Well, here we are. August. Dunno if you need the reminder, but I certainly do, as I went to put today’s date on a recipe for a fruit crisp I’ve been tinkering with and wrote down the year as 2030. Ha! The future. That’s a good one. But seriously. My brain has atrophied. Either that or it’s doin’ the time warp—an actual time warp—and it’s not planning on taking the rest of me with it. Stupid brain.
I’ve been working on writing this post for the entirety of June. It’s now July. Oh wait, nope, here’s August! Actually, it’s been even longer, though, to be honest. I started it in February. But, like, it’s basically still March, anyway, amirite? Sigh. I dunno. Months are harder than ever to glom onto before they’re just gone. That said, February and June are months I experience similarly, in that they are both grief-heavy times for me. Well, you see, it starts settling in with December, the month Brendan died in 2013, coinciding with the holiday blur that seems to start earlier and earlier every year, like, right around now, summer, with Halloween candy starting to appear in stores. Holidays—family-focused times of year—really highlight the people missing from mine, making holidays decidedly less jolly.
And then, on their heels, after the dark days of January comes February, the month of Dad’s and Brendan’s birthdays, and the adoption anniversary of Otto, and Valentine’s day. I feel like I’m being smacked in the face with reminders of loss on repeat. February ushers in a melancholy time of year for me, and it’s accompanied by bleak weather, snow, and a lack of daylight, ulitmately encouraging hibernation and the kind of introspection which usually allows for me to honor my dead in some way. Baking always feels right; an appropriate way to fill the empty cold. A reason to do something. To turn on the oven. To create warmth. To make something. To put forth something sweet. Something to top with candles to light. To let burn. Something to celebrate what was— and still is— inside my heart. Something to acknowledge the strength of love that death can’t grasp. A golden thread that reaches into oblivion and connects the living and the dead. It’s usually just a cake, to be honest. But what is ever, really, just something unto itself. Beat’s me.
And then there’s June. The anniversary of Dad’s death. Fourteen years ago on the twelfth. June is also Father’s day, and my parents’ wedding anniversary. June is looong, lurching days. Like the first of summer, which is also my older brother’s birthday. June is the month Ryan’s mom died. June is the month my mom remarried someone else. June is hot, and green, and buggy, and the sun refuses to look away and let me have a moment’s peace. June is so pretty it hurts to have it house such sickening sadness. June is all the great and awful things happening in this world, during a pandemic, no less. June is nature so wrapped up in the moment of its own burgeoning ripeness, it felt like a slap in the face for my dad to die in the midst of such beauty. It felt like nature was mocking me that such bright, beautiful days could contain such grim darkness. [Takes a deep breath. Looks around. Taps fingers on desk. Comes to a realization.] I guess I shouldn’t be surprised about it taking me the entire month, err, six-ish months (?!) to work through the mire of my thoughts and feelings. And I still don’t think they’re done a cookin’ yet! Don’t know that they ever will be.
I’ve reached a point where I can live with grief. By which I mean the days it swallows me whole and takes me down with it are now fewer and farther between than the days where it sneaks silently along with me, an unshirkable shroud. Though I do still have those darker days. By no means am I healed, or cured, or over it, and I don’t need to move on. I accept that it is a part of me. Bifocal lenses of life and death. Different understanding. Grief is a manifestation of the most unthinkable thoughts.
For me, my grief is always just beneath the surface. Simmering gently away, a well prepared stock of memories and feelings, with the occasional bubble of overwhelming emotion breaking through to the surface. Grief is nebulous. Grief is hard to pin down. Grief is like a game of whack-a-mole you sometimes forget you’re playing.
And so it was, just the other day. I was rummaging through my refrigerator, looking for old things on the verge of turning and digging around in the freezer for not quite right experiments in need of new purpose that I had hidden away. What I found was leftover roasted broccoli, already questionable before roasting, some Gruyère that one whiff of would make your toes curl, a handful of sliced scallions, and some chopped bits of bacon. From the freezer I exhumed two miniature fluted tart pans lined with a press-in olive oil pie crust and a Ziploc bag which held the remaining disc of that same dough. I could muster the energy to press it into a couple more pans, I reasoned. I had entombed the dough months ago, after deciding it was just kinda meh, but was now in the midst of an aha! moment, and decided some mini quiches would be nice to have around. I had found some purpose. It felt good.
