When my mother was recovering from a recurrent infection in a nursing home in Los Angeles, I visited her at least once a day to push hope on a fork, my own spirits dependent on her every swallow. Mom’s appetite was dulled by illness, and she refused to stomach the insult of food she considered bland or thrown together like compost.
One evening the dinner tray contained an uncommon offering. “Look, Mom, collard greens!” More than any other dish, greens—collard, mustard, turnip—evoked memories of my childhood family table, and provided a palpable connection to my proud and resilient black ancestors in the slaveholding South. “They actually look good.”
“I wouldn’t eat that with your mouth,” she said, twisting her lips away, trusting my desperate cheeriness even less than the watery, freezer-packed vegetables. She needed to gain weight, but that need meant nothing to her when a slice of beef was like “shoe leather” and the chicken was “old and served raw.”
With the help of a temporary feeding tube, she grew strong enough to return to our shared home, but her recovery was as tentative as a seedling. I could no longer care for her without around-the-clock assistance.
“Are you a good cook?” I asked each prospective caregiver. The candidates often giggled in response or paused, caught off guard, as if 89-year-olds crave no more than tea and toast.
“I can make sandwiches,” several upbeat but oven-challenged men offered. The women promised better fare, but most of them would have toppled over trying to transfer my long-legged mother to her wheelchair. Then came Bridgette, a quiet, sturdy Filipina with bakery experience. She explained that she wasn’t familiar with American dishes.
“Do you like to cook lumpia?” I asked, figuring anyone who could make egg rolls from scratch could handle oatmeal with fresh fruit. “Pancit? Arroz caldo?”
She lifted her eyes. “You like Filipino food?”
We weren’t narrow people. As travelers my parents were more likely to find a hole-in-the-wall than dine in a hotel. Mom dipped into mysterious soups in back alleys and gorged on escargot. Still, in her advanced years, the foods that Mom had known since childhood were what enticed her most. She had eaten grits every morning as a girl in Charleston, South Carolina, and never met a meal she didn’t finish at the 1940s boarding house tables of New Orleans and Nashville. Those dishes held memories of untroubled youth and made her forget her current weariness with chewing and swallowing. My faith rested in the pleasure and power of the long familiar. I believed that greens could cure, and that okra and oxtail stew could strengthen.
“I can learn anything,” Bridgette assured.
She signed on for four days a week. As I rushed around trying to safeguard every aspect of Mom’s return, I would stop in the kitchen to offer Bridgette the occasional “American” pointer: Hominy grits look like Cream of Wheat but are served thick on a plate with butter; green vegetables should be a daily staple.
Maria, my mother’s twice-a-week housekeeper, pitched in. One day she bought two bundles of raw collards with which to instruct Bridgette, who had never before seen the broad tough leaves. While Maria tore the greens off the stalks, Bridgette crushed fresh ginger and dropped it into the pot.
Maria charged the stove. “Don’t put that in there! She won’t like it!”
But the deed was already done. Collard greens with ginger? My Southern forebears had seasoned the food simply, with ham hocks, onion, salt and pepper, and—with the exception of a health-conscious switch to smoked turkey—so had I.
Perhaps because of Bridgette’s kind patience, as much as the new flavors, Mom relished every bite. Her scowl softened, emboldening Bridgette to tinker further. For protein she used chicken thighs sautéed in fish sauce—a fermented medley of scads, herrings, sardines, and mackerels. The first time I smelled the dish simmering I couldn’t place the nostalgia I felt, mixed with the excitement of a good Asian restaurant.
The past was losing its claim on my tongue.
One afternoon I worked upstairs as the sound of a knife chopping on hard plastic echoed up through the floorboards. I smelled ginger frying in olive oil, then the bold promise of garlic. Bridgette’s culinary attentiveness awakened the whole house from its nursing-home-like stupor. I went into the kitchen and found enough left for one small bowl. Instead of making a beeline back to my desk, I sat with Mom, who responded to my presence with a question.
“Why do you like greens so much?” she asked, drawing her head back, diluting my genuine appreciation for them with two drops of imitation contempt.
You mean, you don’t? I thought, alone in my affection.
After a moment, I realized that Mom hungered to hear my heart, just as for decades I had listened to hers. She herself had been a mediocre cook—when she was young, the step-by-step processes of the science lab captivated her more than the kitchen. Mom’s gastronomic skill lay in serving up leisurely stories from her past that included characters like well-buttered oyster po’ boys. Her reverie could almost be tasted.
Now it was my turn. My first instinct was to commend the earthy taste of cruciferous leaves, but that wouldn’t meet her criteria. Instead I told her about arriving home after school as a child and being greeted by the greens’ salty pork smell, a step up from my latchkey kid loneliness. Our housekeeper Miss Willie played catch with me outside while the meal she had prepared completed its alchemy on the stove. Later, our whole family crowded the table, vying for seconds and thirds.
The past, though, was losing its claim on my tongue. As I ate Bridgette’s greens, their evolution—by way of the many hands and cultures that had nourished us—fused into an unexpected sign that our life post-recovery could move forward. Mom ate another forkful without complaint, but for the moment, I was the one who felt healed.
Louise A. Smith is a writer based in Los Angeles.