Words and Images by Betsy DiJulio

Lessons from a French Kitchen by Richard Goodman

Limits by Dinah Lenney

Slaughterhouse by Marissa Landrigan

Home is Where the Beer Is by Adam Blake Wright

Navel Gazing by Samuel Stinson

The Sacred Canon by Betsy DiJulio

Game Over by PES

A Return to M.F.K. Fisher by Leo Racicot

Two Poems by L.A. Ashby

Dame Factor Inc. by Melanie Abramov

With Mangoes by Grace Pauley

Table 7 by Marko Slavnic

Monster Roll by Dan Blank

Revenge by Lernert and Sander

Poor Girl Gourmet by Amy McCoy

The First Taste by Saatchi & Saatchi and Heckler

Samba Salad by Sandra Kaas

flatten by Kay van Vree and Hugo de Kok

Ways of Cheddar Chex Mix by Megan Kimble

Menupoems 2014

Chocolate Bunny by Lernert and Sander

The Traveller Eggs by Nora Silva

Interview by Peggy Wolff

Fermentophone by Joshua Pablo Rosenstock

Lycopersicum by Uli Westphal

Cupcake Canon by Johnny Cupcakes and Kamp Grizzly

Street View Supermarket by Liat Berdugo

Modern Art Desserts by Caitlin Freeman

Travel Around the Hob by Nora Silva

Marzipan in Toledo by Kristen Hemlsdoefer

10,000 Items or Less by Blair Neal

Menupoems 2013

How to Explain It to My Parents by Lernert & Sander

The Burger Foundation by Michelle Ellsworth

Bebe Coca-Cola by Décio Pignatari

Tournedo Gorge by Kathi Inman Berens

Food Remix by Michelle Ellsworth

Interview with Darra Goldstein

Eating on Berry Street by Emily Nemens

In the Most Unlikely Places by Jason Bell

The Birthplace of the Tomato by David Wanczyk

Pot Luck by Cindy McCain

Secret Foods


Words and Images

by Betsy DiJulio

Throw Tradition into the Wind and ‘Til Death or Dinner Do Us Part

December 2015    

Throw Tradition into the Wind

How is it that an American family of largely (albeit largely forgotten) Irish descent—who long celebrated Christmas with a feast not unlike the one replicated in millions of households, near and far—came to believe that the following menu made any sense at all?

Christmas Dinner 2014

Relish Tray
Black Bean Soup
Kale Pesto on Crostini
Cranberry Relish
Congealed Cherry Nut Salad
Cranberry Crunch
Slow-Cooker Pecan Pie

You can bet that the reasons are layered and complex and that, behind them all, is a lineage of matriarchs stretching from my sister and me to our mother and grandmothers, but, just as significantly, to that ‘mutha of all ‘muthas, Mother Nature.

My own mother was fundamentally a woman of tradition. Yes, she has read everything Colette ever wrote and had more than a passing interest in the dalliances—artistic and otherwise—of the Bloomsbury Group, but when it comes to food, she believed in the Rule of Threes: a proper plate should include a protein (if it is a ladies’ luncheon, then you can be sure it is a chicken salad or casserole), a green vegetable, and a fruit.

All the better if that fruit is a pickled peach extracted from a mammoth glass jar-full of them that have macerated on the kitchen counter for about as long as I can remember. An unnatural but somehow comforting shade of rosy orange—courtesy of canned peaches combined with dried Jell-O, vinegar, and sugar—they are never truly gone. The cinnamon stick- and clove-infused juice remaining in the depths of the jar fuels the next batch, much like a sourdough bread starter, but without the modern convenience of refrigeration. (And this a mainstay in the home of a frugal woman who would unblinkingly dispose of an entire ice-cold jar of $5 mayonnaise if she discovered so much as one potentially botulism-breeding crumb left behind.)

In accordance with tradition, rules, and maybe a few superstitions, our Christmas Dinner menu was, for most of my life, as steadfast and immutable—we will avoid predictable—as the Christmas Eve candlelight service at my parents’ Methodist church; the neighborhood cocktail party where not so much as a marinated shrimp, cheese straw, or roasted pecan half varied from one year to the next; and the after-party a few blocks down, with its inexplicable, yet reassuring, annual centerpiece of canned tuna fish salad. But things change. Still, it wasn’t death, divorce, or disease—though there was plenty of that to go around—that led to the demise of Christmas Dinner as we had long known it. No, it was a woman more tenacious than even my mother. Her name was Katrina.

