This prompt included several scents, which were passed around the room in small 35 mm film canisters. A lemon peel really evoked something for me. Also, I had this short piece of a Mary Oliver poem stuck in my head,
“I am thinking now of grief, and of getting past it;” (from “Starlings in Winter“).
Here’s what I wrote:
I’m lucky. I inherited a good palate. My mom enjoyed food, but Pop was the one who could describe tannin or fruit, heat or pepper. He did well in the wine business because of that palate, and it’s also what led him to become a great cook.
At the end of his long life, he lost his sight and his hearing, but that palate stayed sharp. Years after I had inherited his Sunburst Orange Le Cruset pots and his binders filled with recipes he had collected from magazines and newspapers, our main connection was food. The places he lived as he aged—the retirement community, the residential home—they didn’t have good food, so for him, they were joyless places.
Our ritual began with a Starbuck’s coffee and their Cranberry Bliss Bar: a variation on the Blondie with white chocolate chips, topped with cream cheese icing and dried cranberries. “That’s really good,” he’d say, the green and white paper cup shaking a bit as he brought it to his lips. That particular Starbuck’s was in the same building as his retirement community, so we only had to walk half a block to get there. He’d use his cane as we walked there arm in arm; later he’d use his walker.
When he moved to the residential home and was in a wheelchair, I had to bring the food to him. Always a strong cup of black coffee and a pastry from his favorite bakery downtown, or a donut from the shop on West 11th, where they still made their donuts from scratch.
For Christmas Eve one year, I brought over lasagna. It was a holiday tradition in our family, baked in the white Corningware casserole dish, the one with the little blue flowers on the side. I made it from his recipe. My siblings and I waited until the other residents had eaten, and then we took over one end of the communal table, offering pieces to our favorite nurses aides. Pop savored big, gooey mouthfuls, and sipped red wine from a tiny juice glass.
“Who made this?” he asked.
“I did, Pop.”
“It’s delicious,” he said. Blue eyes met blue eyes.
“It’s your recipe,” I said.
“No,” he said,” I never made it taste this good.”
The last meal we ever had together was Easter brunch, just three weeks before he died. I made a frittata with artichoke hearts, spinach, feta cheese, sundried tomatoes and shallots. An arugula salad with citrus dressing, and warm slices of ham on the side. For dessert, an orange cornmeal cake with honey crème fraîche.
“Wonderful,” he said, raising his champagne glass to clink against mine, bellini to bellini. “I love this restaurant,” he joked, and then added, “I hope I can come back soon.”