When Food Doesn’t Heal

Healing Plate

One immutable law of the kitchen when I was growing up was food heals. Regardless if I were laid low by a thwackingly bad cold, a bully from school, or just a winter weekend without snow, food cured all. The powerful antidotes? My grandmother’s chicken soup, my aunt Irene’s massa sovada (sweet eggy bread), my mom’s stuffed quahogs.

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And that’s the philosophy I brought to the stove when I began cooking. It’s as if my dishes were shouting, like a carnival barker, “Looky here, looky here! A touch of gout, sir? Too many wrinkles, ma’am? Feeling blue about a boy, missy? Dr. Leite’s Magical Meals will make you feel like you just got a hug from the great Jackie Gleason himself.” And in each case, the palliative power of cooking—the kind that takes time and care and love—worked.

My belief was put to its most rigorous test on Saturday, September 15, 2001. New Yorkers were finally able to leave Manhattan after the attacks on the World Trade Center. The One, our friends, and I fled to the safety of our weekend homes. That night, as I served as many carbohydrate-rich dishes as the table would hold, six broken people slowly shook off the torpor of 24/7 viewing of the tragedy, the incessant roar of F-16 fighter jets overhead, and acute bunker mentality to hug, cry, even laugh.

That night, armed with Braised Beef Short Ribs, Celery Root and Potato Gratin, and Cheddar-Crust Apple Pie, I beat back a cabal of terrorists and won. So who could have imagined that a slight, troubled 18-year-old girl would eventually take me down.

Last month, The One’s niece, Callie (ed. note: not her real name), visited us for a week, as an all-expenses-paid birthday present from him. Coming from a rough area in Baltimore, and from a broken family, Callie dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Since then she’s ricocheted like a silvery orb in a pinball machine, bouncing from one set of friends to the next, one home to another, trying to find her place, even living with an older boyfriend for a spell while she was still a minor.

From the time Callie was very young, The One and I would go down and bring her and her two brothers to Connecticut for several weeks each year or take them on vacations to Disney World. It was our attempt at showing them that there is, indeed, another way to live—and that someone in their own family managed to achieve it. But in the end, it just didn’t seem to be enough: one nephew was shunted to his father’s home across the state due to a second marriage, another sits in juvenile detention, and Callie, now single, is back with her mother, both unemployed.

Years of seeing no appreciable effect had taken its toll; I felt steely, almost implacable when The One suggested we invite her again. Still, I reluctantly agreed.

To welcome her, I made Ina Garten’s Lemon Chicken with Croutons, a dish I made the family one December, which I knew Callie loved. My hope was the smell of an honest, no-agenda meal would envelop her and soften reentry, for both of us. The door opened and she slunk into the house, eyes downcast, the tails of her earbuds wriggling down either side of her face.

“Hi, Uncle David,” she said shyly. Why was I so implacable? I thought. She’s just a lost kid. I scooped her up in my arms, lifting her off the ground as I hugged her. Her clothes smelled of kitchen grease and mildew. Before The One even had time to shrug off his coat, I started my never-fail Cool Uncle Riff. See, The One is preternaturally clueless to anything hip. For years, he thought Fergie and the Black-Eyed Peas referred to Sarah Ferguson, the former wife of Prince Andrew, and one of her food charities.

As I was toasting the croutons in a skillet, Callie sidled up to me, and together we mercilessly teased The One about his remarkable unfamiliarity with pop culture. A shared look between him and me let me know he was okay with being the town fool for the evening. A hit for the greater good, he seemed to be saying.

While I carved the chicken, she volleyed questions: “Uncle David, remember the pasta and shrimp you made for all of us that time?” “You know, we never made those chocolate chip cookies you promised me.” “Uncle David, remember that time we sat in the freezing garage while we made the stars for the Snowflake Cake that one Christmas?” “Oh, and remember when my dad made those chimichangas that summer?”

It was then I realized so many of our times together—and, it seemed, her best memories—were wrapped around food. I decided that for the time she was with us, I’d make every single one of the dishes she’s liked throughout the years—a kind of greatest hits of the table.

By the end of dessert—my favorite love food: Sour Cream Apple Pie—Callie couldn’t shut up. Across from me wasn’t a tough, tattooed 18-year-old woman but the warm, sensitive kid who loved to prance around in her bathing suit, taking the occasional arc through the backyard sprinklers.

