The Power Of Food In Times Of Grief

By Talia Lavin

Reminded of death, we yearn to be, and eat.

“The truth is that most bereaved souls crave nourishment more tangible than prayers,” wrote M.F.K. Fisher in 1949. “They want a steak.” 

Like most of her pronouncements, this is so spare and elegant as to seem obvious; she goes on to recount the story of an acquaintance who gorged himself at several diners in the hours after his wife’s death — “and she not yet in her coffin!” — and arrived at Fisher’s glutted and ashamed. Gut full, heart empty, he deplored his own hunger. “He would always feel, in spite of himself,” she writes, “that sadness should not be connected so directly with gastronomy.”

The truth is, they are inseparable, an inextricable bond I discovered at the bottom of a ruby bowl of borscht.

When I heard the news of my college roommate’s suicide, I still had the taste of caviar on my tongue: I had just emerged from the Bessarabian Market in Kiev, where I’d gone from stall to stall, licking black eggs from plastic-tasting spoons. I was living alone in Ukraine that year. The bare-bones obituary was already up on our college newspaper’s website when I found out that the shallow breathing I’d learned to sleep through when we shared a double room had ceased entirely, at the age of 22.

Over the next few hours the sunshine blazed and I walked through it in a fugue: eyes seared red and sandy with dried tears, cheeks mucus-y and blotched, the world as I knew it altered. It seemed barely probable that Death had waltzed in and stolen one of our own, had taken possession of her small feet and her long hair, blue-black as a mussel bed, and guided the actions of her white hands. I could not feel my own body progressing homeward, nor my lips making wobbly pronouncements on the phone.

When Lena, the girl I was sharing an apartment with on the outskirts of Kiev, came home — a native Ukrainian, small and businesslike, with a black bob wedged behind her ears — she heard the gulping sobs from my bedroom and stopped in the doorway. Seeing me supine and choking against tears on my sofa, she told me: I’ll make you borscht.

The Amish serve raisin-studded funeral pie; in Utah, Mormons dole out cheesy potatoes at wakes; in Russia, a cup of vodka and a slice of bread are left at the grave, to sate the unsettled spirit of the newly dead. But for a week after a Jewish death, the mourner is prohibited by custom from cooking for herself. She must wear torn clothing, sit on a low stool, and eat, for seven days, the largesse of her community.

One of the few memories I have of my grandmother is the gift of smoked fish that followed her death: the marbled salmon slabs ferried from plate to lips; the low table in the house, sold long ago, which was then covered with food for her, for me, for my father and uncles, which was gobbled by strangers and exchanged, piece by piece, in exchange for stories of her life.

The night I found out my roommate died, the sun had the audacity to set prettily through my window, and Lena chopped beets and carrots and potatoes. The smell hit me first, and I was hooked back through my nostrils into reality, and when I clasped the hot bowl in my hands and spooned up purple mouthfuls, I ate long past the point of satiety.

The smell hit me first.

I ate because it was delicious and smelled good and was warm on my palms; I ate because it had been given to me in an act of pragmatic, unasked-for, and perfectly Ukrainian kindness; I ate because I was alive, I ate to secure myself against death; I ate the pot bare, and I slept the night through.

When my husband left me, everything began to taste like glue. The effect was so pronounced that I began to eat things that resembled glue in other ways: Kraft Mac in its bricky blue box, packaged meals with scores of industrial ingredients; raw ramen, crammed into my mouth over the sink, its perfect squiggles like a child’s drawing of the ocean; furtive deliveries from the all-night Chinese joint leaving sauce stains on my empty bed, in the new apartment, in the new room, in the new life I didn’t want, and wanted, increasingly, to exit.

In “The Glass Essay,” Anne Carson’s masterful deconstruction of her own grief after the departure of a man named Law, she captures this disconnect with her typical economy of expression:

“I wait a moment
then open the fridge.
Brilliant as a spaceship it exhales cold confusion.
… I close the fridge door. Bluish dusk
fills the room like a sea slid back.”

My anhedonia spread to the private red chamber of my mouth, even my tongue, which was ready at all times to plead for reconciliation. It is embarrassing to be sad in public; it is embarrassing to be sad in a well-lit office; it is embarrassing to be sad on a New York subway train, in an elevator, on the street, to be publicly and grossly and undeniably sad, without benefit of any kind of poker face at all, and all because a man has left you.

At lunch hour, I’d munch listlessly through fried things and taste nothing; and then I’d start looking wistfully at the traffic at the West Side Highway, thinking of making myself a thin smear thereunder, or walking out rock-weighted into the East River and going putrid with bloat: just add water.

Far from daring, I did not care to eat a peach, no matter how perfectly dewed its trembling down; I did not reach for the swell of a new-summer nectarine, for pungent cheese, for good, lush things served hot on china plates. I curled into myself and grew doughier and cried and cried, for a lost past and a lost present and a lost future and a lost me at the center of all of them, the reluctant link in a chain gone molten with grief.

Illustration by Katie Tandy

I wanted to die, but I didn’t try to. Having once loved someone who had succeeded, I could not square the quenching of my grief with the grief the act of doing so would cause. I knew that my self-inflicted death would be carried by those I loved for years, and their needless guilt would outweigh the kindness and patience they had shown towards me, as I floated, ungainly as a sodden mattress, on a sea of gulped tears. I did not die because I didn’t want to lose my job in the well-lit office. I did not die because I was too angry at the sun for shining so much even though he’d left me, and I wanted to wake up each day and be angry at it all over again. And it is, after all, embarrassing to die because a man has left you.

When death has taken those I love, I have reached for food as if reaching into the earth, to reassure myself that I am still present; when I have canted towards death, when I have yearned for it, my mouth has been as numb to pleasure as the rest of me. Reminded of death, we yearn to be, and eat; turning away from food, we long not to need it, and go.

When death has taken those I love, I have reached for food

Summer is coming to a crest and things are starting to taste like themselves again. The whole beet hides under an earthy skin; cod flakes at the seams and melts when tasted; an olive detonates like a salty bomb on the pad of my tongue.

Sometimes the sorrow of his departure (Carson writes: “I felt as if the sky was torn off my life. /I had no home in goodness anymore”) still buckles me at the knees. Other times I look at the green, lucid world, lit as if through grape skin, and I can laugh.

A Recipe For Lena’s Borscht
(Verbatim As Given To Me By Same)

Cookware: 3-liter pot 
Time: 1.5 hours

Chop 1 onion and roast it in a pot with oil, mixing it all the time until onions turn corn-colored.
Chop 2 beets and 2 carrots, medium-size, and add to the pot.
Add water (approx. half of the pot) and wait about 25 minutes.
Add salt, pepper, bay leaves.

Meanwhile, prepare 4 medium-size potatoes, cut them and add them to the pot, then let them boil on light heat for about 15 minutes.
Chop cabbage (half of a medium-size head), and add together with tomato paste (100 grams) and cook for the next 15 minutes.

If you have white beans, you can add them too, they will be tasty, but prepared beans are fine; you can add when the borscht is ready and boil for 5 minutes.

Good to serve with a bit of fresh parsley and dill, garlic, bread, and sour cream!

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