My mother, having fallen down the stairs and broken her leg on June 8, has left the hospital and moved to something called a Sub-Acute Rehab Facility. I believe, based on keen observation, that that means “not as bad as being in the hospital but we will still wake you in the night to take your vitals and you will still have a roommate who watches game shows all day long at a volume calculated to shatter Plexiglas.” It also means that the food is still bad.
My mother, as I believe I have mentioned many times, is a superb cook, and even in these days of waning appetite and dietary restrictions she still appreciates and desires sophisticated and well-prepared food. At the rehab facility, I joined her for lunch yesterday and witnessed both menu choices: roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy or Chicken a la King and mashed potatoes. Cubes of carrots were served as a side, and dessert was a gelatinous apple filling sered in tiny pie shells. It was not inspiring. I watched my mother pick at her food, keenly aware that she needs to eat, particularly to eat protein, in order to build and keep her strength up so that she can participate in physical therapy and go home. It wasn’t looking good.
Today, I decided that I should cook for her at home, and take her nutritious, familiar dishes that will be impossible for her to resist. This is not the time to experiment with Indian curries or authentic empanadas; it is a situation that requires salt of the earth, comforting recipes taken into the sterile institutional atmosphere in baskets lined with pretty napkins. My choices are somewhat complicated by the fact that the facility is some miles away, and things like grilled cheese sandwiches, omelettes, souffles or asparagus risotto will tend to arrive in a condition indistinguishable from the unappetizing dining room offerings.
I have some standards in my repertoire that will serve me well, including chicken salad and muffins, and macaroni and cheese, and small, glazed individual meatloaves with homemade mashed potatoes. There is also great potential value in chocolate – delicate, frosted brownies, slender wedges of chocolate cake and containers of homemade chocolate mousse are definitely in order. Over the course of six weeks, though, I will need to try some recipes that are new to me. At the moment, I am relying on the 1960 Ladies Home Journal Cook Book. I am considering Stuffed Green Peppers, Creamy Beef Stroganoff, Dixie Ham-and-Chicken Potpie Chicken Tetrazzini, Almond Chicken Croquettes, Cheese and Onion Tart, Creamed Chipped Beef and Tuna Noodle Casserole.
Admittedly, these are not the dishes that will land me a spot on “Top Chef” or win me a book contract. They are old-fashioned, fairly bland, low-tech and the diametric opposite from all things molecular gastronomy. This project is not about my excitement or toe-curling gratification as a cook; it is about using my cooking skills to comfort and nurture someone who cooked for me for the first 18 years of my life (more, if you count vacations from college and law school). It is food as life support, and love in tangible form. In this case, rehab has to mean more than gaining physical strength and learning to transfer from a wheelchair to a bed. It must also mean a restoration of all things lost through pain, fatigue, loss of privacy, and living in unfamiliar surroundings.
Perhaps Amy Winehouse is just in need of some croquettes.