“And did my mom tell you,” she said, pointing her fork at us, “I’m going back for my GED then going to school for medical billing?” Praise God, and pass the peas. Her mother, who was also planning to do the same, had mentioned Callie was considering taking the GED. The One and I were determined not to bring it up unless Callie did, so as not to pressure her—although we hoped while she was with us we could encourage it.

“She’s changed,” he said later that night, taking pillows from our bed and turning down the comforter. “More mature, more sure of herself, don’t you think?”

“I do,” I said. “I’m impressed—and ashamed I didn’t want her here. I’m sorry.” He nodded. It was forgiveness, the kind that only 17 years can wrought.

For the rest of the time Callie was with us, I served favorite after favorite. And as I stood chopping, frying, and stirring, it was as if I were trying to infuse the food with the will to go back to school. I imagined, as silly as it seems, that years of wanting her to make something of herself were concentrated, like a demi-glace, and dripped from the wooden spoon into the frying pan. That common sense were ground up with a mortar and pestle and sprinkled in along with salt and a hint of pepper.

And it appeared to be working. Several days into her stay, Callie relaxed. She chatted more freely, forgetting to check her cell phone every minute, trippingly discussed dreams for the future, and relentlessly teased both of us. (Apparently my Cool Uncle Riff was good only until circa 2006. After that, I, too, was clueless.) One morning at breakfast, while she flipped through her grandmother’s recipe file for her black-bottom cake recipe, I whispered to The One, “I think we broke through.”

“I hope so,” he said.

“I found it! Can we make it? Please? Please?” There was that girl in the sprinklers again.

“Of course,” I replied.

The One and I stood back from the counter that afternoon and let Callie bake. The One shook his head when he saw me lean in because she wasn’t sifting the dry ingredients the way I would, and I backed off. I cleared my throat when he wanted her to use couverture chocolate instead of the Nestlé chips called for in the recipe. He demurred. The result, her first cake, wasn’t bad. But more important, it was a connection between Callie and her grandmother, a connection that otherwise lives only in a smudged envelope full of dog-eared photographs she keeps tucked in her purse.

That night, while watching a Netflix movie, The One handed Callie her birthday money, along with a tidy sum for helping him with stuffing envelopes—exactly equal to the cost of her GED tuition. Then came the slippery slope between being uncles and authority figures. “You know, there’s enough there to pay for your GED,” he suggested gently.

“Thank you,” she said, hugging him. I felt full, satiated.

After she left, it was radio silence. No thank-you card, no phone call, no texts for three weeks.

“Hello, Callie,” I heard The One say into the phone yesterday afternoon. I listened to the one-sided conversation, anxious for an update.

“Did you enroll in the GED program with the money I gave you?” Yes. Please, say yes.

A long pause. I could read the answer from how he traced the edges of his book with his finger. “Clothes? Really?”

“All of it?”

Pause. “I see.” He looked up at me.

I felt defeated. My instinct, because that’s the way I’m hardwired, was to go in the kitchen and cook something. That’s all she needs, I thought. I can fill her full of hope again. I know I can. Instead, I made myself a little something. I’m the one who needs the healing now.

The word "David" written in script.



  1. David, this is a very moving story.

    I have a 19 yr old son, an over achiever, but socially pretty withdrawn, at least from me. Like you with Callie, I cook for my son whenever I can, and I totally understand the feeling of distilling your love into delicious morsels.

    I hope one day to find a wonderful update here.

    1. Thank you, Leslie. and I wish wonderful things for your son.

      There is an update for Callie, actually. She had a baby recently and seems to have taken to motherhood quite well. She, the baby, and the baby’s father are coming to visit us next week. So we’re looking forward to welcoming two more members into our family.

  2. David,

    When you mentioned this story at Food Blog Forum this weekend, I made a mental note and quickly converted the mental note to paper so I wouldn’t forget it.:) Your verbal synopsis of the story touched me. I wanted to read the entire post, not because I have a relationship with a “Callie” but because stories about food connections speak to me.

    The outcome with Callie wasn’t what you had hoped it would be. However, the visit with Callie was spiritual. Through your actions, she was shown love. Showing love to another person is our highest calling. Sharing food memories and generational connections nourished her body and soul. Callie was blessed during that visit. She might not have the emotional intelligence or social graces to be able to express her gratitude, but you can rest assured that she felt it. I pray that Callie will be able to lean on those precious memories during her darkest moments.