Most will remember well when, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina delivered to Louisiana and Mississippi an unholy lashing from the coast to, in the case of Mississippi, the south-central part of the state. Of all the vestiges of the antebellum South that are probably best swept into the sea, surely the stately hundred year old mansions along the Gulf on Highway 90 were not among them.

With no power, five trees down on their roof, and an open-to-the-sky family room cum atrium, my elderly parents and adult sister—along with the entire little town of Laurel, like so many others in the Deep South—slowly dug their way out in August heat and humidity so relentless it almost seemed personal.

Still, they were among the very fortunate. Grown children of family friends who lived 90 miles north in the state capitol loaded their vehicles with sandwiches, bottled water, pet food, and sundries, arriving on local doorsteps like toiletry-toting angels. And the owner of the manufacturing company for whom my father worked for decades as an engineer—and still does, part-time, at the age of 87—up and purchased a gas station so that his employees could get to work and keep those transformers and computer carts rolling off the line. Membership has its privileges.

My parents remarked, without judgment, that not once did they see or speak to a government official. They pulled through like the rest of us imagine denizens of small towns always have: with the help of friends, neighbors, and the good folk of the local churches. That plus a reasonable and efficient insurance company who, in short order, paid for them to rent a lovely, if a bit quirky, early 20th century house downtown. There, we would spend Christmas that year. In fact, my family’s first night in the rental house was Christmas Eve.

Having begun, in prior years, to chafe at jumping up from opening gifts and sipping milk punch to spend hours toiling in the kitchen to produce a meal consumed in mere minutes, and having given considerable thought to my family’s likes and dislikes, I suggested that, in keeping with Mother Nature’s upheaval, we jettison our own Christmas Dinner tradition in favor of a couple of beloved soups and homemade bread. My sister’s oyster-artichoke bisque is easy and elegant, I offered, and my mother’s black bean soup is, according to her own estimation—and admittedly mine—unsurpassed, especially when sopped up with her Double Corn Fingers, buttery, crumbly, and irresistible.

Having warmed to my own idea and decided, rather melodramatically, that there was no other way forward, when my mother agreed without putting up a fight, I expelled the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. For a few years, even once my family was back in their restored home, some iteration of that menu continued.

Being unyoked from the most formidable of annual repasts was liberating. But circumstances change, and as my parents thereafter moved into their late 70s to mid-80s, complete with serious surgeries and fairly long recuperations, nostalgic desires for landmarks of the past expressed themselves as strong Christmas cravings. Cornbread dressing, a relish tray of decades old standbys: canned, bottled, cartoned, and a couple of fresh items; Nana’s congealed Cherry Nut Salad—which typically either runs out of the mold or bounces out, rubbery and trembling—and Mam-ma’s ambrosia—made with oranges cut by my father in some bewildering way logical only to him—began to work their way back onto the menu.

So, haphazard though it may seem, our Christmas Menu 2014 was anything but. Far from the bunking of tradition or the making of a statement, our Christmas Dinner remains what all symbolic meals are: the embodiment of a story. For some families, bedrock adherence to tradition and all that that implies may actually be their story, or at least the one they want to proudly proclaim and pass on. (I occasionally wonder if some families believe that generations of betrayals and bad blood can be overlooked provided the Christmas Dinner menu is perennially maintained without so much as a green bean out of place.)

But the story we have chosen to savor isn’t a neat linear narrative. No, it is a forward-thrusting, side-stepping, back-tracking free verse of relatives and recipes, and of passions, predilections, and even unprecedented storms, punctuated with nostalgia for the past, acceptance of the present and, at the very least, curiosity about the future.

And so it was that Christmas Dinner 2014 was a comforting mash-up of a c. 1960s relish tray; Mama’s black bean soup—a mainstay of her repertoire ever since I threw her a culinary curve ball and became a vegetarian and then vegan—kale pesto on crostini, my nod to trendy superfoods; three fruits if you don’t count the Cranberry Crunch for dessert; and our guest’s contribution of Slow Cooker Pecan Pie. So much for the Rule of Threes. When tradition goes head-to-head with Mother Nature, there is liable not to be one clear winner. Well, unless it is us, the sometimes reluctant slaves to a pair of not-always-so-benevolent masters.

