Our friend Danny Brookman’s dad lingered for months, then died.
The news came like much news does these days, in a text message. Dec. 15, 2011, 8:54 a.m.
“Need you guys: My Dad just passed.”
What caught me up short was the plural: you guys. I know he needed my wife, Naomi Levy, a rabbi — she was to do the funeral. But me, too? I’ve never considered myself particularly adept around the bereaved.
I doubt I’m alone in my particular uncertainty. In a culture that denies death, giving it over to professionals in sectioned-off hospitals, many of us grow up not knowing how to react in its presence. Add to that the natural male discomfort in the presence of unbridled emotion, and you have a perfect storm of awkward.
But as you get older, it turns out, people die. You can’t avoid funerals. In the beginning, my salvation was in those explanatory sheets many funeral homes pass out to visitors, along with yarmulkes and prayer books, spelling out proper etiquette for such occasions. “Do not tell the aggrieved, ‘It’s probably all for the best.’ We all want to fix things. We all want to take the grief away. But we cannot.”
I liked those insights. Left to my own devices, I proved myself capable of foul-ups and embarrassments of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”-like proportions.
In Israel, for instance, a friend once told me she was taking the day off to be with her parents for her uncle’s shloshim.
“Mazel tov!” I said.
She looked at me like I was some sort of monster. Shloshim in Hebrew means 30, and I assumed she meant her uncle was celebrating a birthday. How was I supposed to know it’s also the name for the end of the 30-day period following the death of a loved one?
What I know now, I’ve learned by watching my wife. Naomi is a talented rabbi, but of all her talents in that field, among the greatest is her ability to comfort mourners. She is as at home in a cemetery as I am uneasy there. She’s on the phone when the bad news is freshest; she’s at the home when the grief is at its most raw.
Over the years, I have learned from her. She listens more than she speaks, and when she talks, she combines comforting words with a gentle walk-through of Jewish ritual. I’ve come to appreciate that ritual as utterly brilliant in its approach to death and dying. It gives a kind of floor to the bottomless pit of loss. This is what you do first. Then this. Then this. I’ve seen people who reject every other aspect of religion follow these funeral rites to the letter. Like recipes perfected over centuries, they work.
After Naomi hung up the phone with Danny, she said she was going to their home later that evening. All the family would be gathering, and she wanted to sit among them, hear their stories of their father and grandfather, Bob Brookman, to prepare for the funeral.
As much as I love Danny and his family, I couldn’t imagine my role there. Naomi was there to guide them from the shock of loss to the beginning of the process of grieving. What could I do?
By now, of course, I knew I didn’t have to do anything, just be with the family and listen. But just showing up didn’t seem to be enough. I knew there’s nothing necessarily to do, no way to make things right, but that didn’t stop me from feeling the need to do something to make things better.
Then it struck me. I could cook. I texted Danny’s wife, Linda, and told her I’d be bringing over dinner that night. I didn’t have the words, but I felt comfortable in the language of food. So I cooked.
I suppose those meals during mourning are the ultimate comfort food. Jewish law actually has a name for the first meal after a funeral, seudat hevrah, and offers stipulations about not just what to eat, but how. The meal must be cooked by others, not the mourners. It is customary to start with an egg, to symbolize the circle of life, and mourners are to be handed their first piece of bread. Our job, literally, is to force life in the midst of death.
In my case, the funeral hadn’t taken place yet, and I wanted to do better than just an egg. Part of the comfort of food, I figured, was its ability, through smell and taste, to give pleasure in the midst of pain.
And making the food was my way of showing I was with Danny — there for him and his family in the best way I knew how. If the food comforted them, cooking it comforted me.
We sat at a long dining table. What we ate was nothing elaborate — grilled skirt steak, chimichurri, cauliflower puree — but it was homemade. Danny’s brother, Gary, a winemaker in Napa, opened some special bottles of his Brookman Cabernet. It was enough to elevate my simple food into something memorable.
Afterward, we all moved into the living room, and Naomi led the family in recounting their memories of Bob. I joined the circle and kept quiet. But for once, maybe for the first time, I felt at home in the house of mourning.
People love this. I often use it instead of mashed potatoes to serve alongside roasted or grilled meats. The juices run into the puree, mingle, and yes, it’s really good. It works best with flavorful, rich extra virgin olive oil.
2 heads cauliflower
½ cup excellent olive oil
salt and pepper
In a large pot bring plenty of salted water to boil.
Add whole cauliflowers and boil until very tender. A fork should pierce them to the core with no resistance. Remove from water, but don’t discard the cooking liquid.
Transfer warm cauliflower to a blender, not a food processor, in batches. In each batch add some of the olive oil and enough cooking liquid to make a smooth, creamy puree. At the end, add alt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
This time of year (early early spring) the parsnips are extra sweet. I use this same process to make a pure, parsnip puree, which emerges from the blender snow white and sweet.
Just peel and trim about two pounds of fresh, crisp parsnips, boil whole as above (or cut in chunks for faster cooking), and proceed with recipe.