ethically better than me, decent and conscientious and compassionate. I’m not doing this because I’m her mom; I’m doing this because she needs and deserves it.
That kind of conversation. The kind of conversation that covers up the helplessness that lay beneath all the blending and stirring and gathering of recipes and tasting of tasteless mush. It wasn’t about the words “good mom” at all, of course. I am Jan’s mom and I can’t imagine doing this kind of cooking for anyone but someone as close to me as Jan. So I must have been being a “good mom.” I was trying to be as good a mom as I could be. But I was, as we all are in the face of deadly illness, helpless. And I was made angry by my helplessness. And I sometimes focused my anger on words that were meant to be kindly and helpful and consoling.
Thankfully, I’m over that now; I think I may well have been a pretty good mom. And Jan, because she is who she is, had many other good people who took care of her — from the woman who accompanied her to every chemo session and made her laugh, to friends who brought her gifts and books and lent her videos and ran errands, and particularly Rick, her husband, and Sam, her son, who spent all those hours being nearby, taking care of what needed done at home, chauffeuring her where she needed to go, and even eating the left-over pureed shepherd’s pie, perhaps so her good mom wouldn’t know how little she was eating. And Jer, of course, who never complained about anything, not the stacks of dishes nor the trips to the car with jars of food nor the scavenging for foods that made grocery clerks look blank. Definitely a good Fath.
(Sam, Jan, and Rick, with Jer’s hand — her team — or at least a good part of her team but by no means all of it.)
And so we made it through to this other side. I don’t think I insulted any of my friends who called me a good mom. I only once knocked over the vanilla extract, dumping most of it onto the counter and causing Jer to look puzzled when it appeared on the groc list again. I taught Jan the meaning of the word “ramekin.” I only once chopped a finger instead of an onion. I only once didn’t have quite enough eggs for some recipe and improvised something which turned out OK. I discovered that meat stock is meat stock is meat stock and a mix and match of pork and turkey pureed seems not to matter. I learned that if I called something a “Melange” Jan assumed it was an official recipe. I only once put four cups of coconut milk into the custard instead of two – and sent it off without realizing what I had done. I have learned a bit about cooking with coconut flour (use pureed squash or fruit regardless of what the recipe says), a bit more about cooking with coconut oil (it’s a PITA), a lot about coconut milk, and still don’t know how one achieves real coconut cream, although I have done lots of experimenting.
Jan dropped by last Friday and stayed for a couple of hours, during which time we managed to exhaust one another just like usual. She has found a sorta-GAPS store in Portland that she’s allowing Jer and me to explore for some of the foods that I couldn’t bring myself to make for her (lactofermented vegetables, anyone?). She’s come through the other side of this chemo session “pristine” (see her linked blog linked in the last post here), and although there may be more ahead, we are all breathing easier these days.
And I’m down to making only custard on Saturdays, Mondays, and Wednesdays, which makes me suspect that a) I have raised an independent proud daughter who doesn’t want to be coddled and b) I have raised a daughter who may like her own cooking better than her mother’s. Which is definitely a Good Thing, even if I am, push come to shove and necessity trumping inadequacy, a Good Mom. –June