‘Til Death or Dinner Do Us Part

Wednesday, July 29. Date Night. About 9 p.m. Sitting at the bar of El Taco Loco, my husband, Joe, was even more animated than usual.

Thursday, July 30. A weeknight like so many others. Exactly 7:22 p.m. Lying on a table at Bayside Hospital, Joe was dead at the age of 56.

I had rushed out of the house without my shoes and without dinner. And I’m not sure when I ate again.

Joan Didion writes in The Year of Magical Thinking, “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” There it is again; food. But for me, the indelible yellow line that now neatly divides my life into “before and after” was the outwardly calm, inwardly frantic, red light-be-damned drive to the emergency room. I sat down behind the wheel of my car to travel that short distance never knowing that I was beginning a personal pilgrimage with no clear end in sight.

Coronary Insufficiency.
Will three to five appetizers per person be sufficient?

As one embarks on such a passage, where does one turn for comfort when food—that which has, rightly or wrongly, provided a sense of well-being literally since birth, and has been a consuming passion to boot—is not only no longer desired, but utterly and vigorously rejected by one’s body?

The aftermath of Joe’s sudden and unexpected death initially left me little time to wonder. My relationship to food, along with my entire life, was in transition to some unknown place. And there was much to be done. Vibrating with an adrenaline-fueled fight-or-flight response (apparently the ancient chambers of our brains cannot distinguish between physical and emotional danger)—overlaid with an inexplicable serenity that ran counter to the feeling in my gut ever since falling across me like a transparent veil in the “quiet room” of the ER—I surged through phone calls, emails, Facebook posts, drop-offs, retrievals, meetings, arrangements, airport runs, and the welcoming of people into our home, not to mention the conception and co-planning of Joe’s end-of-life celebration, the writing of his obituary, and so much more. Fortunately on summer break from my high school art teaching job, there were nonetheless the daily routines of tending to our home, myself, and caring for my especially beloved Great Dane mix, Minnie. (My world was further shattered when, less than a month after Joe’s death, the sudden onslaught of a vicious autoimmune disease took her life at the age of only six. And she and I were going to navigate through the first year without him together.)

Have you given any thought to the end-of-life service?
We will provide butler-style service of the hors d’oeuvres.

Arriving home late in the afternoon the day after Joe died, having completed a succession of emotional tasks, I vaguely registered cars lining both the street and our long driveway. Inside, I encountered those to whom I came to refer, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, as the Defiers of Darkness. Indeed, I opened the door to a convivial scene of close friends and family, packed into the breakfast room and kitchen, every light in the house ablaze, stylish floral arrangements artfully placed throughout the downstairs, tissue boxes discreetly tucked amongst them, and a guest book and pen on a chest in the foyer. Neatly stacked on the laundry room counter were so many cases of sparkling water, juices, paper products and disposable utensils that grocery store shelves within a mile radius must have been bare, as if a hurricane was threatening our coast. I still marvel at how these members of my inner circle knew exactly what I needed when I couldn’t name a single thing.

And then there was the food. A new vegan bakery in town apparently experienced Christmas in July as cookies, cakes, cupcakes, pies, pastries, and artisanal breads gradually left their counters for mine, squeezed in amidst baskets of fruits and vegetables, boxes of teas, bottles of wine and a case of Prosecco, canisters of nuts, bags of homemade granola and organic dog treats, plates of homemade fudge, and cartons of homemade soups and salads. As every surface of my kitchen grew laden with fresh food and beverages less than 24 hours after Joe took his last breath, I drolly observed that, had the tables been turned, aged beef and even older Scotch, along with imported cigars, would have taken their places.

Food and death—like food and just about everything else—are, and always have been, inextricably linked in virtually every known culture. In fact, without realizing it at the time, I had mentioned food twice in the first few sentences of my welcoming remarks to some 1,000 stunned mourners squeezed into and spilling out of the ballroom at the Westin Hotel where we had gathered to celebrate Joe’s life in one heck of a send-off:

“Wow. I thought Huff the Doritos Dog was the celebrity in the family. It turns out I was married to a rock star. I am overwhelmed. Joe would have most definitely approved of this celebration…well, all except for the heart-healthy menu. And he’d want to be home in bed by 9:30.”

