Eating Christmas

The Christmas Susan Tully Cooked Her Heart Out

Ah, the holidays. Christmas is all about love, sharing, sweetness and light -- and keeping the antacids handy. In keeping with the spirit of the season, Chow Bella presents "Eating Christmas," in which some of our favorite writers nosh on the real lessons we learn this time of year. Today, Susan Tully shares the story of cooking for her father, one last time.

Last Christmas Eve, no one who came to my house for dinner knew Dad was dying except me. He didn't want knowledge of his cancer diagnosis to project gloom over the evening. He wanted the holiday, his last Christmas, to seem as "normal" as possible.

See also: - "Eating Christmas" archives

Although I was hosting 22 people for dinner, all night my attention was on Dad. I mingled as I cooked, but always, out of the corner of my eye, I was watching him. He's laughing and chatting, that's nice... He still seems to have some energy.... He looks so frail....

Dad had been having a lot of trouble keeping food down, so I discreetly included some items in the menu that I thought he could eat: a pureed sweet potato dish that he loved, savory garlic mashed potatoes, soft chewy dinner rolls and creamy chocolate cheesecake for dessert. I watched him throughout dinner.

Normally Dad ate a lot and ate it fast. But this night, he paced himself carefully, putting his fork down and letting minutes pass between bites. As I dished out seconds around the table, I leaned close and whispered in his ear, "How are you doing? How is your stomach?"

"I'm okay," he answered. "The food tastes really good."

Two days later he was admitted to the Mayo Clinic.Throughout his hospital stay he clung to a small, pink emesis basin, afraid of losing whatever small meal he managed to get down. We brought him home on New Year's Eve for what would be the last nine days of his life.

My brother John, a chef, flew in from Chicago. We planned a long day of cooking at Dad's house to fill his fridge and freezer. We agonized over how to nourish Dad's ailing body, wanting desperately to prepare healthy foods that would taste good to him and most importantly, that he could keep down. It became our mission.

Cooking with my brother is a rare treat. I enjoy how he teases me about my rudimentary culinary skills, teaches me chef's techniques like the proper way of handling a knife, and inspires me to take risks in the kitchen. Cooking together over the holidays should have been an especially festive experience, but not on this day. My brother and I worked shoulder to shoulder, practically in silence. I made simple soups in my crockpot: a healthy split pea; a rich cream of potato. John tasted what I made and in hushed tones gave me tips on how to season and add flavor.

John roasted a chicken and shredded the meat for creamed chicken and dumplings. He boiled potatoes and made gnocci with béchamel sauce from scratch. I watched in awe as he assembled the ingredients from memory and sculpted each morsel into a tender bite of carefully considered size and texture for Dad. I glanced at my brother's face as he kneaded the dumplings and saw that his eyes were wet with tears.

Though he couldn't eat much, Dad savored these small gifts of food we offered him. He expressed pleasure over the flavors and it was clear that these little meals brought him brief moments of joy in his final days. Best of all, for the first time in months, he kept it all down. It was a small triumph.

A few days later, Dad was gone.

As we cleaned out his house in the coming weeks, we found that his freezer was still packed with the soups and chicken and dumplings. I was told to take it home and feed it to my family. I thawed it on the countertop and warmed it in the microwave. As I took the lid off the Tupperware bowl and looked inside, I was overcome with emotion.

I thought of Dad on Christmas Eve. That day of silent cooking in Dad's kitchen. The tears in my brother's eyes.

I couldn't eat the food. And I couldn't serve it to my family. I knew that despite all the love and care that went into cooking it. It would just taste too sad.

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