Comfort in a Bowl of Soup

Nov 242009
 
Me and Dana

Me and cousin Dana, circa 2004

Sometimes I find food writing kind of frivolous, and I wonder why I am not doing something more important with my life.

Then I hear a story that reinforces my obsession with food’s power to evoke memory, connect, and heal. Yesterday, it came from my cousin Dana.

Dana spent most of his adult life in his bedroom with the door closed, suffering from severe anxiety. His dad took care of him until 2000, when he passed away, and now I check in with Dana from a distance. (I’m in Oakland, CA and he’s a six-hour drive away in L.A.) At almost 50, he’s  my sweet little brother, and we talk almost every day. Two years ago, doctors diagnosed Dana with multiple myeloma, a cancer he cannot outlive.

Dana and my uncle loved to eat, and Dana became a good cook. When he felt well enough, he made my family’s Iraqi-Jewish comfort food of vegetable-rich stews, eggs with caramelized onions and parsley, and chicken cooked overnight in rice. After his father died, Dana hardly ever cooked. Since his cancer diagnosis, he’s been in too much pain or poor health to stand for more than a few minutes in the kitchen.

A year ago, a caregiver moved in. He takes great care of Dana, but doesn’t cook. Dana subsists on frozen dinners and sandwiches in front of the television, watching Top Chef, the Food Network, and Hell’s Kitchen. Recently Dana realized he might have liked to be a chef.

Last weekend, Dana had a plan. He sat on a stool and made murag, a chicken soup with potatoes in a peppery tomato broth. The Arabic word for soup, our family’s murag is a simple dish of chicken browned with onions and turmeric, to which Dana added water, tomato paste and potatoes. On Monday he sent me this email:

“I made MURRAG (however you might spell it, the wrong kind of chicken soup!) tonight and it turned out fantastic! In fact I had 6 servings which was about 80% of the pot! I am so tired of the food I have been eating that when I get my tastebuds around an old friend (I made murrag at least once a week with Dad), I just went crazy in wanting to eat it. It does bring back good memories. I remember taking the skin off 3 of the six thighs when I made murag. I am the one that liked the skin, Dad liked the skinless pieces.

“Finally a success that I can make again and again. The apartment smelt so good with the aroma of Jewish food.”

It’s a small victory, but profound. A little piece of Dana’s past, filled with cherished memories, came back last weekend, in a pot of chicken soup. And a piece of his future arrived too: the satisfaction that he can still make the homemade food he loves.

His story gives me the opportunity, as a food writer, to do something important with my life. I’m passing this story on, to you.

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 Posted by on November 24, 2009 at 11:25 am

  30 Responses to “Comfort in a Bowl of Soup”

  1. Nicely done, cousins Dana and DJ!! Of course food is important! I’m going home to make a chimichurri (look it up) right now! :-)

    • Hey Dan. I don’t need to look it up! You forgot who you’re dealing with – a food-obsessed cousin. I didn’t know you were such a cook.

  2. Dianne

    A priceless story and vivid reminder, as you say, of the power of food to evoke memories and heal. Bravo to Dana for getting back in the kitchen, that in itself is a small miracle, and surely one of the many ways people find connection to their histories and the stories of their youth. He’s hitting all the right points, and so glad he shared it with you, so you can pass it on to us. Be well, and Happy Thanksgiving.

  3. Dianne,
    Thanks for a great story. There was a smile on my face while reading how happy Dana was after cooking for himself. I using tumeric more in my recipes and will try his recipe really soon. Have a great Thanksgiving.

    • Nice to hear from you, Betty. How exciting that you might try it, even though I did not provide a recipe. Let me know how it turns out.

  4. That is a beautiful post Dianne. Thanks for sharing a little part of yourself. I read on Twitter that you wanted to “show not tell” and I think this piece really achieves that. You are an inspiration and so is Dana.

  5. Thanks for sharing, Dianne. I sometimes feel that food writing is frivolous as well. But then I think about the joy it brings me and others, and well, there ain’t nothing frivolous about that! We should take happiness where it’s found and not question it too much. Here’s to Dana!

