eggs, cheese, an ungodly hour
soon as the numbers beside my bed flash 4:01 sunday morn, i’ll be unearthing myself from the covers, stretching a wary toe out into the cold and the black of christmas eve before most of the world gets with the program.
it’ll be time, as it has been for the past four christmas eve mornings, to wake a sleeping boy, now an almost-man child, and head out with our shopping bags and our crates of clementines to a soup kitchen where we’ll be the ones to turn on the lights.
and no doubt i’ll be carrying with me the story of nina.
for two christmases, nina was my compatriot in this pre-dawn drill of cooking the yummiest, oozingest christmas eve breakfast that ever there was.
nina, she took the hard part. a one-time caterer, now a mother of two–two girls under three, mind you–she went to town on her end of the deal. and i’m tellin’ you, the woman could cook.
you see, nina had a heart the size of montana. once, on one hour’s notice, when no one showed to cook sunday-night supper, she turned her little family’s tuna noodle casserole into tuna noodle for 40, and dashed it straight to the soup kitchen.
but the thing about nina was that she was admittedly, emphatically, not a morning person, and certainly not with two little ones who needed to wake up to their mama. so she took what she called the day job, gave me the night job, or at least the still-dark-out start of the shift.
she made the strata, a haute strata, mind you, a huge one, a strata bulging with eggs and imported cheeses, sausage, potatoes and God only knows what. what i know is that when i plated it up to that long line of hungry souls in the chill of christmas eve morn, their eyes how they glistened, their tummies they growled.
my end of the deal has to do with the 4 and the zeroes flashing at the side of my bed, nudging me up out from the covers. has me shuffling down the hall to rustle the sleeping heap i call my firstborn son. it’s been my job to gather all that goes with the strata: the cocoa, the candy canes, the great mound of marshmallows. since it’s christmas eve after all, and the folks we’re feeding are homeless or sheltered in bunks down below from the kitchen, 12 to a room, we go for fresh-squeezed orange juice, serious stand-up coffee doused with industrial-sized shakes from the cinnamon shaker, and sweet breads of cranberry walnut or orange and pecan.
for back-to-back christmas eves it worked just like that. we were a team, in touch through the phone. i’d talk to nina the day before to go over the plan. then, once home, and starting to wilt, i always called nina to give her play-by-play praise from the men and the women who came back for seconds and thirds of her strata.
i never met nina the first year, but i fell in love with her over the phone. and i wasn’t supposed to meet her the second year.
only there in the dark, on a christmas eve that was frost-bitingly cold, as we pulled to the back stairs to unload, i was startled by carlights at 4:40 a.m.. in a dark south evanston alley, you don’t want to be running into just anyone. and since nina always made such a fuss about not being up before dawn, she was the last one i expected to find there under the hood of a great arctic parka. i’d never seen her before, but i knew in an instant who those big brown eyes belonged to. “nina?” i called out. “what in the world are you doing awake?”
“we were running behind,” she started explaining. “we stayed up late doing the tree and never got to deliver the strata, so we just decided to stay up and bring it over now,” she said, laughing. and then barely a blink later, the vision under the fur-trimmed hood was gone in the dark of the too-early morn.
as always, the strata had the hungry and even the not-so-hungry coming back for more. and more. as always, i called later that morning to pass along every last kudo.
that was the last time i talked to wonderful, generous, spontaneous nina.
two months later, late at night, my phone rang. it was my friend harriett who lines up the cooks and the servers for soup kitchen; she was sobbing. in between sobs, i made out the words: “nina died this morning. she just died.”
nina was 37, tops. her little girls, the ones who couldn’t wake up without her, were 3 and 2. her husband, michael, the one who made the pre-dawn strata delivery, he was left alone in an emergency room, bundling together her things. nina had had a headache the day before, and within hours of walking into the ER, the doctors were telling her husband they were so sorry, she’d died. it was an aneurysm that couldn’t be stopped.
i decided then and there on the phone that night that every christmas eve breakfast from then on in would be in the spirit of nina, nina who could not do enough for the world.
i called starbucks, hoping for a gift card for each soup kitchen soul. i went begging at the bread store, asking if i could pick up any unsold bread or sweet rolls to take it up a notch.
i was thumbing through strata recipes, looking for one that might be like nina’s. then my friend harriett called. the strata would be taken care of, she told me. nina’s father and michael, her husband, would make it. they’d drop it off, in true nina style, the night before, but of course.
so last christmas eve, nina’s strata was, once again, the absolute hit of the soup kitchen counter.
and i, the one spooning it out onto plates, couldn’t stop thinking of the love of two men, her father, her husband, side-by-side in nina’s kitchen, carrying on, following nina’s instructions, line by line, layering their grief with the generous heart of the woman who all of us so achingly missed.
here’s a thought: what if i get michael to share nina’s recipe, and all of us whip up a batch of sweet nina’s strata? and then, in the spirit of the woman with the unstoppable heart, we give it away to someone who needs reason to glisten this holiday season.