Food for Thought
This blog is some of my remembrances of my mother related to food. Specifically how grilling and smoking meals for my parents played a big role in their last 12 years. As you will read in the sidebar below, my mother passed in mid-August. I had been having my parents over for meals every Saturday I was able to. I knew they enjoyed these meals, but these last few months have shown me they were far more important to my parents than I ever realized. So if you have a chance to share meals with your friends and family, by all means do it whenever you can. I really had no idea how much these meals meant to my parents, I am just glad I did them as often as I could. Perhaps there is something I did or discovered that may be helpful to you too.
Last week my mother passed away after 4 months and 3 rounds of trips to the hospital and then various rehab hospitals and back home. While my mother’s death was a sad occasion, it also was a happy one. As a family we were able to realize my parents wishes for my mother to spend her last days out of the hospital. A week ago Friday I was at the hospital to sign her out. When she heard the news she was being released and going home to my dad, she had the biggest smile on her face I have ever seen. She went to sleep in her own bed, not a hospital bed. She slept without any wires, IV’s and other such things for the first time in months. She went to sleep around 11:00 PM and when I left their place, my father and mother were sleeping peacefully holding each other’s hands. I got called back at 4:30AM and things looked the same, except my mother had passed. But she died in her sleep holding my dad’s hand, while my father slept next to her. So while I am very sad, I saw for myself that my mother’s last day was one of her happiest days too.
RAISON D’ETRE:A couple things occurred simultaneously in 2003 that resulted in my taking over some of the cooking duties for family meals. It started first with holiday meals. My mother was 76 years old and was no longer able to take on these large scale meals. She still wanted to, but she just wasn’t up to it. Meanwhile, as I have detailed elsewhere on the site, I had purchased my first “serious” gas grill in October of 2003. I wanted to get serious about my grilling and I told my parents that I would do the Thanksgiving dinner that year. I had seen Stephen Raichlen do a smoked turkey that year on his BBQ University TV show, and it didn’t look too difficult. Plus, my new grill had a smoker drawer and I was eager to start using it. For this first Thanksgiving dinner at my house, my parents supplied most of the sides and desserts. I had my hands full doing just the turkey this year, since I had never made a turkey in the oven let alone smoked one. I was starting to make recipes from Stephen Raichlen’s HOW TO GRILL and was having good results. I was trying to learn this new grill before winter set in and I was making something every weekend. My parents were willing guinea pigs. After the success of my first turkey on the grill, I formalized the weekend grilling session. My parents were enjoying the food and it gave me an excuse to use my new grill. Win-Win
EVOLUTION:At first I was responsible for making the main dish and my mother would furnish the rest. As time went by, I wanted to spread my wings and learn to do baking, side dishes and desserts outdoors. As she got older and I got more ambitious there was a natural passing of the torch. I would do more and more and my mother would do two side dishes, or dessert and a side, or a couple desserts. I always made a point of letting her do what she could, but never more than she could. I wanted her to stay active and interested, but not have it become a chore. Towards the end of her life, when she was not feeling so great, I would make everything. But I promised her when she was feeling better she could resume making things for these meals. I meant it too, the events related to her passing were not initially expected to take her life. I also made a point of not making something she also made. I never wanted it to seem like I was trying to compete with her. Simply doing items on the grill or smoker often was enough to set them apart. Through the years, when either my mother or my father were in the hospital, I would continue these weekend meals and tie them into a hospital visit. I would pick one of them up to share the weekend meal and then we would go to visit the other in the hospital. When one of them was back home recuperating from some time in the hospital, I would grill or smoke the meat the day before, and make the soup or stew then as well.I would bring the meals to them at their house. I would pick something like a soup or stew that was often better one day later and reheat it at their house. My parents lived 8 minutes away and I could also pick something that had a 10 or 15 minute minute rest time and run it over and carve it up when I arrived. These were all ways I could insure they were eating some good food a least once or twice a week.
ENJOYMENT- Big Picture:One of the ways I knew my parents enjoyed these meals is: If I hadn’t picked out the food for next Saturday’s meal by Wednesday, I would get a call inquiring what we were having and what my mother was making. I was having good success with the items I was attempting out of Stephen Raichlen’s cook books and as I learned more I wanted to widen my horizons. I began trying food from other regions of the U.S. and then the world. I soon realized there were so many great foods from around the world, I never needed to make the same thing twice. I set a personal goal of trying to try something new every week. For special occasions I would make people’s favorites, but for these weekly family meals I would try something new every week. This fit in with the place my parents were at. They often said they were sick of eating the same old food that had been eating for years and years. After a while everything looked and tasted the same to them. Meanwhile I was trying new foods, cooked with new spices and they enjoyed the change of pace. They looked forward to having something new each week and often found new food types they loved. An example of this is paella. None of us had tried paella before but we all loved it. There were many new foods we never tried, that we came to love by way of these regular family meals.
