Comfort Food

At the hospital, my stepmother Jacquie writes “Hungry?” with her eyes closed in Sharpie on the piece of paper we put before her. She is being fed through a tube. There is a hole cut through her neck. I can’t help but think she is the most beautiful person—apple eyes, forever cheekbones, and smooth, pale, freckled skin—even in the Intensive Care Unit, where people barely look like themselves. We laugh because she is never hungry. My aunt folds the piece of paper and puts it in her purse.

We aren’t hungry either, but we eat too much in spite of everything. My siblings have flown home from boarding school, and we move into Jacquie’s house. I sleep with my sister in my childhood bedroom. In the morning, we review the ingredients that remain in the kitchen: avocados, a well-loved bottle of coconut oil, a small and unexpected bag of brown rice flour, soft brown sugar, and six Granny Smith apples. My dad goes to Costco. We make fun of him for buying 25 lemons and for all the trashy Kirkland snacks he stows in his car: smoked almonds, sickly sweet dried cherries, and the dried mango that we eat on the way to the hospital. We make the six green apples into a crisp with the rest of the coconut oil, sugar and flour, plus oats, raisins and pumpkin seeds. My sister scatters the oats over the apples knowingly.

For two weeks, our heartbreak manifests in the culinary. We shop for groceries again and again, an attempt to sate our confusion. In the daytime, after visits to the hospital, we eat red meat and fried sweet potatoes at restaurants while my dad paces outside, smoking. At night my sister brings cookbooks to bed and stays up late watching trashy cooking competitions. She heaves enormous trays and pans from the ovens. Things are less painful if you keep moving, right? And so we pass the pepper grinder and olive oil between us as we cook.

Jacquie keeps utensils and dishes in strange places, but because she can’t talk, we can’t ask her where a measuring cup is. The stroke has taken her half-away, and what remains isn’t loss but an empty suspense and an inevitable wait. Moments with her are caught between memory and foreshadow. Our words feel as stale, inadequate and over-processed as hospital food.

That night, we make dinner for 20 when we are only six. We clean too many ceramic dishes and pawn the leftovers off on our guests as they leave. The only person we are cooking for is the one who isn’t there, and eating meals in her house feels like betrayal.

In the prime of Dad’s alcoholism he cooked the most lavishly. Cooking kept his marriage afloat; it was his generosity as well as his escape.

Unsurpisingly, my digestion is weak. I am comforted to learn that our minds and our stomachs share cellular properties. Food becomes us. My strongest recollections from my ever-shifting childhood involve meals: Dad shucking and slurping oysters at the beach in a leather jacket, the scraps of muffins and cookies Jacquie kept in a small, plastic-wrapped bowl in the cupboard. All of my older siblings’ high school diets—Kerry’s vegetable soups, Dave’s six-egg omelets, Sydney’s daily quesadillas—are now memories as fixed as family recipes.

Jacquie does not eat much, but she buys the right cookbooks and food magazines and insists that the preparation be beautiful. Her newly renovated kitchen is fit for a small staff of chefs. After she and my dad divorced, I wondered if she had renovated the kitchen with his love of cooking in mind.

In the prime of Dad’s alcoholism he cooked the most lavishly. Cooking kept his marriage afloat; it was his generosity as well as his escape (in my family, food is a way to launder our emotions; when there isn’t communication, there is always dinner). I used to imagine him as a far-flung Frenchman, habitually arriving with groceries and a bottle of wine at six o’clock. He bought a baguette every night, and we would fight over who got to eat the heel. He washed every piece of fish or cut of meat under icy water and was precious with vegetables. Recently, he tells me that he’s over being a foodie. He lives alone now, can afford steak for one, and has a girlfriend that likes to take care of him.

The last time I saw Jacquie before the stroke, we shared a piece of Filet Mignon with roasted carrots and mashed potatoes in a dimly lit restaurant. She gave me the bigger portion when we divided the plate. Eating habits become familiar, like gestures. Jacquie takes small bites and always talks and gesticulates while her utensils rest on the edge of her plate. It’s important to talk while you have dinner, she would say to us as kids. When I lived with her, we would have tea before bed. She would break a spicy gingerbread cookie and dip it in her mug. She might return the second half to the box.

My dad visits her in the hospital this week. He says that her voice has returned, and that she has asked him to take her for sushi and a glass of wine. When I talk to her on the phone a couple days later, her voice isn’t as bright, but her words are too familiar.  “Hi little Zo. Are you making art? Are you eating right?”

Zoe Koke is an interdisciplinary artist based in Montreal.