In food writing I read a lot about the importance of gathering people around the table, of the joy and fulfillment of cooking perfect meals for someone you love. Gorgeous photos complete the package.
I planned a dinner last week, hoping to achieve these goals. I wanted to cook for my cousin Dana in Los Angeles, who is dying of cancer.
He requested two dishes that did not go together: spaghetti and meatballs, in honor of his mother’s Italian-Catholic side; and Hamoth, a sweet and sour beet stew made by our Iraqi-Jewish grandmother, which is actually an Indian-Jewish dish.
(Confused yet? Now, if you had an Italian-Catholic mother from New York and an Iraqi-Jewish father from Shanghai, what would your identity be? Dana chose to play the bagpipes.)
I cooked the meal at the home of my friend Mary Ann and her husband Daniel, where my husband and I stay while in L.A. Dana lives nearby in a 2- bedroom apartment with his caregiver. His kitchen is tiny and not always clean. Mary Ann, however, just completed a total kitchen makeover, and her husband gives her Le Crueset as gifts. Need I say more?
Once I got cooking I rationalized that Dana should come to my friend’s house to eat, since his life for the last few years has been confined to doctor’s appointments; urgent hospital visits; and mostly, watching the Food Network at home. Dana has known Mary Ann for as long as I have. She was my college roommate, and before living with her, I lived with Dana and his parents, sleeping on the couch in their den.
The cooking took a few hours, as I made several servings to package for Dana’s freezer. My husband helped me brown the meatballs, Mary Ann came home from work early to make a salad, and we were ready to go when Dana and his caregiver arrived.
Dana was in his wheelchair, with a tank of oxygen in the back. Soon he wheeled up to the dining room table, anticipating his first course of red-sauced spaghetti with three fat meatballs (a superb and easy recipe from My Calbria) with a sprinkling of grated Parmesan.
As he raised his fork to his lips, bright red blood spurted from his nose. At first he kept going, eager to get in a few tastes of the dish he had requested. Soon blood poured onto his t-shirt and dotted his plate with red pools the size of dimes. His caregiver sprang into action, stuffing a tissue up his nose. Dana put his head back and rested in his wheelchair. Blood was smeared on his oxygen hose.
The rest of us sat at the dinner table, looking down at our plates of lovingly-prepared food. We tried not to look at Dana and pretended nothing unusual was going on. After a few minutes I cleared the table and tried again with plates of the second course (from Claudia Roden’s seminal Book of Jewish Food): stewed chicken and red beets perched on yellow rice, a sunset of bright red, orange, and yellow.
Dana kept apologizing. He tried to eat the second dish, but his nosebleed worsened. We cleared the table and moved into the family room to watch the Lakers. Dana sat silently for a half hour, exhausted and embarrassed. The tissue was still shoved up his nose. Then his caregiver wheeled him out of Mary Ann’s house.
Afterwards, I thought about how much easier it would have been for Dana if I had made dinner at his apartment and served it to him there. I considered whether I was showing off for my own enjoyment, and whether this dinner was truly for him. Lastly, I thought about how much more call there is for a story with pretty photos, where the meal was perfect and everyone loved it.