And though food continues to be a theme in this developing narrative, it does so in a way different than I had ever understood it before. Food has long shaped my life, at least as I had previously known it. A one-time hotel and restaurant administration major and part-time caterer turned art teacher and author of The Blooming Platter, a vegan food blog and cookbook, prior to this transition, I fantasized about food obsessively, created recipes—some of them award-winning—lustily, and ate voraciously. At 5’6”, thanks to a love of walking and other exercise, I weighed in at only 117 pounds, but that was about to change too. Joe and I used to joke that shedding pounds as a result of one of the Three Ds—death, divorce, or disease—was far more effective than the fourth D: diet. I can attest to the truth of that witticism.

A member of the Virginia State Bar, Joe was listed in “The Best Lawyers in America.”
The bar will remain open for an hour after the Celebration.

Perhaps humor has the most impact when it is a mixture of pleasure and pain and rubs up against truth more intimately than is entirely comfortable. One of my husband’s friends relayed that, the very week of his death, Joe had joked that he wanted to be a good-looking corpse. I am here to tell you that, as I held his head and kissed his face, and ran my hands tenderly over his sheet-draped body one last time, he was one hell of a handsome dead man. For my part, I had also joked, though not as recently, that I hoped friends would be on the lookout for my second husband because this one wasn’t going to last.

You see, people who knew us always remarked on how different Joe and I were, though we shared in common some deeply etched values. Perhaps he was my soul mate, but just as significantly, he was my counterweight. And nowhere were our differences thrown into higher relief than in our diets which were equally as uncompromising, but emphatically opposite: me the vegan, he the relentless, bowl-protective carnivore (who purchased and prepared his own food).

A man of extreme passions—estate law, investment property, weightlifting, mixed martial arts, animal welfare, ballroom dancing, and the collecting of watches, stylish reading glasses, and fossilized shark’s teeth—in some profound ways, Joe had, especially since he reached “mid-life,” been on a trajectory to this cataclysmic end. Proclaiming to a friend that “Once you’ve been Superman, you don’t want to be Clark Kent,” Joe was protein-obsessed, doing suspected damage to his kidneys and, I believe, his heart in the process, with his medication for high cholesterol surely having to work overtime. But he also spent a small fortune on injectable anabolic steroids—unbeknownst to his general practitioner or me—human growth hormone, a drug to amp up his quite normal thyroid hormone production, and testosterone replacement therapy (if one can call it that), all of the latter under a specialist’s care (who also likely knew nothing of the anabolic steroid use). This despite protestations from me and a close surgeon friend who had done the research and tried to dissuade him at my request. Joe’s apparently faulty reasoning, coupled with a healthy dose of invincibility, ran like this: “I am probably less at risk than most people because I am monitored more closely by a doctor.”

In a written eulogy to me, Randy, Joe’s erstwhile California-based business partner and friend of 20 years, encapsulated my life-force of a husband’s paradoxical nature in a way that honored each extreme without canceling out its opposites. The result was, for me, a portrait of my husband, so complex, accurate, and deeply understood that it takes my breath. How comforting to read an expression of who Joe was that aligns exactly with my perception—more felt than acknowledged—articulated in a way that I never could:

"Joe was Joe. I've never known anyone else even REMOTELY like him. He was a study in contradictions: Uber pragmatic and soft-hearted to the point of sappiness; completely self-absorbed and unconditionally giving; hard-headed as a Brahma bull and flexible as a willow; genuinely humble, completely self-effacing and vain to the bitter end. Joe spent hours in the gym each day treating his body as a temple and then, when home, stuffed it with steak, plied it with Scotch, and fumigated his cells with Dominican cigar smoke. He was the unhealthiest health-freak I ever met. That was Joe. And my goodness, how I loved him for it.”

Do you plan to stay in your home?
I wanted to drop by with some homemade lentil soup.

Throughout my charmed life in which virtually all major stress has been the result of the pressures to which I subject myself, there has not been much bitterness that a baking session—or a baked sweet potato—couldn’t soothe. But this death of a spouse business is new territory. Perhaps I find food less appealing now, in part, because, in and of itself, it is completely impotent to counter the physical and emotional dimensions of something so encompassing as the death of one’s mate.

