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October 28, 2009 at 8:33 AM

What his last meal taught me

Yesterday morning, the best home cook I know stopped by my house, a menu in hand, ostensibly to tell me about a Japanese stone pot restaurant in Wallingford. And in the brief time we spent together — before I blew him off and got back to interviewing a chef by phone, pulling together a blog post, rushing downtown to the KPLU studio, racing to the office for a meeting and otherwise doing the plate-twirling circus act that is my version of the life too many of us lead — he told me this story:

He has a dear friend of 20 years longstanding, with whom he’s eaten weekly dinners populated by folks who love to cook, eat, drink and laugh. His friend was undergoing hospice care and late last week, when my pal asked if there was anything he could do — knowing well there wasn’t much time left to ask — his friend said, “Cook me dinner.” And so he did.

Among the multiple courses shared with friends and family last weekend was a specific request: homemade ice cream. “Surprise me,” said his friend when asked what kind he wanted. Many bottles of wine were uncorked, and the fresh pear ice cream, accompanied by an old sauternes, was much appreciated.

By the time I heard this story, the dying man had eaten his last meal. And my friend, who’d knocked on my door with a menu in hand, was clearly in mourning. Under deadline, convinced as ever that my work life is more important than my personal life, I didn’t even invite him to sit down for a cup of coffee. And this morning, when I sat down with mine and read “What the Last Meal Taught Him” — Kim Severson’s New York Times profile of chef Thomas Keller, who recently cooked a last meal for his father — I felt duly chastened.

My day begins.

The last meal I cooked for my father was Jewish penicillin, chicken soup with matzoh balls, which nearly made him cry because it “tasted like Bubba Sonny’s” (my great-grandmother Sonia’s). I cooked it during the week I spent in Northern California nearly five years ago, cracking jokes and trying to get him to eat something after a quadruple bypass left him in pain and unable to cook for himself.

We watched Judge Judy and a host of stupid daytime TV, talked about my younger siblings, how his wife, who couldn’t cook, “never even boiled me an egg” and about his shotgun marriage to my mother — which took place when they were teens in the Chubby Checker era. He cringed each time I’d affect a dead-on accent in imitation of something she’d say, screaming, “Stop! Stop!” lest he bust his chest wound wide open from laughing. That said, he didn’t think it was too funny when I told him, more than 30 years after their divorce, that he and my mom were “separated at birth” and should leave their respective spouses and move in together.

That week, in which I celebrated a birthday, my “wicked stepmother” and I left my dad and sneaked off to nearby Yountville, where we ate lunch at Thomas Keller’s bistro Bouchon and watched as the nation’s best chef sat nearby doing the same. We drank rose and tried not to think about how sick my dad was. Two years later I cooked for her when we were both in mourning, coping with my dad’s death and its aftermath and trying to figure out how she was going to feed herself now that dad was no longer around to cook for them.

Anyway, it’s early, and maybe you haven’t had your first cup of coffee yet. Or maybe, like me, you’re already up and running, trying to keep up with all the things you “have to do” instead of the things you wish you could do. Like make your dad a pot of soup, spend an hour or two with your kid without saying, “I’ll be right there! I’ll be done in a minute!” (or 15, or 30), or cheer up a friend who’s feeling blue.

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