Grief is a sacred journey

Let’s Talk about What Matters: What’s for Dinner?

BowlsDSC01810 of ripe San Marzano tomatoes flashed red alert on my back porch table. I tried to ignore them. I wanted to do other things: write a blog about something important, attend a dream group, and plan a hospice bereavement workshop.

The tomatoes screamed for my attention. Now or we’re going to rot.

In late May, I planted eight tomato plants including three San Marzanos in my rich organic soil. San Marzanos have the best flavor of any Italian plum tomato according to experts and me. In June and July, I pruned and tied the vines to upright stakes. They grew tall and turned dark green before producing delicate yellow flowers and marble-sized green balls. The babies thrived like healthy children. An early blush of yellow slowly turned to intense tomato red.

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In 1996, my husband Vic and I ate at an Italian restaurant overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Costa Rica. The tomato sauce was unique. Divine. I asked for the recipe, but the restaurant owner whose white chef’s apron covered a chic European dress shook her head no. Absolutely not.

On our third visit in three days for our third bowl of pasta and tomato sauce, I begged. What was the magic ingredient that made it so spectacular? She relented and gave me a vague recipe.

DSC08182“I use very ripe Italian tomatoes from the market,” she said in melodic Italian-flavored English. “I peel and mash and drain in a colander.”

“Just a splash of olive oil to keep the sauce light. Sauté lots of fresh garlic in the oil and add drained tomatoes, salt, pepper, a touch of cayenne if you like it. Bring to a simmer and add handfuls of chopped fresh basil. Don’t cook more. It’s ready.”

The magic ingredient? Draining before cooking so the tomatoes don’t have the life cooked out of them.

This summer, I froze tomatoes and made tomato soups, but I haven’t made one batch of my favorite sauce. Not one. I think I’m too busy being a writer. Besides that, I grow the tomatoes. Do I have to cook, too?

DSC08252My family loves this sauce. My friends do, too. I love having the sauce in the freezer to share when they visit.

But don’t I have better things to do with my time? What about that important life-changing blog?

My conflict brought up another memory. In 1981, Vic and I were on a train with philosopher, writer of innumerable books, and sage Paul Brunton. I wrote about PB, as we called him, in a post called Gardening is a Spiritual Practice. During the hour-long trip from Lausanne, Switzerland to Montreux, we discussed weighty issues of philosophy and science. As we neared the Montreux station, PB turned inward in a silent reverie.

Paul Brunton (photo by Vic Mansfield)

Paul Brunton (photo by Vic Mansfield)

In a few minutes, he opened his eyes and looked up at us. “Let’s talk about something that really matters,” he said with a big smile. “What will we have for dinner?”

I laughed. We all laughed, but PB was serious. He enjoyed the vegan meals I prepared each day during our six week stay in Montreax. In The Notebooks of Paul Brunton (Volume 4), he wrote about the importance of caring for the body and nurturing ourselves with good food. To PB, care of the body was right up there with writing, meditation, studying philosophy, and living an ethical life.

The tomatoes won. Now you know why.

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How do you feel about cooking? Do you resist preparing meals for yourself (and others) or do you cook as an offering of love? For an article about the origin of my favorite marinara sauce, my husband’s love of Italian food, and a more formal recipe with measurements, see Better than Your Grandma’s Marinara. For articles about making vegetarian entrées, burgers, soups, salads, and other delights, see the recipe section of my website.

 

30 Comments
  1. Delightful! And your sauce description is so delicious I can taste it! ♥

  2. Taste buds die when grief hits. We eat the meager amounts we do only to keep alive, and that we do begrudgingly. When we can taste food again, it’s like the shade is pulled open and the warm light floods in. It was food that anchored me back to the earth and filled my heart, until my heart could feel itself again. Great post, Elaine!

    • My appetite didn’t dry up for long, but my desire to cook never recovered, even eight years later. I still love to grow vegetables (and flowers), and therein lies the conflict. If I grow them and harvest them, I must cook them–and I’m always grateful for the results. I now have tomato sauce frozen in glass jars waiting for the next visitor. If you’re a cook, you should try the recipe. It. Is. Good. Thanks for your comment, Mark.

  3. Thanks for sharing the tomato secret Elaine. I love making soups and trying out different tomato sauce recipes. I’m definitely going to try that, draining the tomatoes and see what brews. 🙂

    • It will be delightful if the tomatoes you use are from a local farmer’s market. Most grocery store tomatoes are bred for long shelf life rather than supreme flavor. I hope it works for you. An Italian Twitter friend (photographer Mauro Marinelli who has a second book of photography coming out this fall) has shared this post a few times this morning. He’s making me laugh as I remember how much my Italian guy Vic loved good tomato sauce and pasta.

  4. Loved this Elaine thank you! At this moment I’m preparing food – for my husband while I’m away (the broccoli and carrots are now steamed, and the smell of brocolli permeates the house). I’ll drain them just now and drink the delicious water, what’s left of it. I bought a cooked chicken this morning (organic) which I’ll break into pieces and pack and freeze along with the veg. Plus I’m putting aside a few things – food – to take to my friend in hospital, if they’ll let me see her. At least she’s out of intensive care, now in high care .. I’m a bit like a Jewish mama re food – I remember my mother saying food ALWAYS tastes and IS better when made with love and care. I can be a bit slap-dash in my cooking, but I like making things that are good and tasty and look nice!