In the other room, the TV was playing episodes of No Reservations just loudly enough for me to hear in the kitchen. Comfort television. I turned on the oven, whisked the filling, and was pressing the pie crust into pans when I heard a snippet of something that piqued my interest. I walked around the corner to find the Vegas episode on, where Anthony Bourdain is struggling to make a deadline for an article and meets up with Michael Ruhlman, author of, among other things, a favorite read of mine, The Making of a Chef. They try various celebrity chef restaurants as part of the article in progress, and, inevitably, shenanigans ensue. Before long I found myself sitting on the edge of the couch, apron still on and a coating of the not quite right, whole wheat flour, press-in pie dough crumbles drying to my hand. I sat there, weathering alternating waves of laughter followed by overwhelming sadness. It struck me then, as I recalled that the anniversary of Anthony Bourdain’s death is right before my dad’s. Four days, to be exact. And there I was, smack in the middle of those two anniversaries.
Sometimes, mostly right after my dad died, I would see someone who looked vaguely like him and wonder if it was, if it could be, him. I’d wonder if his death ever really happened. Like, maybe it was just part of some elaborate hoax? Like, maybe my parents were going to divorce but being strict Catholics couldn’t bring themselves to do that so instead they cooked up this scheme where they’d trick everyone into thinking dad died. And maybe he was actually living a brand new life all by himself down on a beach in Florida somewhere. Or something. The lengths my imagination would go to just for the comfort of having him still be alive stretched beyond the boundaries of reason. Cruel, yes, but not unforgivable. Not if it meant he was still alive.
There are people who remind me of my dad, in the best way possible. Those people speak the language of food. Like my dad did. Like Anthony Bourdain did. I was in the den trying to write a paper for school late one night in the early 2000’s on our family’s sole PC. My dad was still awake, channel surfing had him glued to the couch when he landed abruptly on the Food Network and A Cook’s Tour was on. It was the Oaxaca episode. I had seen it before. Immediately, I had appreciated Anthony Bourdain’s candor, and humor, and seeming ability to watch, and listen, and learn from others. He showed the unseen, un-prettified things I didn’t often see in the pretend perfection world I expected of tv-land. He talked about the things other people didn’t seem to want to, discomfort be damned. He was the most affable self-proclaimed miserable bastard I’d seen up to that point in my life. I also appreciated his affinity for smoking, drinking, and cursing, quite frankly. I tee-hee’d at every wise-ass joke he cracked. All those things wrapped up together appealed deeply to an eighteen year old me, who was, at the time, a high school dropout attending community college in an attempt to get it together. Though, already, I found myself drawn to the island of misfit toys vibes in my other gig working at a Subway, a sign of things to come. (Side note: Sandwich artist for life! Bring back the U-gouge!) My eyes darted back and forth between dad and the television, waiting for him to change the channel at each bleep bleep bleepety-bleep. He didn’t. “Are you watching this?” I asked nervously, curiously.
“Oh, this guy?” he waved towards our tube television. “Yeah, he drinks and smokes and curses a lot…” he said, along with a forgiving gesture of his hand towards the screen as if he were absolving those sins, before confirming, “I like him. He knows a lot about food.” I relaxed. Two Kool-Aids from the Anthony Bourdain stand for us, please! It was a tacit moment of bonding between us. One where he wasn’t being my exasperatingly strict, rule-enforcing, over-protective dad. He wasn’t being judgemental about or getting offended by all the things that could potentially be perceived as morally corrosive to my young, impressionable mind (too late!). He was just someone who got it. He got that people are messy, and funny, and troubled, and haunted, and hungry, and thirsty, and tired, and wary, and cagey, and looking for meaning and connection, even when it sometimes means putting yourself out there to be consumed and rejected. And for my dad, and me, and Anthony Bourdain, it seemed, food was a pathway one could wander to find that meaning and connection.
When I think about what my dad would be up to if he were still alive, I think he, too, would have been travelling and eating. That had been his plan. He’d sit at his place, at the head of the kitchen table, pouring over maps and atlases, books, travel guides, and magazines. Thinking, organizing, planning, dreaming. He, too, was curious, and voracious, and gracious, and kind, and humble. He, too, liked a cocktail, and a cigarette (though he turned into a staunch anti-smoker when he did quit). He also grew up working in kitchens. So, I know he got it. Even though he was my hard-working, goofy, church-going dad, which, I know, on its face sounds painfully uncool, I’m also aware he was someone else for a long time before I ever came to be.
