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Book Shelves and Cookbooks:

Book Shelves and Cookbooks:

Pushing Through Loss in the Kitchen

My late husband Mark was ever-patient, flexible with my whims and most generous. These virtues were tested when he had to deal with my thoughts about designing our kitchen. We moved into our home in November of 2001. While adapting the floor plans from a builder’s model, I asked the kitchen designer if he had ever put a bookshelf in a kitchen. He looked perplexed; it really wasn’t done much at that time. In the model there was a kitchen desk, which I knew, with my husband’s and my propensity to ignore clutter, would evolve to be a giant paper pile. The designer came through in a big way. Floor to ceiling, five shelves, and my burgeoning cookbook collection had a home.

There are old standards (Betty Crocker, The Joy of Cooking), celebrity chefs (Ina Garten, Susan Fenniger), community cookbooks, ethnic cook books and I am sure other categories that I am forgetting. Yes, I even occasionally weed some out and pass them on. I do try to cook from each and revisit them over the years, but many of them I read like novels.

"My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life" by Ruth Reichl is one such work. Beautiful photos of food, the outdoors surrounding her country home and New York City color the pages. As always, her words give soul to the photos as they capture her journey through a most difficult year. After a decade at the helm as editor of Gourmet Magazine, the publication folded in the fall of 2009 leaving her, at 61, jobless.

Using food preparation as a vehicle of solace, Ruth cooked through the seasons of the year following the magazine’s demise. Her recipes arise out of what is fresh at the market or what is in her refrigerator or her current mood. Take for example, Salsa Verde (p. 135):

Then I attacked the almonds, leaning into the task reveling in the crack of the nuts falling apart beneath my knife. Feeling better, I opened the refrigerator again to see what else I might throw in. Capers! I soaked them to remove the salt. I squeezed a lemon. And then I started to build the salsa verde.

The words bring one’s senses alive and the recipes read as if she is your good friend giving instructions over the phone during an animated conversation. You are advised to “grate the zest of lemons until you have a heap of yellow fluff”. With mint leaves, she urges, “chop them coarsely, enjoying the lovely scent”.

Reading the passages held a touch of irony for me as it was my discovery of Ruth’s earlier works that provided me a lifeline during some of my own very dark days. When our son was only weeks old, Mark was diagnosed with a chronic liver disease that would eventually require transplantation. He traveled for work constantly that spring and summer. I was home with a cranky baby and the unfortunate knowledge of what was ahead for us as I worked with liver transplant patients during my years at Children’s Hospital. Many times, I used the analogy of feeling like the floor had been pulled out from under us and we were dangling in mid-air. I knew too much of the fate of my 32-year-old husband. It was hard most days to make it off of the couch.

As the weather warmed, I ventured out with baby Teddy in his stroller a little more each day. One time I braved the hilly trek to the local library. On their “new book” shelf, which was all I had the energy to peruse with a whimpering infant, I found Ruth’s first memoir, Tender at the Bone. My cookbooks shelf was much smaller at that time; I subscribed to Gourmet, Bon Appetit and Cooking Light and savored every word of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s food section and restaurant reviews. But food memoir was a new genre for me and I relished every word. It was an escape to hear her tales of her bi-polar mother whose cooking escapades occasionally necessitated medical intervention. She layered recipes between stories that take you from childhood to her young married days living in a commune in Berkeley. I laughed a little more, got off of the couch during Teddy’s nap time, made baby food from scratch and began to cook again for my kind, funny and handsome guy when he was home.

Certainly, some time with friends and family, part time work and tackling the diagnoses head on helped pull us through that time. But it was the journeys to the library during the long days to find books that kept me company at night, that stand out to me. Some of the dismal days were spent with Ruth at the commune or Frances Mayes as she and her husband cooked seasonally in their renovated Tuscan dream home or Anthony Bourdain as he took me behind the gritty scenes of restaurant kitchens. I devoured everything that I found that spoke of food and travel. It was 1998, before blogs, in the early days of The Food Network (which I watched continuously), chef lit was in its infancy, but I was hooked.

Eight years later, we lost Mark. Through it all, it has been cooking and absorbing everything that I could about food that provided a distraction, outlet for grief, employment and most of all, comfort.

For the first time in over eleven years we returned to Rehoboth Beach, DE, without Mark in 2016. I have memories of this eclectic shore town that are forever intertwined in my mind with his presence. His sister and her husband generously invited the entire extended family to a luxurious beach house for a week for a graduation celebration for their son, Teddy and a third cousin Zack. We filled the house with twelve Taylor family members. Turning to a summer recipe in the book, Fresh Peach Breakfast Cobbler, I enlisted the help of our nieces Kari and Jennifer in the kitchen. The girls, eager learners, got their hands into the butter and dry ingredients, slid the skins off of the juicy peaches and of course documented the entire process on their iPhones.

We cooked up some new family memories with the fragrant, warm and both soft and crunchy dessert served with cool vanilla bean ice cream. I think Ruth would approve. We’re returning this summer, we need to double the recipe.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR------------

Beth is a freelance food writer from Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Craft Pittsburgh, as well as several food-related blogs. Other part-time work includes developing and leading culinary tours and teaching Cooking Matters classes in conjunction with 412 Food Rescue and Share Our Strength. A recent graduate with an MA in Food Studies from Chatham University, her scholarly work focused on ethnic food traditions, women food entrepreneurs and collecting oral histories related to food and family in the region. In her younger years, Beth was a volunteer coordinator for Highmark Caring Place, A Center for Grieving Children, Adolescents and their Families. She was part of a team that wrote the support group curriculum as well as the volunteer training. Currently, she lives outside of the city with her son Ted.

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