    Good on those tomatoes putting you on red alert! I loved Paul Brunton saying – let’s talk about what’s important – what’s for supper!

    • Paul Brunton always surprised me with his perspective and insights. I have at least twenty of his philosophy, self-inquiry, and travel books on my shelves, but what I most remember 35 years after his death are his insights about food, gardening, and raising kids. When the writer in me decides I’m wasting time with householder tasks, these memories straighten me out. I agree with your mother. Isn’t your husband a lucky guy to have prepared meals during your absence? I did the same thing for Vic and he was always grateful. He was a great vegetable chopper and dish washer, but not much of a cook. I hope your friend is recovering. A few bites of your food infused with love and care will move her toward life.

  5. Yum! I’ll have to try this. You should write a food blog! Now there’s an important contribution to the world! 🙂 This was delightful.

    • Jeanie, friends have been telling me I should write a food blog or a cook book for more years than I can remember. I put many recipes on my website for nutrition clients and anyone else, but never felt like focusing on cooking. You might be right, but an inner part of me tightens her lips and shakes her head no. She wants to do something else, although it’s not always clear just what that is. I’m glad this was a delight. As you can tell, I had mixed feelings about writing it. The tomato sauce, as always, is A+.

  6. I just re-read your post and took in the comments this time. I do agree, preparing and eating food is a form of self-care.

    Out of habit and also because cooking is a break from writing, I make at least one meal a day. A few days ago I baked a pork and sauerkraut + potato dinner and we’re still eating the leftovers.

    Writing about food is a tasty way to express your creativity as you do here: “Bowls of ripe San Marzano tomatoes flashed red alert on my back porch table.”

    My mother, aunt and grandma equated food with love. Grandma Longenecker prepared food as though it were a sacrament, which it is. She viewed her kitchen as a sacred space, “her stove an altar of sacrifice. her table a place for the observance of Holy Communion. To her, food was love made edible.”

    Since last week, I have your recipe in a WORD doc on my desktop. Before the tomatoes rot, I’ll have to get busy. In the meantime I’m preparing an Amish recipe dish with chicken, carrots, and potatoes for my brother-in-law’s 75th birthday.

    Your recipe book can wait – but you may want to consider it later. 😀

    • I know you went looking for this recipe when I mentioned it in an earlier post. Tomato season is waning here and it’s time for winter squash. I loved reading about your Grandma Longenecker and her food as a family sacrament in your blog a week or so ago. My grandma had a similar attitude, although my mother did not. I returned to this traditional approach to the value of food to nurture and unite the family when Vic and I were married had children. Shared meals were an essential part of our family glue. We grew, prepared food, ate it, and cleaned up together.

      I love leftovers. I have a close friend visiting. I’m so glad I made a great tomato, white bean, vegetable soup just before she came so we could share it today for lunch.

  7. Elaine, I was so happy to read this! I have been getting too many tomatoes of all kinds from the TC3 (Tompkins Cortland Community College) Farm share this year. There was no way I could eat them all fresh. So I’ve been making tomato sauce lately also. And today I’m cooking dinner for my grandson to celebrate his 21st birthday. Cooking and eating are forms of love, I think.

    Thank you for reminding me.

    • I’m sure you’ll make your grandson a memorable birthday meal. It sounds like you have plenty of raw materials. Food has always been a ritualized part of any culture. Somehow the sacred part of food and preparation of food got turned over to Nabisco and Ritz. You remind me of the Slow Food movement. I wish I’d connected to that slow food idea as I wrote this blog, but I’m glad to claim it now.

  8. I just loved this post, Elaine. You structured it so well, giving us the anecdote at the end and the sauce story at the beginning.

    Wish I could taste that sauce. It might even entice me into gardening and cooking more mindfully. I admire your calling to do this.

    • I’ve done lots of gardening and cooking in my life, Shirley. Vic loved Italian food and he was a good prep cook, dish washer, tomato stake pounder, and garden rototiller, so I felt supported in my efforts. My sons are good cooks, gardeners, and helpers, too. Writing about food felt a little dull, but when those tomatoes insisted, I answered the call. Sauce in the freezer and a blog that reminded me why I bother cooking family favorites. It also reminds me and others that food preparation was always considered sacred. Religious ritual is usually full of food symbolism. I wish you could taste the sauce, too, but it isn’t hard to make. I promise.

  9. I know this conflict all too well, Elaine. Along with writing, tending my garden, eating well and health are my favorite things to think and talk about. This past month I’ve been too busy to cook and have not been happy with myself. I’m longing to get back into the kitchen to make bone broth, which my freezer is running low on. And then there are the glories of the fall garden … late tomatoes, butternut and acorn squash, loads of greens, eggplant, and lots of peppers! I’m getting very hungry as I write this. Time for lunch.

