A Memorial Feast

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My cousin Andrew is almost exactly my age and also grew up on the East Coast. A few years ago, in an attempt to resolve what had been a rough and uncertain early twenties, he decided to go to culinary school. Then he moved west, took and left a few jobs, and eventually ended up in Boise, Idaho, where my grandfather died early this November.

A good way to cope with the death of a relative is to make oneself useful to the relatives who are still alive, and so Andrew decided he would make all of the food for the reception. The day before the funeral, he rolled up to my grandparents’ house in a Tahoe stuffed with produce, two gigantic sacks of baguettes, decent knives, smoked fish, quarts of cream, beef, walnuts. We helped him unload in the falling snow, and then he put us to work. I sliced up the baguettes and, with my mother’s cousin Linda, shelled probably 600 pistachios. Drew mixed the pistachios with dried cherries. My mother spread goat cheese onto the baguette slices, and then Linda piled the cherries and pistachios on top. We made 120 of these, and then Drew reorganized the assembly line. There were six more canapés to put together.

When I was a child, my parents were friends with a man who ran a great Italian restaurant outside of Wilmington, Delaware. His specialty was gnocchi, and so obviously that’s what he made for the private meal that opened the restaurant. He had invited nearly 100 people. Gnocchi are temperamental, and it is important to get the dough exactly right—to handle it just enough, to not overcook the potatoes, and to measure your flour correctly. He doesn’t know whether he messed up because of nerves or what, but when my parents’ friend dumped 100 plates’ worth of his gnocchi into the boiling water, all of it immediately dissolved. This is what you keep a freezer of store-bought, frozen gnocchi in the back of your restaurant for—apparently nobody noticed a thing. He never screwed up the gnocchi again.

My mom told this story at my grandparents’ house when it turned out that Andrew’s chocolate whipped cream, which was to be the filling for some pastry dessert thing, refused to whip. We stood over the mixing bowl and ran it at high speed for twenty minutes, winding up with nothing but slightly fluffed chocolate sludge. Andrew blinked at the bowl for a minute, made a phone call, and then sent my younger brother out for a drive in the snow. Half an hour later, Robbie came back from the Fred Meyer with ten cans of whipped cream. At the next day’s reception, nobody noticed a thing.

“A GOOD WAY TO COPE WITH THE DEATH OF A RELATIVE IS TO MAKE ONESELF USEFUL TO THE RELATIVES WHO ARE STILL ALIVE.

I think that Andrew especially wanted to cook for our grandfather’s funeral because along with cooking, it was my grandfather who made it possible for Andrew to pull his life into a coherent whole after he moved out west, who modeled what a kind of adult equilibrium could be like. He told Andrew to get a dog—Andrew says it’s the best advice he has ever received. I’ve eaten and loved my cousin’s food at a couple Thanksgivings over the last few years, but I didn’t realize he was a chef until I watched him take less than three minutes to solve his failed whipped cream.

Aside from the food we prepared, and aside from the fact that we prepared it on the months’ second Thursday instead of the fourth, that night at my grandparents’ felt very much like Thanksgiving. The next day, my grandmother gave an extraordinary, two-sentence eulogy, and then after the funeral, she said something else. About an hour after she said it to me, she repeated it to my mother and cousin. She said, “It’s so strange that this should be one of the richest days of my life.”

Richard Beck is an associate editor at n+1. He lives in New York City.