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.
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.'"