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How I Got My Own “Food + Grief Project” Wrong

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Turns out, food and grief is so much more than recipes.

bowl of lemons in shadow food and grief writing

Food, grief, Covid-19, coronavirus. I see now that I had painfully and profoundly underestimated the scope of food and grief.

When I decided to start the still-nascent Food + Grief Project, I envisioned it primarily as a resource for people (including myself) to share recipes and associated stories about those we love and lost. Ever the super-organizer, I even divided my Food + Grief web page into sub-categories: Food That Heals and Food That Remembers. There was also a third section, a catch-all called F+G Articles, Interviews, Essays.

I figured that the catch-all category would serve its purpose, but mostly I would 1) share people’s recipes and the stories connecting those recipes to loved ones, like the Thanksgiving side that came from their dearly-departed aunt; and 2) offer suggested recipes for people who want to help nourish others — or themselves — in grief.

To be sure, this is important. I know well and from personal experience that recipes bond us to those we lost. In Modern Loss, I wrote about a bread I baked each week for me and my husband. He died in 2014. To date, I still cannot bring myself to bake it. I bake something similar now, but cannot bake “the” bread.

Irish brown soda bread on cooling rack with wood dish

My Coronavirus Epiphany

Then came life in a Covid-19 reality. Now I see — and feel — that food and grief surrounds us everywhere. Grief is not one feeling, but many. Grief is a wave that rises and falls hourly, daily, by the minute, by the hour. This wave is built from varying degrees of fear, disorientation, loneliness, sadness, anxiety, apathy, anger, confusion, and much, much more.

The flutter of panic you feel upon entering the grocery store, bracing yourself for the surreal view of empty shelves and fellow shoppers in masks and gloves? Make no mistake: That is grief.

The this-is-ok-but-not-quite-good-enough pit in your stomach about the Zoom happy hour or dinner you are having with friends or family, instead of sharing those moments in person? That is grief.

empty grocery shelves corona

Yesterday alone, I saw food and grief when I let my teenage stepdaughter see a friend. Rather than allowing her friend to enter our house and greeting her with the usual hug, they met at a park, waved hello, and sat more than six feet apart on separate picnic blankets. They brought their own food.

I read about food and grief in New York Times reporter Amelia Nierenberg‘s haunting, raw, and beautiful description of her dad’s favorite mug, and collecting his dirty dishes as he lay sick in bed. Her father, an E.R. doctor in New Jersey, is sick — and possibly dying — of Covid-19 as I write this. Read her essay (now please). Then, if you pray, say a prayer.

I had already slated my Q+A with Amelia to publish this weekend. We had chatted about her incredible article about mealtimes and widowhood. Later today, I will rewrite the headnote. I never thought her own food and grief would play a role in the piece. But here we are.

I felt food and grief when, walking around to gather coronavirus-related pitch ideas for my work as a contributor for Eater, I burst into tears walking up 6th Street NW in downtown Washington, D.C. Normally a busy downtown corridor of offices, restaurants, and the Capital One Arena, I could hear birds chirping. Which was nice. But also: I. Could. Hear. Birds. Chirping.

Tonari restaurant DC
A (bad) picture of a masked cook at Tonari, taken through glass. / Lisa Ruland

I stared into the windows of well-known ramen joint Daikaya and next-door Tonari. No-touch takeout orders lined a speed rack at Daikaya’s door. In Tonari, a single cook worked, alone in a mask. He tossed a pizza into the wood-fired oven.

Today, I put rainbow sprinkles a birthday cake I was never supposed to make. A family friend’s daughter turns 18 today. Instead of going out for the big birthday party she should have had, she will celebrate over a quiet family dinner for four. But if sugar, flour, buttermilk, and rainbow sprinkles is what I can offer to make that dinner a bit happier, then so help me God, offer it I will.

We are all adapting to a new reality. One of empty-shelved grocery shops; dining alone with our food, or maybe together through a screen; postponed celebrations and too much home cooking. Grief does not stop just because we need it to, or because we feel we cannot  keep going like this anymore. That is the hard part. I also know, however, that there is a special magic and relief that comes from sharing grief with others. Let people be there for you in yours, and be there for others in theirs. Keep cooking.

Your Help for a New Focus for The Food + Grief Project

The Food + Grief Project’s mission will expand to cover all aspects and dimensions of food and grief. But this needs your voice. Share, either in the comments or by email at inquiries[at] the ways you have felt the intersection of grief and food during this Covid-19 coronavirus crisis, or at any other times. I will compile these into a new article, and keep updating it as they are received. Thank you for sharing.

rainbow sprinkle cake with candles

1 comment

  • A few days ago, I let family and friends know that my family was likely infected with Covid-19. Several friends offered to grocery shop for our family, since we could no longer brave the stores. The state of grocery store pick-up or delivery is very frustrating, to say the least. We have started several orders just to have no window of delivery open for a week plus – or ever in some cases. It felt like we had no way of getting food safely for our family. Yesterday, we had two different friends drop off bags of groceries. I had another friend make me a large quantity of delicious, homemade, healing chicken soup. During the grief of experiencing the changes to our world, the anxiety of having the virus in our house, and the sadness of not being able to see my family or friends – these acts of kindness made me feel loved and cared for.

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