    Thank you for sharing a piece of your heart. You are a kind and warm soul.

  3. Hi David,

    Just a note to say how much I enjoyed this piece. I just discovered this post, and what a tender, poignant story you tell! It is so interesting to see how we are all shaped by the foods we love. Who doesn’t have a food that brings back great memories? (Every time I smell fresh baked yeast rolls, I get a mental image of my mother, slathering butter on the top of a hot pan of rolls–and it makes me smile.) No matter what Callie is all wrapped up in these days, I bet in a quiet moment she looks back on her time with you fondly.

    I especially like your words in answer to a comment from Warren B. about learning to accept each other. In my experience, acceptance and understanding comes in waves; one day you think you have it all figured out, then it slips away for a while and you start feeling hurt again. Hope Callie ends up well. I was a Callie, a long, long time ago. Maybe I still am. Can you still be an unruly teenager, still trying to find your way at age 50?

    Maybe. Chocolate chip cookies help. And your Cheddar Crust Apple Pie, well that just makes everything okay!

    With Warm Regards from the Great State of Texas, MBE

    1. MBE, what a thoughtful and lovely note. It was a great way to wake up and it has my already put a smile on my face.

      A Callie update: She is working intermittently and has reach out to use a few times–unbidden!–twice by e-mail, once by phone. It melted our hearts, especially The One’s.

      Thanks for your message. It means a lot.

  4. This is a sweet story–growth is gradual, never forget. She has grown since you last saw her, and she will grow more still before you see her again, much of that growth will be thanks to the love and support the two of you have shown her. She will still make disappointing missteps, but don’t we all? In my fifties, I hate to admit how many I still make.

    Speaking of missteps, this confused me, so I took to Bing, to see what was up:

    “I do,” I said. “I’m impressed—and ashamed I didn’t want her here. I’m sorry.” He nodded. It was forgiveness, the kind that only 17 years can wrought.

    I began to wonder. It seemed to me that wrought was past tense, but for what? As it turns out, rather than past tense of wreak, as one may imagine, it is an older (archaic, even) past tense of the verb “to work”. So, I suppose, this would read better thus: “It was forgiveness, the kind that only 17 years can work.” Then, maybe there is a better word. Forge? Foster? Nurture? Bring? Grow? Present? Give? I hope you don’t mind this exploration, but the word wrought in this context really confused me. I ask this not in a spirit of correction, but rather, as one who loves language and words (as you obviously do), and occasionally finds a puzzle. What do you think? Or, have I made a misstep in asking you this?

    1. Hi Vicki, I’m glad you liked the piece. And I do hope Callie continues to grow and makes good decisions, as you say.

      Regarding the word “wrought,” I meant it in the archaic sense of “beaten out or shaped by hammering.” (Think of wrought iron.) I think things such as forgiveness, understanding, etc. between two people takes time to form, to forge. In our case, it was shaped by years of banging up against each other, not knowing how to be truly forgiving. There were emotional bruises as we worked to hammer out our unique way, as every couple must, of interacting. Ours is a hard-won victory of being able forgive with ease.

  5. Your story, beautifully and evocatively written as always, made me cry. For that lost little girl. All you can do is give her love, give her love, give her love. She needs to know that there is love, and continuity, and care, and kindness in the world. And you have shown it to her. She came and visited you… she didn’t have to do that. She knows that you are a source of that love. Some of it will, hopefully, eventually rub off. My own familial background was one of tough love, and uber-discipline, bordering on abuse, but never quite there. We are all healing now… but some much slower than others. One of my brothers was a poster-child for what you’re describing with your niece. But he found his niche. He found his “One” and they’re now happily married and expecting, he’s holding down a job and repaying all his debts. It may take time, but reassurance and love went a long way towards him achieving all of this. Oh–and he had to do it on his own, to his own agenda and schedule, and make all the mistakes. And we had to back off giving him money and digging him out of holes and scrapes. But he got there. So too will your niece. Keep cooking for her, and keep loving her. I don’t believe in a God, but I do believe in Love.

    1. siobhan, thank you for your gentle words. They mean a lot. And it’s good to know others have been through what Callie is going through and made it out the other end. Thanks.

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