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Eight months after my spouse died, I started to cook again. More accurately, I started to cook for the first time.
My husband, Eli, had prepared and fed me almost every meal I had eaten in my adulthood. In our early days of teenage friendship, he made me tofu katsu with Japanese curry, homemade baba ghanoush, chicken fatteh, and cornmeal pancakes with chocolate chips. When we were dating, he baked carrot cake every year for my birthday, unsuccessfully experimented with a beef rendang recipe in the slow cooker, fried zucchini fritters in his beloved cast-iron skillet, and added too many Szechuan peppers to a cucumber salad. When we got married, a slew of new cookware suddenly appeared in our kitchen. Eli made soondubu jjigae in the dolsot – a Korean stone pot, tossed bok choy in the wok, perfected Greek gigante baked beans in the Instapot, and mastered the dhungar method – of adding a smoky flavour to food – in a glossy new Le Creuset pot.
Each recipe we deemed a success would be carefully typed up, printed, annotated, laminated and added to his jam-packed binder.
When Eli was out of town, I’d eat frozen leftovers and snacks.
On one of those trips away, only 18 months after we married, Eli died suddenly in an accident. For weeks, I couldn’t eat much other than smoothies and milkshakes. For months, I had no interest in food except as a means to survival. But one day I found myself missing the rituals of cooking, eating and even washing the dishes. I craved the tastes that used to make me feel human, not just like a surviving cyborg.
I moved eight months after Eli died, and one of the first things I packed was his recipe binder. I hoped to re-enter the world of food through the archive of recipes that we had jointly curated. I would honour and remember him by making the meals that we shared while we built our life together.
I started with something familiar: a Thai chicken larb we had prepared together countless times. I used the brand of fish sauce Eli swore was the best and pulled kaffir lime leaves from the freezer where he taught me to keep them to preserve their flavour. But with each green onion I chopped, each lime I juiced and each spice I decanted, the tears flowed more quickly and my hands shook more harshly. The smells were so nostalgic, they knocked the wind out of me and I was suddenly reminding myself to breathe. I sampled the unfinished meal. All I could taste was the life I couldn’t return to, bursting with the flavours of a future I thought was guaranteed. I couldn’t finish the recipe. I couldn’t take another bite.
The laminated pages of Eli’s binder suddenly felt like a fake key to a parallel universe, taunting me. Instead of hunger, my stomach filled with anger, indignation and uneasiness. I threw the binder back into a box and returned to eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
About a month later, I was reading Elizabeth Alexander’s Pulitzer Prize memoir about her own widowhood, The Light of the World, and came across a recipe she included in the book. It was her husband’s spicy red lentil and tomato curry. I read through it, my mouth watering, and suddenly I was thinking, “I can do this. I can make this.”
Book in hand, I went out to pick up the ingredients. Five hours later, the lentil curry was done and it tasted better than anything I had ever made. Maybe it’s because I balanced the spices perfectly or maybe because returning to the altar of food to convene with the unknown dead was akin to a religious experience.
Ficre, the writer’s husband, was no longer a stranger; he was here in my kitchen. The meal transcended the boundaries of life and death to feed my stomach and my soul. I wanted to do it again.
I reached out to family, friends and colleagues if they felt comfortable sharing a recipe from their dead person.
I received dozens. There was the vegetable soup that my cousin’s grandmother used to make with her grandchildren. The stuffed grape leaves that our former neighbours ate back home in Syria, from a recipe loved by family members that did not survive a 2015 air strike. The egusi soup that my colleague’s sister served at her new restaurant before she died suddenly last year. The red pasta sauce that the mother of Eli’s college roommate fed her family. The imam bayildi, Turkish stuffed eggplant, that our widowed landlord’s late wife used to serve on holidays. The blueberry muffins that Eli’s uncle enjoyed as a child. From the widows and widowers in my support groups, I collected recipes for banh xeo crepes, gazpacho, chocolate chip cookies, arroz con frijoles (rice with beans) and lamb mansaf – all dishes their late partners prepared and shared. The list goes on.
For months, I have lived on these recipes; I have lived on the food of the dead. I have converted metric measurements to imperial measurements and vice versa, inquired about appropriate substitutions when I couldn’t track down certain ingredients, improvised specialized cookware and utensils, started the cooking process over when I misread key instructions, and somehow managed to burn both my elbows.
I spend my evenings and weekends talking my way through each step of these recipes with dozens of imaginary dead people that I never had the opportunity to meet but feel like I am getting to know and to love while they sit in my kitchen and watch my chaotic but earnest efforts.
I have started compiling my own binder, one that merges the past with the future and it has become a grief guide on my hardest days. Each meal is a meditation and while cooking once brought me to my knees, it now helps carry me through my days.
One day, I’ll return to Eli’s packed binder, pull out his larb recipe, and go meet his ghost in the kitchen. I’ll talk to him through each step of the recipe, double-checking to make sure I’m not adding too much chili, but I will also tell him about all the foods I’ve made since he’s been gone. And the meal I eat at the end of that conversation will neither be mine nor his, but ours.
Madeline de Figueiredo lives in Houston.