Cooking and writing have at least one thing in common. In both cases you have to know who your audience is.
Back in the early 90’s I volunteered at an AIDS hospice in Tacoma, Washington. I drove residents to medical appointments, did laundry, dispensed medications and cleaned up every substance that could come out of a human body.
It felt good to see to other people’s needs, but I wanted a chance to do something really personal.
I wanted a chance to use my skills.
So one night when the regular cook was busy I offered to make dinner for the residents, staff and volunteers.
My supervisor, Deanna, a kind woman in her sixties, raised an eyebrow as she asked, “Are you sure you can prepare a sit down dinner for 14 people?”
With my Italian mother and Jewish father and my childhood full of marathon cooking sessions, I answered truthfully:
“I don’t know how to make dinner for less than 14 people.”
Since these were the days of AZT, nausea was a constant problem and it was a challenge to find things that appealed to our guests. One of the residents mentioned that he craved pork chops, so I returned from a short trip to the nearby market with enough pork chops to feed a small army.
In my travels I'd spotted some dried cherries, fennel and shallots I thought would make a good sauce. I also bought some garlic, mysteriously absent from the hospice pantry.
I was raised to believe that a kitchen without garlic was blasphemy and I jumped at the chance to correct this mysterious oversight.
As I set to work, the dynamic in the home shifted.
I toasted fennel seeds and sautéed a whole head of crushed garlic as the staff and volunteers congregated in the kitchen doorway, curious and enthusiastic about the coming meal. As the smells of roasting meat, garlic and herbs filled the building, I received more and more questions.
“What are you making?”
"Where did that garlic come from?"
I noticed, but didn’t think too much about the fact that Deanna had vanished, along with all the residents.
But no matter. I puttered away; convinced that my hearty meal would be just what everyone needed to trigger their appetites.
The hospice was a large, converted house that we leased from a neighboring church for a dollar a year. Adapted with handrails and wheelchair accessibility, it still felt more like a home than an institution.
A favorite location for staff and residents alike was the smoking porch; a screened-in landing off the main floor in which the windows could be opened to allow the exchange of fresh air and nicotine. It was here that the residents set up camp as I started to prepare my elaborate feast.
I laid a large, vinegary salad and an enormous loaf of garlic bread on the table as I wondered aloud where everyone was.
Deanna reappeared as I suggested, “Someone should tell the residents dinner’s ready.”
She bit her lower lip and examined the chandelier.
I'd invested a lot of effort in this dinner and I was puzzled by an apparent lack of enthusiasm from the very people I wanted to feed and impress.
They'd had nothing but bland, simple food for months, even years, and I thought this would make a nice change. My fantasy was that these thin, frail men would dig into my dinner with gusto and re-awaken their interest in hearty, exotic flavor. Appetites restored, they would gain the weight they lost so easily and needed so badly.
I was single-handedly opening them up to the finer things that they had done without for so long. But what’s the point of showing off if your audience doesn’t show up?
Deanna ran her hand through her short, gray hair as she pulled me aside and broke it to me gently.
“They know that dinner’s ready and they’re really thankful that you went to all the trouble, but…”
“But what?” I asked, not bothering to disguise my annoyance.
She paused before releasing a short, sharp sigh. “They’ve barricaded themselves on the smoking porch because they can’t handle the smell.”
Even the dumbest person in the building had to figure it out eventually.
And I did.
I suddenly understood why there was no garlic in the house. Anything other than bland was an assault on their fragile systems. I thought I was rekindling their interest in flavor. Instead I sent every single one of them into retreat, dry-heaving all the way.
The staff and volunteers ate with gusto and loved every bite, but it was days before the smell faded and the residents could even approach the kitchen without gagging.
That night was the beginning of a new challenge.
From that moment forward, I devoted myself to the study of foods that I never had when I was growing up. Before that summer the word “bland” had been a cuss word in my house. My parents used it as among the worst epithets a meal could provoke.
But here it became something else.
"Bland" became “simple,” and simple did not have to mean flavorless.
To these men with their systems ravaged by disease and medication, it was a synonym for "comfort."
I had to learn to stir the senses and stimulate the appetite without using an explosion of herbs and spices.
At first I felt like I had my hands tied behind my back. But gradually I realized that I had been freed from my dependency on kalamata olives, balsamic vinegar, black pepper and handfuls of crushed garlic.
A pork chop that tasted like pork was a revelation to me.
My first pork chops had been smothered with fennel, caramelized shallots and dried cherries, which is delicious if you like it that way. But now I learned to make a simple pork chop, baked in the oven with a little salt.
No longer boring or bland, its "pork-nature" was the goal. With plain sweet potatoes on the side, a pan of corn bread and some fresh, buttered, green beans I redeemed my intentions from that first, ill-fated meal.
When I made chili for Ben I refrained from adding garlic, handfuls of onion, tomatoes, shredded cheese and sour cream. I just offered him a plain bowl of bean stew and he loved it.
Left to my own devices I would have stuffed a chicken with green onions, ginger and garlic before I roasted it in the oven. I’d baste it with a mixture of hot chilies, soy sauce and honey until its skin developed a golden lacquer. But here I learned to rub the skin with just salt before basting it with nothing but butter in a long, slow oven. The way Michael remembered it from his childhood.
The golden, crispy skin was wonderful and the flesh was tender and juicy, but there was no whiff of Chinatown to maul the delicate constitutions of the terminally ill.
When I baked snapper back at my apartment, I smothered it with roasted bell peppers, green olives and orange zest, finishing it with stock, cream and a splash of dry vermouth. Here I learned to dredge the fish in egg, flour and breadcrumbs before gently frying it in delicate oil, the way Quincy’s mother made it when he was a kid.
It is a common mistake for beginning chefs to make things too complicated, but I’d like to think I learned my lesson.
My eyes were opened by necessity, to food that tasted like itself and nothing else.
Learning to cook not to impress, but to nourish was humbling and wonderful.
Once I’d discovered the secret, the residents no longer hid on the porch when I made dinner. Instead, they roused themselves and picked their way toward the kitchen to ask:
“What’s for dinner?”
(Original artwork: "Comfort Food" by Jason Zenobia.)