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How to Cook for the Sick and Heartbroken

Alex Van Buren
Food Features Editor
January 9, 2014

Photo: Getty Images

If the pundits are right, food is the new sports, the new politics, even the new porn. Our cultural obsession with culinary TV shows and restaurants is at its peak. We snap oodles of Instagrams of prettily composed plates, and read long, lilting essays about cooking on our favorite blogs.

But there’s a little lost art lurking behind the hype—that of caretaking.

I grew up in a small Massachusetts town, and perhaps the most boring part of life—aside from waiting for Mom to stop chatting with neighbors after we got out of church—was how insistent she was upon piling us all in the car and bringing food to her sick and bereaved friends.

It felt, frankly, not in the social best interest of her children. At ages 5, 8 and 13, respectively, my brother, sister and I could have been playing with Transformers, hiding from boys, or flirting with boys. Driving door to door with Pyrex dishes filled with rapidly-cooling shepherd’s pie seemed a giant waste of our time.

Now, as a single woman living in New York City, I’m finally coming to terms with this caretaking instinct, which I’ve inherited. And it’s been tricky. In an urban environment, men and women shut themselves up when they are sick, or heartbroken, or lost. They disappear from Facebook. They lock their doors and order Seamless. Their lives become a hodgepodge of chopsticks sheathed in cheap paper, sticky menus, and plastic bags.

So I’m here to say that it’s worth it. Push. Even when it seems like it’s not welcome. Even when you think you don’t have time. 

When we were 31, one of my best friends—I’ll call her Betty—was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Betty got me my first writing job. She was a champion of bad haircuts and ill-advised boyfriends alike. 

She would be the first person I lost who I really loved.

A few months after her diagnosis, Betty’s hair started falling out. We, her friends, panicked. Betty was outrageously proud, and didn’t want anyone to trouble herself. I fought with her for weeks: “Please let us do something to make ourselves feel better.”

We were home cooks, most of us, and good ones—Betty had started her career as a writer at a nationally-known food magazine. We were pining to feed her. Finally she let us set up a delivery service using Lotsa Helping Hands, which allows a patient to specify what she’s craving and, importantly, to cancel at the last minute if she doesn’t feel well. 

I was at Betty’s house the day 20 miniature versions of chicken pot pie (her favorite) arrived, cooked in the magazine’s test kitchen. Each had a tiny heart carved out of its puff pastry top. She clapped her hands with delight and wolfed one down.

From then on out, it was easier to help. Since we were neighbors, I would walk a whole roast chicken in its pot down the street. We learned that with her type of chemotherapy drugs, sometimes food and its potent aroma would be welcome, and sometimes—due to nausea—not so much. 

I remembered my mom darting to the door, ringing the bell, smiling, and running right back to the car. I tried to mimic her, unless Betty insisted on company.

The day we finally lost her, three years later, I was knocked down with grief. Straight down to the floor of my studio, for an hour, sobbing.

I had cooked her a chicken the day before, and brought it to her apartment. Her mom was supposed to deliver it to the hospice. (The food there, apparently, was terrible). When I saw her mother at the memorial service a few days later, she grabbed my hand. “That chicken was the only thing in the house when we got home from picking up her five sisters and brothers at the airport. No one could move. It was energy. It was fuel. I don’t know what we would have done without it.”

A friend and I delivered baked mac ‘n cheese a few days later. The aluminum tins we put it in cost $2 at Key Foods. It’s a friend’s recipe:Gruyère and cheddar spun into a béchamel sauce, the pasta cloaked in buttery bread crumbs. The boys, her teenage brothers, looked up and sniffed the air when I came in. They didn’t say hello. 

I heard later that they ate. That was enough.