In the days after my 20-year-old son Robby died from a rare blood disease, there always seemed to be someone at the door with food. My mother tried to coordinate the offerings, but still there was more than anyone could eat, and more than the refrigerator could contain.
After Shiva (Jewish days of mourning following burial), there was still an overwhelming amount of food at my house. We gave away the perishables, packed up what could keep in the fridge, and froze loads of leftover chicken. We kept the leftover booze.
One afternoon after the last visitor had departed, my 23-year-old daughter Laura, an accomplished cook, looked at refrigerator shelves crammed with overfilled plastic containers and was inspired. She took the Israeli salad (onion, cucumber, and tomatoes in a vinaigrette) and made gazpacho. She added a few ingredients to the leftover olives from the relish trays and transformed them into a tapenade.
Her industry and innovation made me smile. We have always loved to cook together, and we pride ourselves on using up the last bit of whatever we find in a creative way. Fans of the cooking show “Chopped” may recognize our process as similar to the challenges faced by contestants.
We didn’t have a deadline like they did, but we did have a strong desire to avoid wasting food and to keep ourselves occupied. After more than a week immersed in the pain and shock of loss, it was a relief to allow those feelings to simmer in the background while we focused on a concrete, constructive task.
All of the chicken came out of the freezer. We pulled off the meat and simmered stock from the bones. We chopped and roasted vegetables from the crudité. Just like that, we made chicken chili verde, farro chicken salad, curry carrot soup, and more.
When we were done, we laughed, finding the experience therapeutic. We felt satisfied to have done something productive to counterbalance the past week of sedentary grief. We had made a bit of order out of chaos.
In the process, we learned a few simple lessons about bringing food to mourners:
- Don’t bring salad. No one eats it, it takes up precious space in the fridge, and it goes bad too quickly.
- Don’t bring chicken — undoubtedly someone else will.
- Do bring dessert. A sweet treat is always welcome.
- Do bring soup — it’s soothing now or nice to freeze for later.
- Do include disposable plates and utensils.
As we made our way through the initial shock and pain of our loss, we were grateful for the support of our family and friends. The platters of comfort food, the mountain of sympathy cards, and the steady flow of hugs all sustained us through a terrible time.
Maybe that’s why were so reluctant to waste any of the leftovers — because we wanted to cherish the concrete manifestation of everyone’s love.
Caryn and Laura’s recipe for Curry Carrot Soup:
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
Carrots (6-8 peeled and cut into chunks, or similar amount of baby cut carrots)
2-3 tbsp ghee or vegetable oil
1 tsp mustard seed
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
1 red onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp ginger, minced
1 jalapeno, minced (stems and seeds removed if you want it less spicy)
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp cayenne
½ cup chopped tomato
6 cups chicken broth
- Toss carrots with olive oil, salt, and pepper on a sheet pan. Roast at 425 degrees for about 20 minutes until starting to brown.
- Heat ghee or oil in large pot. Saute the mustard seeds, bay leaf and cinnamon stick until the seeds turn grey (1-2 minutes). Add the minced onion and saute until softened (5 minutes). Add the garlic and jalapeno, saute until fragrant (about 30 seconds). Add the cumin, garam masala, curry, cayenne, saute until fragrant (2-3 minutes). Add the chopped tomato and cook until the color deepens, and the mixture thickens (5-7 minutes).
- Add roasted carrots and chicken stock to the pot, scraping to release any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 20 minutes.
- Remove the bay leaf and cinnamon stick. Puree the ingredients in a blender or using an immersion blender. Taste to adjust seasoning.
Caryn Anthony is a nonprofit consultant, executive coach, and amateur cook living in Silver Spring, MD. As a Jewish mother, she knows that food and nurturing go hand in hand.