Ever played that game? What would you eat for your last supper? One meal. Death row. No tomorrow. What would it be? My latest off the cuff answer: a BLT sandwich. Perfectly toasted sourdough bread; a slightly lemony aioli; stacks of thin, crisp, smoky bacon; green crunch lettuce and thin discs of perfect tomatoes with grains of sea salt. Because really, when was the last time you ate a perfect tomato? Of all the plates I could ask for, why such a simple dish?
As a young girl, my dream job was to be a waitress. My dad loved eating and he especially loved eating out so two or three times a week, we ate dinner at Red’s Steakhouse, the Rio Grande Cafe or Rancho de Chimayo. Restaurants taught me to sit up straight, keep my hands to myself and make decisions I can live with. These lessons continue to serve me well. If I didn’t understand a particular dish, my dad insisted I ask the waitress for a thorough description, beginning with “please” and ending in “thank you.” Usually, the waitress happily steered me to a better choice. Back home, while my brothers played cowboys and Indians, shooting each other out of tree forts with BB guns and lassoing prisoners to fence posts, I wrapped a scarf around my head, grabbed my pad and pencil and took everyone’s order. Even the brother tied to the fence post got to ask for grub.
On family trips, we scanned the menu backwards, choosing dessert first then building backwards to the appetizer. I still do that. Except now, desserts are on a separate menu which really makes no sense to me. How can you book a flight without a final destination? Even now, I love perusing a new menu, tasting the words, being torn between this and that…what a luxury when so many are starving. It still astonishes me that I work in an industry where food is used as a psychological weapon, where omnivores are outcasts. The hush-hush epidemic sweeping American yoga…not hip injuries and shoulder impingements…we all know that. It’s eating disorders. It’s shame. Slather me with butter, please. Pass the bread. And slaughter that pig, already (after Namaste-ing him, of course).
Traveling with my dad meant surrendering any well-made plans to his belly. When he came to visit me in New York, he asked the cabbie for a restaurant recommendation and after hearing about the usual suspects…Tavern on the Green, Peter Luger’s, Carmine’s, my dad poked the man’s shoulder, “Where do you eat?” Off we’d go to Queens for falafel with the guy’s brother in law, squatting on a sidewalk. At a lush resort in Cozumel, my dad disappeared, his lounge chair by the infinity pool looking guilty with a face down book on it. Finally, after much searching and hand gesturing, I heard his laughter coming from the kitchen where he was having “family” dinner with the staff, speaking Spanish, and sopping up a mole that never made it on the menu with a warm corn tortilla.
During the last weeks of his four-year negotiation with cancer, I spent hours each day cooking for my dad, shopping organic markets, playing with seasonings. I wanted his last tastes to be delicious. Yet, I had to take my complicated dishes and cook them down to their essence…which means I strained broths and roasted vegetables, then blended them for a straw. Or, made smoothies with berries, herbs and creme fraiche. No arroz con pollo or creamy puddings or anything with roasted green chiles. Swallowing was too hard, the belly too tender.
One morning, he asked for atole, a porridge-like cereal made from blue corn meal. On school mornings, my dad would patiently stir and stir it, over low heat, in a special pot he was convinced carried the secrets of his mother’s cooking. What I remember, is that it was like paste and no amount of milk and sugar or chopped banana made it less like paste.
So I fancied it up, using the special pot. Added a vanilla bean, some Saigon cinnamon. Coconut milk instead of cow’s milk, raw honey instead of white sugar. I was quite proud of myself. It was no longer a paste, but perfectly balanced and much less “corny.” My dad hated it. Politely. But he hated it. He wanted his grey paste back.
Soon, as his collar bones grew sharper and his ears more prominent, all he wanted was bean juice. Not the pinto beans themselves, but the salty, earthy liquid of their stirrings. And only my mother’s beans. That, and strawberry popsicles that made his mouth freakishly red. Bean juice and popsicles. Those were his last meals. In the three days before he died he couldn’t even keep those from coming up. He was starving to death right before our eyes.
What I know is this: It’s pointless to consider a future that may never exist. There is no BLT waiting for me on my death bed, so I might as well eat it now. All the meditation apps in the world have not succeeded in teaching me how to live in the present, but watching my father sip bean juice through a straw has. Even in dying, there is life. And sometimes the salty earthiness of it, that’s all you get. And that’s plenty.
After sorting and cleaning the beans, place them in a large bowl, covered with water and soak overnight. The following day, rinse beans twice. Bring to a hard boil then throw the water away. Add clean hot water, 1 teaspoon ginger powder, 2 tablespoons olive oil, garlic cloves, one small 8 oz. can tomato sauce and salt to taste. Cook all day in an open kettle over medium heat. Go read a book. Drink a beer. Visit with your family. Stir. Add water as needed and occasionally taste for tenderness and salt.
Serve. Always serve.