July 11, 2012 | Best of the Food Web
On June 25th, I had complete knee replacement surgery on my left knee. As my surgeon says, this is not a delicate operation. No, it’s a rather brutal thing where they take your knee out in its entirety and replace it with a titanium and plastic prosthesis. I won’t share the photo of the 8 inch scar – it’s barbaric looking – but will share that the past couple of weeks have been really tough for me. I’m an, organized, energetic, driven multi-tasker. Not usually slowed down by much, the exhaustion from the surgery (with some complications) and the ensuing physical therapy caught me off guard (even though I thoroughly read up on the surgery beforehand) and sent me into a downward spiral. The last thing I’ve been able to do is cook.
Thankfully, my friends and family have come to the rescue, bringing me everything from a simple container of fresh cherries to an elaborate Greek chicken dinner to a bottle of Colorado whiskey (that will have to wait until I’m off of blood thinners!). I can’t express adequately how grateful I am for everything they have all done for me. In that spirit, I thought I’d share with you an essay I wrote for a colleague – she’s an elder care attorney, and she asked me to write down some thoughts about food and grief. My situation isn’t about grief (although I’ve shed my share of tears these past two weeks!), but I felt that the whole message about feeding others applies. Hope you enjoy the essay.
I recently attended the funeral of a dear friend – she was young, only 60, taken much too early by a rare form of cancer. I was asked to speak at the service on behalf of a small group of women who traveled together each year, and although I held myself together for that short tribute to her, I nearly collapsed from grief watching her parents pass her casket on the way out of the service.
After pulling myself together in the bathroom with some others (I felt I needed to be the strong one – although I had lost a friend, my good friend had lost her beloved sister, and her parents had lost a child), I went to join the others in the church for a reception. In the south, the “church ladies” pull together food for funerals, and as you might guess, this was a veritable smorgasbord of comfort foods: fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, mashed potatoes with heavy cream and butter, ribs, and dessert – well don’t even get me started about the pastries!
For a moment I thought I was going to be sick staring at the long tables of steaming food lined up, but then I found myself in line along with every other grieving person at the funeral. In fact, I lined up not once, but definitely went back for seconds and possibly even thirds. What is it about grief that inspires us to cook for each other and how is it that when we feel most crushed that we find a way to eat?
At its very core, cooking for someone is a way to nurture them. As babies, unable to feed ourselves, we are fed by our mothers. As children growing up we are fed by friends and family. And as adults, we feed ourselves along with our own friends and families. If someone has a surgery, we make them food. If a new baby arrives, we bring the family a casserole. When we celebrate our kids’ sporting events, we assign roles for snacks. Feeding someone is a way of meeting one of the most basic of human needs. For the person in grief who is being fed, it offers comfort. When you hurt and someone takes care of you, you feel loved, you feel protected, and you feel cared for.
When life is normal, most of us are able to provide this care for ourselves – we can feed ourselves and our families without the help of those around us. But during a time of grief, it’s a huge relief – and a gift also – to have someone else take on this role for us. It allows us the opportunity to just grieve, knowing we’ll be cared for.
As for the foods that are prepared, is it any surprise that comfort foods often top the list? That’s because they are exactly that: comfort foods. They comfort because they are familiar and they often remind us of our childhoods. But that’s not their only trait. Many times they are foods that actually help the brain release endorphins. You aren’t just weak in willpower when you sit down and can’t stop snacking on a bag of potato chips. Carbohydrates (which include sugar), fat and a compound found in chocolate all stimulate the release of endorphins, which trigger a pleasure response. While you may not feel downright joyous at a funeral when you eat those mashed potatoes loaded with butter, you probably do feel just a little bit better.
So for all of you “church ladies” and other friends who have brought food to families in crisis or cooked for the mourners at a funeral, thanks for taking care of people when they most needed it. Your caring – and your cooking – absolutely does make a difference.