Thursday, April 1, 2010


My Briefing column for today covers grief again. (I sort of worry that readers will get tired of so much grief writing, but it's also hard to ignore.)

You can read it here or here:

I'm working on a recipe for coping, one slurp at a time

There are multiple ways to track the peaks and valleys of my grief. One of them is food.

The week after my husband passed away, I couldn't bear to eat. I wasn't hungry. I was too emotionally and physically exhausted to chew. The smell of most foods was repulsive.

I subsisted on orange juice smoothies and homemade borscht, a soup made by my friend's Ukrainian-American mom.

Zena's mom happened to be in town last September when I needed her the most. When Anastasia visits her youngest daughter, she cooks the best Ukrainian food ever served in Frisco – dishes including pierogies, stuffed cabbage and borscht, a giant pot of soup made with beets, tomatoes, potatoes, chicken, celery, carrots and more.

I ate whatever Zena brought over. I sat at the kitchen table and devoured bowls of her mom's "Ukrainian penicillin."

A couple of weeks later, she delivered more, this time rations from the freezer. I was selfishly thankful that Cooper and Katie didn't like the soup – more for me.

As time passed, I started eating more food, even food that required chewing, often brought by friends. As more time passed, the delivered meals slowed, and I started preparing food again for our family.

That's when I realized how fully every aspect of our lives had changed. The simple act of browsing favorite cookbooks was emotionally messy. I kept finding recipes that Steve loved and that I loved to make for him. Some pages were even marked with quotes like "Two thumbs up from Steve."

The first time I made one of our favorite meals, I broke down in sobs – and not because of the diced onion in the recipe. Vegetarian tamale pie was one of Steve's most requested dishes. As I whisked the cornmeal mixture and grated cheddar cheese, I remembered the countless nights we'd prepared this casserole together. I couldn't help but imagine the stretch of dinners ahead, all without Steve.

After that breakdown, I slowed down. I kept cooking, but I backed away from recipes that overwhelmed me with memories and dread.

It was a big accomplishment when I started cooking soups again. For one, there wasn't a single soup that didn't remind me of Steve. And logistically it didn't make sense to cook a huge pot of soup that only one adult would eat. (Cooper and Katie haven't yet acquired all of their parents' culinary affections.)

Instead of wasting, I've been freezing some and sharing some portions. I've revisited and shared Julia Child's potato and leek soup, a lentil soup and an amazing version of minestrone.

After those recipes, I decided I was ready to tackle the big one: Anastasia's borscht, the soup that carried me through that awful stage of raw grief.

I told Zena my plan. She insisted on joining me – because she'd never made it herself and she knew from her mom that it's a two-person job.

Tuesday morning, we started by chopping onions, garlic, celery, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, green bell pepper, dill and parsley. We pureed pickled beets. Boiled a whole chicken.

We followed Anastasia's slightly garbled directions and made a few judgment calls and one phone call to Florida.

Every time we stirred in new ingredients, we anxiously hovered over the giant pot, waiting to see the right borscht color and detect the right borscht smells.

After the soup sat for a while, we took tentative bites of the finished product. The results were perfect.

Zena left, and I sat at the kitchen table by myself and ate a small bowl. With each spoonful, I was reminded of the many gifts that have sustained me since Steve passed away and of how far I've come since his final breath. Those moments were definite peaks in my grief journey.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. E-mail her at

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