    I am going to try that “vague” sauce recipe. It sounds great. I love vague recipes because we can make them our own!!

    • Joan, my self-care routine took a hit during the years leading up to and the year after the publication of my book. I was in a constant exhilarating hurry and didn’t take enough time to nurture myself and relax. Meditation and exercise were part of the plan, but they weren’t first priority. It’s a problem for every writer I know.

      Go for the vague recipe which is all I had in the beginning. The magic is in draining before cooking rather than cooking the tomatoes for hours or using canned ones. If you like measurements, follow the link at the end of the blog for a fine-tuned recipe which means I measured while I cooked and wrote down the details.

  10. Thanks so much for this article, Elaine. While I generally eat the right things, too often I view eating as secondary to all the other mindful activities I want to do in a day. In reality, if I don’t eat well, those tasks and activities are less . . .joyful, mindful, creative, etc. I think I’ll go make a snack right now!

    • Thanks for your comment, Monica. I also have a health problem (Meniere’s Disease) that’s related to blood sugar, so when I eat too little or too much or at the wrong times, I notice. That doesn’t stop me from overriding my body’s clear signals when I’m obsessively trying to make a piece I’m writing work or make a deadline. I just had a vigorous exercise session. Afternoon snack coming soon.

  11. Food is definitely an offering of love (hence my cooking of brisket and other meat for my family, even though I don’t eat it). 🙂
    Cooking with fresh produce is also wonderful, although I am not a gardener, so I purchase mine. Fresh summer tomatoes in sauce– or salsa–is so wonderful.
    And cooking a holiday dinner always takes precedence over doing my actual work, but when I am in super work mode or facing a deadline, then take out is great–especially if my husband goes out to get it.

    • I agree, Merrill. And we have our favorite holiday meals–all involving tomato sauce. I live 18 miles from the nearest restaurant, so I have to do in-house quick meals. Soup I’ve made and frozen is always a good bet. It’s been challenging to cook just for myself, but nurturing myself is sacred, too. The tomatoes were incredible this year. I was glad to share them with my son and his girlfriend during their visit this week.

  12. What more elemental way of showing love than food. I’m going to try those in my garden next year. Yum.

    • I hope you have good luck with San Marzano tomatoes. They loved the hot summer we had in central NY this year. My son, his girlfriend, and I just had dinner at a friend’s home. He cooked us an incredible meal from his garden. Pure love.

  13. Food will win every time in my opinion. Even writing about good food doesn’t come close to actually feasting on it. And walking in the woods with friends and dogs – it is amazing how often, amid the dense forest and green hills and streams and gorges, the conversation will turn to that all-important question, “What’s for dinner tonight?” I have not written too much on the subject myself. But you’ve encouraged me here. Next time I’m suffering from writer’s block I will write about food.

    • I know you’re a “foodie,” Robin. I imagine dinner parties and a glass of wine with friends in your world. Even the memorial services I remember best include good food, our encouragements to keep tasting life because if we keep trying things, we’re bound to find delicious treats.

  14. Cooking and I have been lovers for 50 years.I think when i saw a movie called “Water for Chocolate” gave me permission to literally see the lifeforce and energy of the Great Spirit . It became so obvious to me that growing and cooking and preserving and sharing food really are about love as a timeless energy that allows us to savor tastes we have come to see as if they were colors of the rainbow.One year I had so much Zucchini I froze alot but it did not do well.And other years I have frozen chili and sauces that still seem freshly picked and saved.I like to make soups out of previous meals and see the ingredients likened to very flexible words that are recycled into different sentences and thought. Savoring has become an artform in its own rite to me.I do understand “This is my Body”now as an acceptance of the connectivity of all life now. You inspire me to treat myself and all my work in this life as an aspect of apprenticeship.Thank You.

    • I loved ‘Water for Chocolate,’ Alicia. Zucchini is mushy when frozen–as I learned, too. I love the soups and will put some in my freezer today. Nice to think of recycled words as a soup or stew made of the old ingredients. I hope I’ll always be a student and an apprentice.
      My son and his lover Jenna left for CA this morning. While they were here, we seriously considered the possibility of them moving back to this land. Anthony has always wanted to do this and Jenna seems ready, too. I hope we can make it work, but there’s lots to sort out. I’ve already called my favorite builder to begin gathering ideas for building a new and smaller place for myself. I’ve been sorting through my old house for 6 months now, getting ready for whatever comes next.
      Yesterday, Anthony helped me get rid of more things, some his. We also straightened out the cellar.
      “I was planning on getting rid of all these canning jars,” I said pointing to shelves of empty jars decorated with cobwebs. “I have all the canning equipment, too.”
      “I think we should keep it,” he said. “We’ll use it.”
      Jenna who had been throwing sticks for Willow joined us in the cellar. I told her how the shelves used to be filled with jars of vibrant beauty, color, and taste–apricot, pear, peach, grape, cherry, tomato, beets, apple. “I’d like to fill those shelves again,” she said.
      As always, we’ll see what happens next.

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