ENJOYMENT - Studio Audience:My mother loved cooking. With all of the bad news you’d see on CNN or Fox News Channel, she would often tune in the Food Network to escape all of the negativity. One of the things she loved was watching me prep these meals. She would sit in the Kitchen sipping on a cup of tea or glass of wine and watch me prep the food. She would first look at the recipe I was making and then look through the cookbook I was using. She would inquire about the spices and I would often bring the bottle over for her to sniff or sample. As the cook progressed, I would often supply her with “quality control” samples to try. She really enjoyed this weekly activity. She compared it to watching a show from the studio audience on the Food Network, but better because she got samples. She also had total access to the cook and could ask any questions she wanted. She never minded if things were running a little late because it meant she got to watch more of the prep.
ENJOYMENT - Learning Old Favorites:Sadly I didn’t get into cooking until later in my life. I would be outside at the car or down in the workshop “helping” my dad with his projects when my mother was in cooking. When I started getting serious about grilling, I knew next to nothing about cooking. This was tough because many grilling cookbooks assumed a certain level of knowledge I didn't possess. I wish I had gotten interested in cooking earlier. My mother would have been more than willing to pass along her knowledge. I wouldn’t have had the double learning curve of the basics of grilling, plus the basics of cooking. I did begin to realize my mistake. I made up for it by having some shared sessions with my mother where I had her show me how to make some of her best dishes. We would do it in her kitchen and I would bring my laptop, camera and my kitchen scale. One of the problems with her recipes is they had a pinch of this and a dash of that and no one was quantifying what these quantities were. They also seemed to vary from one recipe to the other. I brought a little bit of science to the process. I would record the steps and the ingredients in my recipe software. When it came to pinches or dashes or scoops, I would let her measure them out in her hand. Then I would measure what was in her hand in a measuring spoon to quantify it for me. I would pour random scoops into my kitchen scale and assign a weight to it. Same with instructions like: “…season with xxxx to taste”. I would record what amount she used and taste the food myself to see what to look for. I’d add notes in parentheses to the instructions in the recipe software giving my impression of how it was supposed to taste after this step. I took pictures all along the way. I would make a point of shooting a series of pictures of things that were tricky to do, so I would be able to repeat all of the steps. I also shot pictures of the various stages and their degrees of doneness. My mother enjoyed the fact that even though I had many recipes available to me, I still was interested in the things she cooked.
Ironically these joint sessions benefitted my mother too. In the last few years she was having some memory issues and she was having trouble remembering herself what some of the pinches and dashes were. So she started having me print out my quantified copies of her classic recipes. We also had several joint cooking sessions at my house. There were often times that she would like something I made so much, she would ask if the recipe could be made in the oven instead of the grill. I would print these recipes out of my recipe software after making some changes to the language to suit using an oven or the stove versus grilling. There were several times where she really wanted to try making a recipe, but she felt it was a little beyond her reach. For several of these we reversed roles. She came over to my house and we prepared the recipe together with me showing her how to do it.
ENJOYMENT - New Discoveries: Sharing these meals with my family also resulted in us all learning new things. I never knew my mother liked spicy foods. Growing up we never had really spicy foods. Although my mother loved spicy foods my dad didn’t, so we never had it. The same went for lamb. I didn’t know it until I was in high school, but lamb was my mother’s favorite. Once again, my dad HATED lamb so we never had it. When I started cooking for my parents, I often would make something different for my dad or he would just skip the item that was spicy. During the last 5 or 6 years he has been eating more spicy foods. Not only has he lived to tell about it, he actually started liking it. I am not sure whether it is a newly acquired taste for spicy foods or just the opposite where his taste buds are less sensitive so the spicy food doesn’t seem as spicy. A couple times recently I have made something spicy where I thought he would pass on that item, but instead he has tried it and liked it. Meanwhile my mother got to have more of the more spicy food she never made for herself. As for lamb, my dad hated lamb because in the army he was served a ton of “lamb”. I’m sure was mutton and was prepared in less than ideal conditions for large groups of people. It was gamey tasting, old and not so tender. Where lamb was my mothers favorite, I often made it on special meals for her. I made a point of buying good high quality lamb and over time my father has gone from picking at it to taking seconds or thirds. He now doesn’t say: “I HATE lamb.” Instead he says: “I HATE lamb, except for the way Jimmy makes it.” My dad’s discovery that he actually likes some lamb, resulted in my mother getting more of her favorite meat. Lastly, we all have gotten to enjoy my dabbling in world foods and have found lots of new favorites. The point is these meals don’t have to be more of the “same old, same old”. You can use them as excuses to try new things and experiment with new methods. If it is a little too experimental, I would often do a dry run during the week to see if I could pull it off. If I was worried my dad wouldn’t like something I could run a mid-week dry run sample over to my parents house to see if it passed muster.
