What does love taste like?
Maybe you have never contemplated a question like that, and thought love was something you feel. Yes, a taste can remind you of feelings of love, but I am talking about actually tasting it. It’s this sense of actually experiencing the energy the person preparing that food put into it. For me this answer is easy: oatmeal cookies. Not just anyone’s oatmeal cookies, but Nana’s made from scratch, prepared with love oatmeal cookies.
I lost my Nana this past Monday at the age of 94 from complications with dementia. She hadn’t baked in years, but our family still talks about her meals like they were yesterday. Even while in the ICU last week, when the nurse asked Nana how she and my Poppy have been together for almost 75 years, she simply replied, “Because I love him… and I’m a good cook”.
Nana wasn’t just a good cook, she was magical. No one could replicate her breads and rolls no matter how hard they tried. Fresh out of the oven, a hard roll with butter and jelly – it doesn’t get much better than that, and you would love every minute of eating it no matter what time of day it was. Her apple crumb pie was sent straight from heaven, and her chocolate covered cream puffs could go toe-to toe with the world’s top pastry chefs. But her oatmeal cookies – oh you could just taste the love stirred into them.
As a child, I spent many weekends and holidays at Nana and Poppy’s on the east end of Long Island. It really was idyllic – living on a canal right off Tiana Bay, we spent our time fishing and swimming, and enjoying home cooked meals. I succinctly remember the opaque square Tupperware container that sat just above eye level in the pantry – my indication that oatmeal cookies were freshly made. So much happiness is connected to those memories, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.
Feeling the warmth of her hand in mine while she lay in the hospital bed, I was flooded with visions of those hands kneading countless loaves of bread and rolling the perfect oatmeal cookies. Her delicate strength was still in her grip, despite the years retired from breadmaking. On Thanksgiving, those hands were particularly hard at work for the extensive feast that lie ahead.
Thanksgiving was the holiday for our family growing up. We would all gather before noon to a spread of appetizers: Shrimp cocktail, sausage bread, a cheese and pate platter, and other dips and treats de jour. After a short break from the gustatory delights, we would move on to the main meal. I recall there typically being more varieties of vegetables than there were persons at the table, and there were at least 10 of us present any given year. The sound of the electric carving knife signaled that it was almost time as we all eagerly awaited in the living room. Special care was made to ensure the wish bone was intact for my sister and I later that evening… but not before the desserts. At least three pies: pumpkin, apple crumb, and mincemeat for my uncle – along with cookies and pastries galore. The vast majority of this was prepared by one person – Nana – and it was always done to perfection.
Despite me being the nutrition professional in the family, I am the lowest on the totem pole in terms of culinary competence. Luckily, my mother, aunts, and sister inherited her love for cooking and skills in the kitchen. One aunt is making about 5 desserts, and everyone else is tasked with prepping different parts of Thanksgiving Dinner. (Me? I get tasked with taking pictures.) This year, though, there is an empty space at the table, and despite there being many joyful memories to fill us up, there will be no denying the fresh wound in our hearts.
Every once in a while this past week I have put on my lens of eating disorder professional and thought about how sharing this could be helpful. I have sat with many individuals who have not had such beautiful memories around food, and others that despite once finding pleasures in these types of meals and events, they have morphed into a judgment-filled plate that only equates to calories. Their emotional attachments to foods lead them to punish themselves through behaviors and deny themselves of any joy that could be experienced by eating. As an eating disorder dietitian, you help others toe the line between not reliving bad memories while allowing new positive relationships with food to form. That may be by not exposing them to their most emotionally charged foods early in their healing process.
What I keep coming back to is the reality that not all emotional connections to food are maladaptive, and for me - right now, in this moment of my grief journey - there is healing power in this relationship. Nourishment is not always vitamins and minerals, and accepting this concept can be a game changer in one’s recovery.
Nana’s recipes and traditions live on, even the oatmeal cookies. My mother has assimilated the role of the oatmeal cookie provider, and has them ready every time I visit, and enough for me to take a batch home. I don’t even ask for them, they’re just there – and taste as love-filled as the ones in the Tupperware container.