And I know what some people think, and what even fewer say, when confronted with the mourning of other people’s dead, “Get over it! It’s been four years!” That’s what an uncle of mine said to me once, in reference to my dad’s death. On Christmas morning. As he sat at my family’s kitchen table. Maybe he’ll be so easily forgotten, but not my loved ones. Not by me, at least.
I spend a good amount of time just thinking about time. In ten years I’ll be...and when I look up I’m already there! Ten years gone, but I still feel the same. It’s mind-blowing. Time, especially now, feels so pressing. And stretched. And compressed. And so there is, and was, and seems to be, this confounding duality to the nature of time. It goes by too slow. It goes by too fast. It goes by so fast, when it’s not going by so excruciatingly slow
Grief is like that. I can’t believe it’s been fourteen years. I used to think there was some fixed amount of time within which one was allowed to feel the pain of someone’s death. It starts with the initial shock, which gives way to the first waves of grief. Then the wake or wakes—which you think will never end—and the funeral, and the after funeral gathering, and all the while, praying for it to be over, when suddenly it is. And all the people you wished would leave you alone and stop asking you how you’re doing actually do. And then it’s just you and reality. A reality suddenly devoid of someone else. A new reality minus a part of you. A life you’re supposed to get back to where you left off and go about carrying on with like someone’s life didn’t just end. It can be very isolating, which is amplified when you don’t feel like you can talk about it, on top of everything. After my dad died, I thought I had to be “strong.” I tried not talking about him, or his death, or how I was feeling, but that didn’t work, and eventually he, and his death, and how I was feeling would come bubbling up to the surface. Death was the elephant in the room, and it was standing on my chest.
I always seem to be trying to explain grief. To define it, quantify it, make sense of it, interpret it. To try to understand it, or make it understandable, comprehensible, clear. But, the more I try, the more it feels inadequate. And when I think about it, I know it’s something I didn’t get until it was something I lived.
Risotto is like that. It has, swirling around it, a thousand lamentations of how long it takes. How much work it is. And the stirring! Isn’t there a lot of stirring?? Who has time for all that stirring?! Risotto, it seems, like grief, is a hard thing to allow time for. It’s hard to sit in a moment of discomfort and emotional work is just as exhausting as physical work. On top of which lies the frustrating vagary of that which defies explanation and lets questions go unanswered, like How long will I feel this way? How long does it take? How will I know when it’s done?
I wish I’d known death wasn’t a thing to get over. Or that I shouldn’t put expectations on myself of looking for a finish line. For me, there isn’t a finish line, and acceptance is different than moving on. I wish to allow things the time they take, without expectations of should. Without expectations at all. Time doesn’t matter when it comes to how you feel. Or when something breaks that can’t be fixed. Time doesn’t matter but for anyone who’s seen it run out. Sometimes having a method to follow and knowing the importance of how each small step along the process yields the most gratifying results is its own reward. Yes, I’m still talking about grief and brown rice risotto, and about how no matter the time they take, I don’t need to turn them into speedrun quests.
Grieving, like making brown rice risotto, takes as long as it takes. There are ways you can try to cheat it, or hack it, but I can’t recommend them. For me, well, I’ve learned it’s necessary for me to yield to the process, and that I have to be patient with myself along the way. These things take time. Where the hell do I have to be, anyway? As my great aunt Helen was known to inquire, “What’s your hurry?”
Brown rice risotto, like grieving, takes as long as it takes. And that’s okay. It should be allowed. I gave up on cure, I just look for catharsis. And in meditative moments, like in making risotto, I often find some. I find a blankness in the steps—in the ladling, in the stirring—that allows my mind the freedom to wander, and wonder. In quiet moments like these, I feel the most okay. In the comfort of cooking, I often think about my dad, and how our obsessions with food still bond us. I wish I could make this for him. I had a dream last night that I was making cannelés for him and Brendan. I wonder, what was the last thing he made for me? I sure don’t know.
Brown Rice Risotto
Yield: about 1 quart
Hello! I'm Kat.
Cooker, baker, amateur pottery maker.
I'm a CIA graduate (culinary arts & applied food studies) who previously studied anthropology.
Food obsessed. Anxiety disorder. Grief bearer.
Here you'll find recipes for what I'm currently craving and sometimes even why!