Comfort Cooking: Finding Relief in the Kitchen



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."

A friend told me once her heart grew three sizes the day her daughter was born; my heart broke into a hundred pieces that afternoon at the foot of my grandmother's bed.

My mother insisted that if my grandmother simply ate more, her health could improve. "If you don't have the nutrients," she reasoned, "how would you ever get well?"

I knew enough Cantonese to understand this exchange. From talks earlier with doctors and relatives, I also knew the truth: that no matter what or how much my grandmother did or did not eat, she wouldn't get better. The disease had taken a toll, wreaking havoc on her pancreas, stripping her body of the energy it required.

My mother punctuated her visits to the hospice with trips to Safeway or Trader Joe's nearby or to Chinatown, recognizing the severity of the situation, I'm sure, but needing still to collect ingredients for her own meals. In this way, she continued to live as my grandmother was about to die.

After all, my mother needed to pay attention to herself, too, did she not? She needed to look to the future and occasions she would inevitably get to spend with the rest of her family. Food— thinking about it, shopping for it, preparing it—provided a way for her to exert control over something when so much around her had been beyond her control. It was the happiness she allowed herself. In this backyard scrape, it was her candy.

The short market trips were also a way, I suppose, for her to fool death personally, to not let it follow her straight home from the hospice. She wanted to open and close car doors, enter and exit other buildings, walk up and down wide aisles, to ditch death randomly. She was superstitious like that.

In the months since my grandmother's death, my mother continues to cook. She shops for exceptional deals and brainstorms menu ideas. Her tears, however, no longer flavor the food.

She tells me about a visit with a friend to their neighborhood Lucky for 99-cent eggs. She wanted to limit herself to a couple of cartons. Her friend, however, dismissed the restraint.

"The people in the store know us," the woman said in Cantonese. "They see us all the time anyway. They know we're greedy. It doesn't matter how much we buy or don't buy." They shrugged, gathered four or five cartons each and headed to the register.

With joy I have not seen in a while, my mother tells me of the day she spent with a nephew from New Jersey. During a last-minute business trip to California, he made it a point to invite her out to eat. In San Francisco, they came across a Chinese buffet. Though inexpensive, the food they spotted on people's plates seemed unappealing.

He placed his hand on my mother's back and guided her away from the entrance of the restaurant. "The two of us," her nephew said, gently and genuinely, "let's go eat something better. You and I, we deserve something better." She agreed.

My mother tells me these stories, peppered with humor, irony, and insight, one night over dinner. I listen and laugh.