When my late mother-in-law, Nancy, was bed-ridden with her final illness, Tony and I moved temporarily into her house; to distract myself from worry, I decided to clean and organize Nancy’s kitchen. A talented cook, generous with her friends, Nancy’s kitchen shelves brimmed with gourmet foodie gifts, squirreled away willy-nilly. Each cabinet was a treasure chest of mismatched items: a silver tray, three pounds of artisan pasta, a sampler box of exotic salts.
I pulled everything from the shelves (toddler Ben loved this part), sorted like with like, and made an inventory to show Nancy. We made a game of it, challenging Nancy to guess how many bags of carnaroli rice (4), tins of anchovies (9), or vials of saffron (6), were in her stash. I sat on the edge of her bed and we talked about the feasts we could make from her pantry, and although her appetite wasn’t up to much, she would still eat a small morning bowl of polenta with cracked pepper or a few sips of chicken soup, and I was proud, that Easter, when she ate several bites of my first-ever poached salmon.
Aleksandra Crapanzano’s essay, Lobster Lessons, always reminds me of those last few months with Nancy. Aleksandra is a journalist who won the 2009 M.F.K. Fisher Award for Distinguished Writing from the James Beard Foundation, but this gorgeous essay about cooking for her soon-to-be fiance’s “permanent Other Woman, his great aunt,” the indomitable children’s book editor Margaret McElderry, is my very favorite.