ENJOYMENT - Special Meals - General: I generally tried to stick to my goal of not making the same meal twice. The exceptions was birthdays, mother and father’s days, their anniversary, plus holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. For personal special days I would make anything that person wanted. I would ask them what they wanted for their xxxx. I’d say I’d make whatever thing I’d made that they liked the best. Lately I would try to make all of their favorite sides, desserts and rolls out at the grill/smoker too. My mother often took a slightly different approach. Instead of picking a specific meal I had made before, she would say: “You know I like lamb (or hamburgers), make that”. She would leave the choice up to me. As they got older and were unable to do as much for fun, there wasn’t a whole lot I could do for them. But I used to pull out all the stops for them for these special meals, and they really appreciated it. The funny thing is I never realized just how much they appreciated until my mother’s passing. I was gathering pictures for potential use on a poster my brother made to display at the wake. I noticed that the pictures I had where they were happiest, were holidays with the family. Many of these taken after these special meals I made for them. Over time I looked it was my mother’s birthday, Mother’s Day or their anniversary. Often after spending 8 hours making these meals I was wiped out when I finally sat down to eat. So I guess on a conscious level I never really noticed how happy they were on these days. On a sub-conscious level I must have noticed, because I always had my camera with me in the Dining Room. I used the time between the main meal and dessert to snap some pictures. I had forgotten how happy they were and what good “photo ops” these meals were. But one look at these pictures, made me realize what I hadn’t noticed.
ENJOYMENT - Special Meals - General: One day my parent’s both mentioned the thing they missed most about moving from Rhode Island was hot wieners. Specifically NEW YORK SYSTEM HOT WIENERS. These are only found in Rhode Island and they are quite amazing. I made a special trip down to Rhode Island to get the genuine wieners used for this treat. You cannot buy this type of wiener anywhere near where I live. I had to buy a 30’ long “rope” of these, but I simply cut them into 8” long pieces and froze the extras in FoodSaver bags. I used the genuine recipe from the restaurant my mother used to walk a couple miles (3 or 4 km) to go to. Even though this was one of the simplest of these so-called special meals I used to make for them, it had the biggest impact in many ways. They absolutely loved it when I made these. They both ate far more than I ever expected and enjoyed every bite. They reminisced about the old days back in Rhode Island and had a great time eating and sharing stories. Honestly I could have made a prime rib and they would have still enjoyed the wieners more. This June when my mother was in a rehab hospital, she commented that while the food there wasn’t so bad, the first thing she wanted when she got out was some NEW YORK SYSTEM HOT WIENERS. Between some of the pain killers she was on and her advancing age of 88, she was having some short term memory issues. There were a couple weeks when she first got into the rehab hospital, where she would forget things we talked about from one day to the next. With one exception that is. Every time she would see me, she would ask if I was going to make her the hot wieners when she got home. When she got out of the rehab hospital in late June (for her last time at home) I made the wieners the second night she was home. I made the sauce at home and grilled the wieners at my parent’s house. She couldn’t have been happier if I had stuck a filet mignon in front of her. I made them again a week later too and it was amazing how something some folks might call a fancy hot dog with sauce, made her so happy. Once again it evoked happy memories from the past.
ENJOYMENT - From Afar: While my mother was in the hospital or rehab centers these last 5 months I would still try to include her in my cooking activities. With all that was going on I didn’t have as much time to cook, but I still managed several times to make something on the Egg for my dad on Saturdays or Sunday. Sometimes I would make something for brunch before my dad and I headed over for a visit. Before leaving the house I would hook up my camera to my Mac and import the photos. I would bring my iPad with me to the hospital. In the 15 minutes it took to drive to the hospital, the photos would have finished uploading to the cloud and were in my iCloud photo library. Then I could share the photos on my iPad with my mother and she could ask my dad and I questions about the meal. I would often bring new cookbooks or summer grilling magazines I’d picked up. She would go through them like she always did sitting at my Kitchen table. I did this for two reasons: First I knew she enjoyed it and second it was an incentive to try to get her to eat and do her physical therapy.