  6. This made me all teary, thank you for sharing. It’s always difficult to put painful stories out there, but I find that it gives me a little breathing room in both my head and heart once I work up the nerve.

  7. Nice story, thanks for sharing. I wish Dana all the best. Dana, you should write a cookbook!

  8. I loved this post, Dianne. Just perfect.

    • Hey, that means a lot, to come from the head of the writing school where I teach. Thanks Jane, and thanks for blogging about it on the Writing Salon website.

  9. DJ,

    That was beautiful and very touching. It’s a lovely evocation of the power of food and memory, and how simple pleasures can triumph, even temporarily, over the everyday difficulties of life. Thanks for sharing it.

    Got any more like that?

    Josh

    • Thank you, Josh. It was kind of spontaneous, like many of my posts.

      Speaking of triumphs over a difficult life, you and Keren have a tearjerker story. I’ve told it many times. Maybe you should write it down.

  10. I think food writing, or any writing, can be frivolous, we’ve all read prime examples…but when you take that writing up a road so many can relate to – a special family member entwined with a food connection/memory – it transcends, becoming a gift as well as an inspiration. You’ll probably never know who got in touch with a family member because you put a little blood on the page, who cooked a special meal for someone because you introduced us to your cousin.

    Thanks! THIS is writing for food!

  11. [...] a recent post from Dianne Jacob that talks about gratitude in simple things. Have any other posts or articles touched you for the holiday? Social Bookmarking = Good Internet [...]

  12. Thank you Dianne for sharing this.
    Food heals in so many ways…
    The soup sounds wonderful..
    we never get to hear much about Iraqi cooking.

    • You are most welcome, Carol. Yes, not too much demand for Iraqi-Jewish cooking, but I grew up on it, also Indian-Jewish.

  13. It’s the little victories that inspire so much hope in a child who pronounces his first word..after weeks being afraid to try, its the mother who can let go of her terror of a bad fall for her beloved, it is Dana who despite his illness, smelled Murag…sat on a stool, made it and ate it…with joy. What amazing courage to face life, to embrace it, to overcome….if only for a moment. I’m so thankful to God for HOPE!

    • Thank you, KB. Dana was so inspired he made another family dish, with his caregiver’s help, for Thanksgiving yesterday! He is indeed hopeful that he can cook for himself in the days ahead.

  14. Beautiful story! I am not able to write unless it is about food and my blog is like therapy, writing about my life and food I am able to talk about my life, my childhood, face the death of my brother and whatever else is going on inside of me. I too suffer from agoraphobia and have spent long periods of time locked inside. Thanks to my food blog I can reach out, open myself up and be with others. This story about Dana is wonderful and it shows the healing power of food and words.

    • Jamie, no one would know that you have suffered, looking at your blog. It’s terrific, a full life. Congratulations.

  15. I missed this post! And here I thought I was a loyal reader! I’ve never felt that food writing was frivolous. When I was at university, I took a course that involved some material on food and memory. Ever since, I have felt that writing about food is some of the most important writing one can do. The action of eating is so brief and fleeting, and the only way personal food memories can continue to exist beyond your mind is through writing!

    You have written down Dana’s story and shared it with all of us, inspiring us, giving us hope, or at the very least, making us grateful for our ability to cook simple food, eat and share. I feel like I know so much about Dana after only a few paragraphs! I hope that he is able to continue cooking and enjoying the food he loves. I can’t give Dana a big hug, but I hope that I can send him one through you.

    • I’m so flattered that you want to read all my posts, Erika. Thank you.

      I guess when I said I thought food writing was trivial, I was thinking about “three things to do with broccoli” types of stories, although they have been a mainstay for many food writers, and I often cut out the articles and try the recipes. So I’m conflicted.

      Re Dana, he has stopped cooking right now and is on an obsession with corn dogs. I hope he gets back to it. Thanks for the good wishes.

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