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.