Still, death—like just about any other transition—has long been marked by feasting. Ironic, considering how hard food is for me to swallow. In the Deep South, we joke about the parade of casseroles into the homes of the bereaved, but that doesn’t stop most folks from marching in with their specialty, often still made from the ubiquitous Cream of Whatever Soup and, more often than not, chicken. Fowl don’t fare so well when our southernmost brethren meet their ends.

Here in Virginia, the same is true of pigs. A former colleague memorialized his father’s passing in a painting of spiral hams in reference to their proliferation in his mother’s home. True to form, another of Joe’s friends and business partners, Charles—owner of a crematory in a neighboring rural town who did the honors at my request—offered with a wry twinkle over his shoulder as he left our house one final time, “I bring most people a ham.”

I had always believed that generous and concerned friends and neighbors delivered food to the bereaved because they didn’t know what else to do. I now know that, in fact, gifts of food are not only tangible symbols of nurturing and compassion, but intensely practical gestures of help. A lifelong cook who loved to spend hours in the kitchen, I suddenly found myself too distracted to begin to figure out what to cook for guests in our home, never mind how I would actually get it on the table. When the mere thought of having to replace a paper towel roll seems overwhelming, dinner is out of the question.

Feeling mounting stress at the mounting food, which I couldn’t bear to see go to waste; and preoccupied on a daily basis not only with loss, but with trying to create meaning around that loss for myself and for others–Joe’s death was deeply and broadly felt across overlapping circles of this community—I began to fold the food into gestures of connection with people. These took many forms, from gift bags of sweets for our many out-of-town hotel guests; to a new recipe for bruleed figs, perfect with a glass of wine, created for one of Joe’s best friends—a gifted, if unlikely, culinarian—when he came by to take Joe’s gun collection off my hands; to a silky ad-libbed cantaloupe gazpacho made for a friend on the way home from the hospital where her mother was approaching her own end.

What I have discovered is that, whereas in the past, food had always been equally as important as the occasion for which it was served—and, at times, even the raison d’etre—since Joe died, its role has shifted. It is not exactly a sideline to human connections and social interaction, but it functions for me more on a symbolic and, dare I say, spiritual level. Food—delicious and nutritious, thoughtfully and lovingly prepared in small quantities that are all I can manage to eat—now feels elevated to the status of sacrament: an outward sign of inward grace.

I have said, and I ardently believe, that Kübler-Ross’s model for grieving omits one critically important sixth stage: gratitude. In my case, it is gratitude in response to the amazing grace that continues to suffuse every moment of my passage, one on which many have remarked as they have witnessed and participated in this phenomenon on social media. Hence, my grateful acceptance of a colleague’s offer to play “Amazing Grace” on his saxophone to open Joe’s Celebration, despite my husband’s secular stance.

Raised in the Catholic Church, Joe was not religious, though he was highly ethical. Having done a fair amount of serious reading in the area of physics, he had simply not found amongst the stars, the strings, or the membranes any evidence for the existence of God. Here in Eastern Virginia, that is neither a common nor a popular view.

So, when I read the following message from a friend of ours who sat on a foundation board with Joe and is employed by the school system in which I teach, it was virtually the only one of thousands of pieces of correspondence I received that referenced things beyond this world in a way that Joe would have found palatable. Contrary to Tim’s concern that he is “not very adept at comforting someone during a time like this,” I found in his insights ultimate comfort, as well as truth and beauty:

“I like to think that, since we are all just sub-atomic particles of energy assembled in various forms, we are simply released back out in to the universe. Who knows; maybe these particles even have memory. I do believe in the interconnectedness of everything. Hence, in my reality, we all move on to that next phase of this funky cosmic recycling process. That energy that made us who we are has been released back in(to) the void. The space which seemingly holds nothing, yet in reality holds everything.”

The space which seemingly holds nothing, holds everything. What a profound dichotomy.

To that I would simply add my paraphrase of one of the concluding lines from A River Runs Through It, a favorite movie of Joe’s and mine. In the film, the “Older Norman” philosophizes that “Eventually, all things merge into one and a river runs through it.” But from my vantage point, looking both backward and forward, I would assert that “Eventually, all things merge into one and food and love flow through it.”

  Betsy DiJulio is a food blogger, cookbook author, freelance writer, artist, and high school art teacher in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where she is searching for new ways to nourish herself and others in the wake of her adored husband’s untimely death. Visit her blog at www.thebloomingplatter.com.