Cooking for friends in need has unexpected benefits
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CRYSTAL BIRNS
My heart cracks when I hear the news; her cancer has come back. I read the words on a screen, so she doesn’t see the way my eyes fill and sting immediately, blurring the text with grief, but she knows me well enough that I think she must guess. We have been here before, we friends, and it is likely we will be here again. So we discuss, as the days pass slowly one after another, how the treatment will unfold. Where is the cancer? Will there be surgery, or chemotherapy or radiation? Doctors take scans and outline plans. Insurance companies haggle over drug benefits and treatments. I take down a pan and brown onions. It is my part to play.
Or this. Finally, the baby is here. The new parents ride a roller coaster of sleepless nights, intense emotions, and constant attention to nursing, changing, burping and comforting consumes all of their energy as they learn the rhythms of a new life. Exhausted, it feels sometimes like there is no time for showers, meal planning or household chores. Parents snack when they can, lose sleep, get by. Friends arrive with casseroles and no expectation of being entertained. Dinner is served, and the community is nourished.
Cooking for others is a tradition as old as time. Whether the occasion is a birth, a wedding, a death in the family, an illness or an accident, the concept of the meal train is alive and well. Participating in a meal train, or other acts of caregiving, give shape and form to the ageless desire to be of service, or even more broadly, to belong.
The joyful communion in celebrating a new life, and the process of grieving and loss share a common root, connecting those involved to the twin specters of human experience. No matter which occasion draws communities together, there is a craving to do something, to take action, even on a small scale. This urge strengthens connections between individuals and communities, draws us together in a way that feels valuable and necessary.
In the face of grief, the act of cooking for friends in need is an act of both defiance and love. It is a path to follow, a task to perform, a way to make sense of the senseless or at least find a way through it. It’s as much for myself as for my sick friend that I participate, and I am grateful for the outlet. I am thankful to be able to take any action, no matter how small, in the face of something as huge and terrifying as cancer. My friend stares death in the face, takes stock. She is whittled to bone. She sees what matters and what does not. I creep closer, trying to see things through her eyes. She is on the cusp between worlds.
In the face of grief, the act of cooking for friends in need is an act of both defiance and love.
I try to draw her back, toward this side, this earth, toward apples and soup and tea in the evening. I leave Tupperware containers full of food in her refrigerator, to anchor her to this place, edible love letters to be tasted with spoon or fork. I mean the food to say what I cannot. Bone broth, to nourish and soothe the gut, strengthen bones made brittle by treatment. Easy on the salt and acid, as radiation can cause mouth sores that make these elements painful.
Although food can taste like cardboard in the weeks after chemotherapy, the solution is rarely more spices; the body in crisis often requires bland foods, easy to digest, rich in nutrients, but light on the tongue. Soothing food, steadying, comforting, as though the food were a conduit for all the things that are too difficult to put into words. As though through the bland, soft flavors of the food, the hard and bitter truths could be transformed. It is medicine for both of us.
When we cook in celebration of births, weddings and other milestones in life, we get closer to those moments of ecstatic joy that are touchstones of human experience. There is a kind of magnetism that pulls us toward these intense times. When I cook for friends deep in the throes of new parenthood, I am not only strengthening the connection between my family and theirs, but I am also given permission to come closer, into that tender circle that surrounds new families.
It’s a sacred time, sometimes difficult and often tumultuous, but no less sacred for all that. In the first weeks of parenthood, so much is shifting and changing.
Priorities are rearranged in ways that may not have been foreseen.
As a friend, it’s an honor to support my community by feeding them as they work it out. I feed them as I wish for all to be fed, I care for them as I would have everyone cared for, in all stages of life. There is a ceremonial aspect to it, though I am a fairly secular practitioner. A paying of homage, a wish and a prayer for continued care and attention, throughout all their lives. As though the way something is begun might carry through and echo throughout the years. There are a thousand ways to make a difference in the world, and never enough time for a person to do as much as they might. Still, this is something to do, easy enough, in the face of all the difficulties humans encounter. Sit down, my family, my community. This food is grace. May we all be nourished.
The act of giving makes me feel less helpless, more connected. I chop onions, I make yogurt and vegetable ferments and bone broth. I salt my food with wishes, prayers and dreams. I long for a magic wand, a spell that breaks the enchantment of wayward cells, for an order in the universe that might prevent awful things happening to good people. I mince herbs and envision a future where all children might grow up in peace and plenty. I reduce heat and simmer; I imagine impossible things that do not immediately materialize. What does take form, though, is a pot of soup, or a vegetable dish, a tangible act of love, seasoned lightly with defiance, compassion and hope. No magical wand, but a wooden spoon to stir a simple pot. It may not be the cure that ultimately heals my friend, but food prepared with love is another kind of medicine, no less essential, that nourishes both the giver and the receiver alike.
The meal train is a venerable tradition. In the tightly woven communities of times past, such coordination would have taken place amongst neighbors and family, as a matter of course. In the age we now inhabit, this cooperative community engagement is now often facilitated by apps such as Care Calendar, Meal Train and Take Them A Meal.
Care Calendar has an easily navigable website that offers options to support families and individuals by making meals, as well as running errands, washing laundry and driving patients to appointments. Recipients list the services they need. Caregivers specify the meal or service they can provide, in a format that allows other volunteers to view it, so that flavors and services are not duplicated too often, and no external management is needed. There’s a space for photographs and messages from the community as well.
Meal Train can be managed by an organizer so the patient does not have to manage the sometimes complex scheduling. It features an interactive online calendar, and sends reminder emails to participants both one day and one week in advance of the actual date. Recipients can specify food preferences and allergies. It includes easy links to order online gift cards and make financial contributions.
Take Them A Meal is a mostly food-centered site. It offers tested recipe ideas that are known to transport well. Its distinctive feature is the option for busy or far-flung supporters to order a meal for delivery through the company’s meal store. Gluten-free and vegetarian meals are available, but food ordered through the site is not necessarily organic.
Local non-profit Teen Kitchen Project offers free and lowcost meals to residents who are dealing with cancer and other acute illness. Its program acts as a kind of meal train for those who may not have a tight web of community to cook for them, and gives preferential access to those with limited resources and support.