IN RETROSPECT:I am so glad I decided to start making these weekly meals for my family. As I mentioned: It started off as taking over the holiday cooking chores from my mother. It evolved into a way to learn and discover new things about my grilling and smoking hobby. Having people to cook for allowed me to try more ambitious recipes. My parents were the perfect target audience. They were retired and so if I decided to try something on the spur of the moment during the week, they would often be free to come over and try it. When I used to have my week long “Grill Camps” in October, they were often there every day, sometimes twice a day, to try out what I was experimenting with. One year when I was back in Boston at work on the Monday after “Grill Camp”, my mother had fun at my expense. She told me: “Your father and I got all dressed up just before lunch time today and you never called.” She was deadly serious about it and at first I didn't get the fact I was being toyed with. As mentioned I knew they enjoyed these meals, but I never knew just how much until after my mom passed. At the wake, funeral, or post funeral meal, friends and family shared some thoughts with me. They told me how my parents always told them about what they had last Saturday or what they were having next Saturday or both. My dad has a copy of my Que cal in his room at the assisted living community. The folks there often ask about the food when they go to his room and he will bend their ears for a while talking about it. I go to lunch or supper there sometimes and he will often introduce me as: “…my son who makes all of the great food on the grill.” He will often ask me to tell them about my setup. Other folks who had also been at my Saturday meals would tell me about the laughs and stories everyone shared while I was out at the grill cooking. I was always glad to do this, and there were times with other things going on in my life that it was hard to make these happen every weekend. Knowing what I know now, I am so glad I did them as often as I could. I am also even happier now because I have learned it meant far more than I ever imagined.
CONCLUSION:One of the things I have always liked about this hobby is how you can share the end results with others. When I started getting serious about my grilling in 2003, I had a decision to make. I had been getting serious about bicycling for the last 6 years and was to the point where I was ready to go on a century (100 mile 160 km) run. I would go on long weekend rides and would take my camera with me to capture the beautiful scenery I would encounter. So bicycling gave me an outlet for my photography. When I started getting serious about grilling, I could see that there wasn’t enough time to bike and grill the way I was looking to do. This was even more true with low and slow smoking. I realized I could switch to doing food photography versus nature photography. By focusing on grilling and making dinners for my family, I could share the results with others. Many hobbies are very personal, yes you might go on runs or rides together, but ultimately the achievements are more of a personal nature. Nothing wrong with that at all. But I quickly realized by using my grill or smoker, I could have some personal fun doing a hobby and in the end I could share what I had learned with others. As a bonus, switching from landscape photography to food photography had extra benefits. The pictures allowed me to learn and have a record of what I had learned to refer back to. Plus I could share what I had learned with others via this website. Suddenly I could have fun and share it with others. Plus the timing was perfect, with my mother getting to the point where she just couldn’t do big family meals any more.
I have never regretted this decision to trade one hobby for this one. What I have heard from folks in this last month since my mother has passed has only reinforced this decision. I never realized how much these meals in particular, and cooking for folks in general, means to them. But if you think about it, we all need to eat. Food is a primal need and the gathering of people to share in a meal dates back to the earliest days of humanity. So if you enjoy grilling or smoking it can be used to create some very good shared experiences that will be talked about for years to come. Sharing your food with others can be very satisfying as you see the looks on peoples faces when the try some new dish they have never eaten or enjoy something you have cooked particularly well. There aren’t a lot of hobbies that can at once serve a primal need, allow you to share the results with others and create a social event around it. Or looking at it from a reverse perspective, all of the major holidays in our culture often revolve around a shared meal. If you don’t make grilled/smoked meals for others outside your immediate family (husband, wife, kids) give it a shot. It can be satisfying for you, rewarding and in some cases create life long memories. Or to put it in simpler terms: If you invite folks over for Thanksgiving, Christmas, July 4th etc. it gives you an excuse to have to (play) cook with your grill or smoker. Extending this to non-holidays gives you even more playtime.
Good bye Ma. I love you and I can never thank you (and dad) enough for all the things you have done for me. I will keep seeing to it that dad has some regular tasty meals until he is together with you again.
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