IN MICHIGAN, where I grew up, my family observed a classic Midwest tradition. With every major life event, we aimed to nourish relatives, friends and neighbors. A birth in the family? Let them eat German chocolate cake. A death? Please accept our condolences and this vegetable lasagna with heating instructions taped to the plastic wrap. That was just what you did.
We also cooked to heal ourselves. Every Saturday for 22 years, my Grandpa Charles made a massive vat of chili for the kids in the neighborhood. The children waited with chipped, mismatched bowls in hand until he took a final taste and declared it perfect. As a kid, I thought his chili was simple generosity. Now I know that making it offered him something valuable, too. Grandpa spent his life as a manual laborer, hauling iron and sweating away in hot boiler rooms. Cooking his weekend chili helped him forget the pain of his week and show off talents beyond his brute strength. All those chili bowls licked clean probably felt like the equivalent of applause.
- I started cooking to compensate for challenging days on the job, too. As a young reporter in Florida, if I left the newsroom haunted by a particularly gruesome crime, as if cued by genetic instinct, I would drive straight to a supermarket and then spend two hours carefully crafting a vat of braised lamb shanks and biscuits scented with rosemary–one of my grandfather’s recipes. I’d sip wine and shift mental gears as I traced the recipe’s familiar steps: Brown the meat; don’t overwork the dough; add the salt. Then I’d notice the volume of food I’d inadvertently made and round up neighbors I barely knew for an impromptu dinner party. By the end of the night, my worries would have been forgotten.
- Since then, I’ve held many such supper parties. I’ve also had those diners drop by with crocks of food in return–culinary karma at work, as with all those cakes and casseroles from my Midwest youth. I appreciate the tradition more than ever.
Sometimes the simple act of cooking can offer a way to do something to ease the feeling of helplessness or of being overwhelmed. It’s easy to say, “If there’s anything I can do…,” but the phrase can feel empty.
Not long ago, a friend was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. At that point, there was nothing anyone could do–except that I could make a big pot of coq au vin, one of her favorites. Cooking was a comfort, and it gave me an excuse to see my friend and discuss something other than her illness. “This looks great!” she said when I brought over the dish.
As we sat down at her table, I realized that sharing this food provided something essential–something we needed. This felt normal.
With that, we ate.
Kathleen Flinn’s latest book, Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good, was published in August.