I am not especially good with a knife. The yellow onions and purple carrots should come out finely diced, but, realistically, they land in the hot oil and rendered lamb fat as a haphazard collection of trapezoidal shapes. Fortunately, braising — the slow application of time, low heat and liquid — forgives many sins. I throw in some salt as the scent of the onions seizes the kitchen, then remember to add a bit extra. The doctors say my mother needs more sodium. Browned lamb shanks sit off to the side on a platter with a weird brown and orange sunflower pattern, a ’70s palette that’s as old as I am. I’ve been putting food on this platter since I was a child.
Family bonds thicken around meal preparation, especially during the holidays. It’s always been that way for me, but I’m not used to running the kitchen. As a child, I’d go out into a large Indiana backyard in all seasons, looking for magic. I won Super Bowls and saved Gondor, slipped into the trees and crawled into the dry streambed that ran between my clubhouse and my father’s garden. As far as my imagination might take me, my parents could always see me from the kitchen windows and call me inside. Sticky with dirt and pine sap, I’d clean up and start helping with dinner. My tasks expanded as I grew. Furiously cranking on the salad spinner. Mixing oil and vinegar with spices to make dressing. Cleaning vegetables. Eventually they trusted me with sharp edges, and later with heat.
Now I’m middle-aged and my mother is gone, just days ago, lost to cancer. I don’t quite know how to make it through the holidays without her. The smell of searing meat or the sound of a knife edge hitting the wooden cutting board drags me back to just a Saturday, not a holiday meal, when I cooked a not-quite-final meal for my mother.
At the time, she hadn’t been able to eat solid food for weeks. Something about the radiation she was receiving for lung cancer damaged her esophagus, causing searing heartburn that made her gasp. She was too thin. I wanted to purge the therapeutic poisons of her treatment through cooking.
Garlic cloves follow the onions and carrots into the pot along with a splash of wine, then I scrape bits of meat off the side of the pan. My mother comes back into the kitchen when I shout a question about whether she has tomato paste; she is eager to show me her trick of opening the can at both ends. I protest that I could just use a spoon to scoop, but she’s proud of her technique of pushing the tube through the can onto a plate. I use a bit of the jiggling red cylinder to bind the flavors. She portions the rest, dollop by dollop, into a blue plastic ice cube tray for freezing.
As a child, I found our freezer strange. Bags of animal bones and scraps of discarded vegetables nestled against frozen cubes of green herbs and red tomatoes. My parents placed a lot of emphasis on something called “stock.” Once a babysitter poured the liquid down the sink, proudly preserving the carcasses and peelings in the pot for when my folks came home. Today, I know that homemade stock changes everything, and I’ve got two frozen chunks of the stuff, dark brown chicken, out to thaw. Before it goes in, I taste the already cohering mix, then discard the spoon instead of my usual home-cooking practice of double-dipping. We don’t want germs.
Last come peeled sunchokes, potatoes and parsnips, which I nearly cover with the bone-rich broth, now melted. She’s not going to be able to eat the lamb, I think, but braising can break down the tough connective tissues, infusing the protein and iron and fat into the vegetables and sauce. When that’s done, I will puree the roots and then emulsify the fats and the remaining aromatics, those trapezoids I dropped in so long ago, in the braising liquid with an immersion blender. But it’s going to take some time. So we wait, my parents and I, and talk about the future.
These are the ingredients of a memory that’s neither eulogy nor miracle. Stock, wine, garlic, onion and fat. Heat, cancer, childhood, sorrow and love. I wish I could cook for her again.
I serve. For my father and I, the lamb shank sits in light brown puree and a darker sauce that contrasts attractively with blue and white porcelain “Hotel D’Angleterre” plates, more relics of my childhood. I carve tender slices of meat from close to the bone to serve my mother. As she eats the puree, she seems to ascend, swallow by swallow, from the nadir of her treatment. She mentions to my father that she’d be interested in cleaning off his shank when he’s done. She’s been stealing the bones off his plate and seeking the tiny, tender morsels as long as I can remember. I, too, like to gnaw loose chunks of gristle and fat from animal bones, crunching as necessary. I head to the kitchen and strip the meat off a spare bone, depositing it on my mother’s plate along with a small knife. She sucks out the marrow.
David Perry is a journalist and senior academic adviser to the history department at the University of Minnesota.