Food For The Soul

The first food offering that showed up was a plate of New Orleans-style red beans and rice, sent spontaneously one Sunday afternoon by my friend Janet, who has nailed the seasoning combination in a way I never have in more than 30 years of trying to make the dish taste right. I worried that it would be too spicy for my husband’s sore throat, but he wolfed it down.

The next delivery came a few days later, just as he was starting the radiation and chemotherapy treatments that would ultimately cure his throat cancer – but not before leaving him weak and ill and often unable to swallow anything but the mildest and gentlest of dishes. This particular food gift from my old friend Peggy was a three-course meal designed to soothe and nourish: velvety potato soup, homemade yeast rolls and a big vat of the boiled custard she makes better than anyone else in the world – your grandmother included.

Then came a blur of fabulous food, provided by fabulous friends. There was pot roast and mashed potatoes with gravy, chicken salad, key lime pie, chicken soup, homemade pimiento cheese, seafood gumbo, homegrown tomatoes, even some Brunswick stew from Curtis McBride, the best waiter in the history of Manuel’s Tavern.

Some of the food Paul was able to eat a little of, some he managed a lot of. Some I ate for him, and some went into the freezer. We built up an impressive collection of plastic food containers – for weeks, every kitchen cabinet I opened seemed to have little blue lids spilling out.

I kidded him that at any given moment he had women all over the city cooking for him. One day lunch and dinner arrived at almost the same moment, with one chef backing out of the driveway just as another was arriving.

There is something truly heartwarming about watching a good friend with oven-mitted hands wrestle a big soup pot into your kitchen, hoping this might be the right dish to tempt the injured palate.

Every time I opened the refrigerator, I’d see evidence of friends’ kindness. Sometimes it caught me by surprise, and I’d find myself getting teary-eyed over a carton of pimiento cheese. Even when he couldn’t eat very much, Paul liked to check out the food.

He found solace in plotting the meals he would enjoy once his treatment regimen was over. (A truck-stop breakfast, a Sunday pot roast like his mom used to make, a hamburger and fries were items one, two and three on his list.)

Other friends nourished our souls and our psyches with other kinds of offerings – DVDs, books, CDs, a DVD player from a group of friends who were appalled by our backward VCR-owning ways. Our friend Jack arrived one Saturday morning with a brown paper bag containing an early Nellie Fox action figure he had owned for years – a gift to Paul, the recovering second baseman whose boyhood idol was Nellie Fox.

Throughout the long weeks, there were emails and notes and cards offering prayers, good wishes, positive vibes and encouraging thoughts.

There were phone calls and visits. There was a wonderful gift from my boss and colleagues, and random kindnesses from neighbors and acquaintances. They all helped.

The final food offerings came one Sunday not long after Paul had completed his treatments and been accorded the title “cancer survivor.” He was just beginning to get his appetite back. Janet showed up again, this time with a huge pan of still-warm banana pudding topped with lightly-browned meringue.

A little while later two more friends, on their way out to dinner, dropped by with tomatoes procured the day before in Grainger County, Tenn., including one of the rightly-prized “Mr. Stripey” variety.

We were standing in the kitchen discussing, among other things, the finer points of tomato sandwich-making (white bread, lots of mayonnaise, heavy on the salt), when I noticed our friends eyeing the pan of banana pudding on the counter.

“I don’t want to spoil your dinner,” I said, “but maybe you’d like just a little taste … ”

Maybe they would. Out came the spoons – first a little nibble right from the pan, then another, and another. They reluctantly surrendered their spoons, but Paul kept going. He filled up a bowl and devoured the pudding in a way I hadn’t seen him devour anything for weeks.

It was a great meal and an even better celebration.

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