My old man was a great cook.
He could make a three-star soup out of a ham bone and dishwater, would’ve
grilled Bobby Flay to a standstill, was a master of turning mundane
standards into elegant dishes.
When I was a kid—back in the Sixties, when folks still gave dinner parties,
the menfolk in ties, the gals in cocktail dresses—my old man tried his hand
brilliantly at gourmet: beef Wellington, Cornish hens, lobster tail. Once he
roasted a whole pig on the driveway, put an apple in its mouth and
maraschino cherries in the eyeholes. Another time he dug a colossal pit in
the backyard and threw a clambake.
So yeah, he was a great cook. But what I liked best, what made me salivate
like Pavlov’s pooch, what I would want to eat if my next step was up and
onto the gallows, was my old man’s lamb shank.
It was a thing of simple beauty, roasted tender and toothsome, the color of
mahogany, served with mashed potatoes and gravy and red cabbage.
The old man would cook up half a dozen shanks, I’d make like Henry VIII, and
then we’d sit back at the dining room table, open a fresh pack of Marlboros,
and dawdle our way through a mellow old bottle of fine tawny port.
Comfort food, it’s what makes you feel at home. My father had a gift for it,
learned from his own mother that the beating heart of the family is the
I’ve been humbled this year to learn of another kind of comfort food
entirely: comfort, as in succor, mercy, compassion, grace.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, my wife, Meredith, was diagnosed with breast
cancer: Stage IIIA, it turned out, because the filthy thing had spread to a
fistful of lymph nodes under her arm.
(For the record, Mer is only 38, exercises regularly, eats well, is mindful
of her health, has no family history of cancer. She’s also a profoundly good
human being. I’m 49, I spent years scouting out new and interesting ways to
abuse my body, and I’m sort of a jerk to boot. Go figure. Life isn’t
supposed to be fair, you know that, it’s like Vegas only for keeps,
but it’s an eye-opener when you find out just how randomly unfair life
We did all the usual things and all the right ones. We cried and prayed,
felt guilty for breaking the painful news to loved ones at Christmas,
visited this doc and that one. Mer got poked and prodded. I got caught up on
my reading in waiting rooms from hell. Then we went to the Lurie Cancer
Center at Northwestern Memorial in Chicago, where they treated us well.
On a Friday in February Mer had surgery. On Saturday I drove her home. On
Sunday, around noon, Beth and Dave Adkins knocked on the door. They had
gifts for Mer, goodie bags for Kate and Andie, and food. Lots of food. We
could’ve fed off Beth’s dishes for a week but didn’t have to, because the
folks in Mer’s office at USGS had established a militarily precise timetable
and order of battle for keeping our larder stocked.
Mer bounced back fast from the surgery. Of course she did, she’s tough as
nails. Then, a month later, we started an aggressive regime of chemo—eight
treatments, every other week—and when I say we I mean that I sat
there helplessly and watched as bubbly nurses pumped my wife full of poison.
(For the record, it is poison. If you’re sad, during chemo, you cry
toxic tears. If you’re sick, you vomit toxic waste.)
Chemo was on Thursdays and by the time I’d driven us home from Chi, Mer was
well into her nose dive. Sundays for my beloved were like the brick wall you
hit at 60 mph.
I don’t recall quite how it happened but on that first chemo weekend, like
some higher self-organizing intelligence, the volunteers were already
queuing up and taking numbers to cook for us. I think Kate’s teacher, Mrs.
Strawbridge, and Andie’s, Mrs. Rehtorik, got the ball rolling and a Bailly
mother, Nicole Moloney, just ran like heck with it. Then our church family
at Chesterton First United Methodist, called to the kitchen by Nancy Moore
and Kathy Prihode, enlisted for the duration, as did our wonderful friend,
Fridays and Sundays we were served by the Bailly moms; Saturday by Steph;
Mondays by CFUMC: eight long weekends, 32 meals, manna from heaven’s own
angels, multiplying like the loaves and fishes. The food came to our door
from as far as 31st Street in Chicago, bucket-brigaded by little old ladies,
catered by warm but harried soccer moms with scads of their own children
underfoot—how did they find the time to cook for us in the first
place?—whose names I never caught or immediately forgot.
Casseroles, pastas, pork loins, chicken, Chinese, Italian, Mexican, dinner
rolls and garlic breads, tossed salads and bottles of dressing, fruits and
veg, cupcakes, cookies, brownies. I put on weight. So did Mer. Bully for
The conversation at the doorway typically went something like this: How
are you? Is there anything else I can do for you at all? Please call me.
Good lord you have big cats. And then she’d be gone, like Florence
Nightingale meets Betty Crocker meets Wonder Woman.
I’ve thought much about these dear people and their blessings on my home.
Why food? Because, their hearts broken by compassion, they’re as helpless as
my Mer, they can’t wave their hands and excise the malignancy, they can’t
ease her sick dread or give her a peaceful night of sleep, there’s
absolutely nothing they can palpably do to make it better. Except to cook,
to fill her belly, nourish her soul, ease her of a household burden, and
remind her that she’s loved. It’s a gesture but so much more than that.
Christ washed his followers’ feet. These saints cooked our meals.
There’ve been so many others too, who didn’t cook but would’ve gladly, who
offered to watch the girls, clean our house, shop for us, Anything,
anything at all, just ask. Neighbors, colleagues, friends of friends of
friends, my best bud at the Times. They e-mailed and snail-mailed,
dropped by or picked up the phone, blogged their best wishes. And around the
world, cyber-alerted, people we don’t know and will never meet prayed for us
At WiseWay, Tao Chen’s, Town Hall, the Thomas Branch, always a kind word,
always a heartfelt offer. Mer’s sister, Laura, drove 700 miles from Georgia
to be at her side after the surgery and keep house. Mer’s folks took the
girls overnight every chemo Thursday. Our bosses—Mer’s at USGS, Richard
Whitman, and mine at the Trib, Dave Canright—have been absolute
bricks, never blinked at the days missed, are family men themselves who
understand that the bottom line is always hearth and home.
And I wonder: if we lived in the city, who would have known? Have cared?
Have cooked? And I think: thank God we live in Duneland.
Saying Thank you is simply inadequate because the words haven’t been
coined to express the boundlessness, the bottomlessness, of our gratitude.
But they’re the only ones we have, so we’ll use them anyway. Thank you,
thank you all, and may you be as richly blessed as you have blessed us.
In a couple of weeks Mer starts radiation: five days a week for six weeks.
After that we’ll take a month to regroup and reboot. Then we’re going to lay
on a supply of disposable baking tins and Tupperware, rifle our cookbooks
for recipes, and find some other families in need of comfort food.