Comfort Cooking: Finding Relief in the Kitchen

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In the months before my grandmother's death, my mother cooked.

She bought pork and lamb at the store, glad to take advantage of grocery specials. She marinated beef to roast in a hot oven. She trimmed Chinese greens. She chopped and braised, steamed and stir-fried. She spent time in her kitchen with the television on but often ignored.

My mother cooked not for my grandmother, who by then hardly ate, cancer stealing the best of her appetite. She cooked not for my father. He would be fine with simple soups and porridges. She cooked not for my sisters, brothers, or me. Though we dropped by on weekends, we could only eat so much. Imagine the leftovers. She cooked, I believe, for herself.

At the counter or the sink, my mother stayed busy. She prepped chicken perhaps or removed scales from a fish. She gave herself these things to do. Meanwhile, her mind wandered.

She thought about the food she did not have growing up in China and the access she enjoyed when she arrived in California. She recalled years of scrimping to send money back to family across the Pacific and the relief she finally felt when her mother arrived in the United States as well. She cooked and cried.

My mother cooked, it seems, for the same reason others might ride a bike or read a book. She needed the diversion.

We talk of comfort food: a scoop of ice cream, for example, or a slice of cake, a barbecued pork bun, or an egg custard tart. Jonathan Reynolds wonders whether the term is redundant. "All food is comforting," he says in the memoir Wrestling with Gravy, "or we'd be eating nothing but hot dogs at Shea and warm tar (indistinguishable in a Times blind-testing), with possibly a few vitamins thrown in. "Unless you're ... undergoing a fraternity initiation or briefly lapse into Joan Crawford territory with one of your sons, there is no such thing as 'punitive food.'"

I suspect there is the idea of comfort cooking as well, the notion that kitchen work can help to reassure us, that time in front of a stove can keep us centered. My mother cooked, it seems, for the same reason others might ride a bike or read a book. She needed the diversion.

The moment my mother spied my grandmother in hospice care, the day after my uncle had admitted the woman, she ran to hold her. It was something I had seldom seen my mother do: openly embrace anybody. It felt like a clip from a Chinese-language soap opera, one in which a character rushes to another's side.

Outward displays of affection had been rare in our house. Hugs and kisses were things other people traded. My mother demonstrated her love through food instead.

She treated scrapes my siblings and I got playing in the back yard with a little Bactine and a lot of candy. She marked our achievements with dumplings and broth. She greeted our returns from college with dishes we favored: braised eggplant, tofu and beef, vermicelli with egg and barbecued pork. She wasn't about big gestures but small everyday concerns. I realize this now.

"When am I going to get better?" my grandmother asked, her voice a soft but steady whisper. "I don't know when I am going to get better. Maybe this time I won't."

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Christina Eng is a writer in Northern California. More

Christina Eng writes in Northern California about food, family, and books. She can subsist on Asian dumplings and is a sucker for good cake. She has a bachelor's degree in English from Brown and a master's in literary nonfiction from the University of Oregon.

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