The beauty of fond memories is the lasting impression they leave on your heart. Whether it be continuing the traditions of cooking, or the life lessons woven in, we keep our loved one’s precious spirits alive and honored.
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One word, one thought ~ that’s all it takes to create a wave of difference. This week’s blog post from our own team member, Melissa Bartell, explores the connection between cooking and caring.
There’s a saying that a friend and I have picked up, “Sauté onion and garlic; figure out what’s for dinner.” While it’s true that as a third-generation Italian-American most of my dishes do start with onion, garlic, or both, it’s equally true that the main ingredient in everything I make is caring: caring for the people who produced the ingredients I’m using, caring for the people who will be eating my creations, and caring for the family members who taught me to cook in the first place.
As a little girl, I learned to bake from my grandfather, but my grandmother taught me to cook, instilling in me a love of the process as much the product, and giving me a lifelong taste for her favorite Italian dishes: Spaghetti Aglio e Olio (spaghetti with garlic and oil), Baked Ziti, and Pasta e Fagioli (a noodle and bean soup that is nothing like the stuff they serve at the Olive Garden.)
As I grew older, my culinary repertoire expanded, and my love of cooking with other people grew as well. After my grandfather died, my grandmother moved in with my mother. She no longer had the stamina to dice onions or mince garlic, but her brain retained every nuance of every recipe. She’d leave messages on my answering machine detailing the ingredients in something she was craving, and I’d go to my mother’s house and cook them, while she sat at the kitchen table sharing stories.
Food isn’t just something to feed the body, the social aspect of cooking and dining with family and friends stimulates conversation and memory. The scent of fresh bread could trigger a memory of the first time my grandfather experimented with raisin bread, and that memory might lead to my grandmother sharing that he used to bring her gladiolas in metal buckets “just because.”
Even when we weren’t cooking the kitchen table was the center of my grandmother’s social world. As a kid, I witnessed late-night card games with endless cups of coffee, the loud, boisterous voices of my cousins ringing out in laughter. When I was old enough to take part in those social hours, I learned that in my family, there was always enough space at the table for one more, and always enough in the kitchen, whether someone wanted a whole meal, or just “a little something,” my grandmother’s shorthand for a sweet treat.
By the time my grandmother had to move to a care home, her love of food and cooking had diminished (I know now that this is typical of people with dementia or Alzheimer’s), and lucid conversations were becoming a challenge. Still, even if she didn’t know our names anymore, she recognized that my mother, my stepfather, my husband and I somehow belonged to her, and to the end, her eyes would light up at the offer of her greatest weakness: ice cream.
Today, my grandmother is with me in spirit all the time, not just when I’m cooking. I hear the echo of her singing to her houseplants whenever I see an African violet. I feel the cool touch of her hand on my brow whenever I’m hot in the middle of the night. And I taste her love for me whenever I make a big pot of pasta e fagioli.
More than any of that, though, I recall the lesson she taught me by word and example: “A gift of the hand is a gift of the heart.” My friends get homemade cookies from me for major holidays, and when I make soup or baked ziti, I make enough to share.
Cooking is connection. Cooking is communication.
Cooking is caring.
In addition to being a member of the BreathingSpaces team, Melissa A. Bartell is a writer, podcaster, and voice actor, whose work has been nominated for both the Pushcart Prize and the Parsec Award. In her fiction, she uses horror and science fiction to process different aspects of contemporary society. She lives near Dallas, TX, with her husband, their three dogs, and more kitchen appliances than anyone really needs. Find out more at missmeliss.com.