When my nephew, Dan Barber, a well-known chef, was asked the question, “Does food taste better when it’s made with love?” he replied with a laugh, “Food with love! I’m a very angry cook in my kitchen! I yell a lot . . . I hope not, because I’m really in trouble.” The interviewer wisely replied, “Maybe we can call it passion.” Passion sounded right to me. Suddenly I was reminded of eating puttanesca.
It was during those first days after my daughter’s death, when I vacillated between numbness and overwhelming grief. I remember little from that time, other than being surrounded by family and friends. One by one they arrived in a steady stream, shedding tears, bearing hugs and platters of food. Each bringing me sustenance, yet I had utterly no appetite. To appease my family I dutifully tasted each new dish, never swallowing more then just a few bites. It was as if I could neither chew the food in my dry mouth, nor allow it past the lump in my throat that would not go away.
Then my friend Tom arrived with two enormous pots, one with polenta, the other brimming with chicken in a puttanesca sauce that he made using skinless thighs, crushed tomatoes and garlic, Kalamata olives, capers and what tasted like an extra quantity of anchovies. There was an eye-opening hint of a flavor I couldn’t identify. Was it basil or thyme? Yet, here was the first aroma that sparked hunger in me. I took a bite. I swallowed. Suddenly, I wanted more. In that moment, my numbness was replaced by a craving that originated from somewhere deep inside of me. Did somehow this complexity of flavors capture something about my daughter, both powerful and exotic? Was this dish suffused with her or was it just that it lifted me away to a faraway place?
In the days that followed I’d wake each morning ravenous for another bowlful. At lunch it was all I could eat. An hour or two later I would say to one of my sisters that I needed another bowl of puttanesca. Rather than growing tired of the meal, I craved more. My family, recognizing my inexplicable fixation on this dish, left every morsel for me. I was captive to a pot of chicken puttanesca.
With each serving, I was transported to a new place; with each mouth-watering spoonful an array of feelings washed over me. I could detect each subtle and unique flavor, as if all my senses were heightened. Yes, there it was, it was basil. Sometimes, I cried. At other times I experienced the dish as a refuge, a blanket of protection surrounding me, a feeling of being enfolded into a warm embrace. I wanted to sink into it, linger there. I told my family it was as if the food was imbued with warmth, love, and comfort, all marinated together. This chicken dish had become my lifeline, transporting me back into the world of the living. I could not imagine the day when the pot would be empty. Could the food have really lasted as long as I remember? When I took the very last bite I wept.
A month or so later I thanked my friend Tom for his extraordinary dish. He replied that he was glad that I found nurture and comfort in it, because he had made it with “love.’ I needed to hear more. He said that throughout each step of the preparation, he had throught about my daughter and me. I imagined Tom, carefully adding each ingredient, infusing the pot with solace. A dash of hope here and a sprinkling of rememberance there; each cut of his knife severing some of my pain. Finally, he placed the pot on the stove. The heat fused the ingredients and feeling together in a startling and unique way. He had created something out of love and imagination that soothed some ravenous part of myself. Somehow, his gift magically transferred this rich blend of food and emotion to me. No, Tom’s puttanesca was not just sustenance, but a means of communication and an act of generosity. His dish brought hope—and that was something I could savor.