casserole for a faraway friend

by bam

she is, sadly, only the latest. only the latest in a circle that keeps growing, a circle for whom casseroles are tossed together, tucked in the oven, delivered.

delivered in hopes that what you stirred into it might lift the burden, find the cure, deliver them from whatever evil ails them.

this time the casserole is for a faraway friend. in case you pray, she is sliding into that ether-stoked sleep at 1 o’clock today, on a hard cold surgical slab in baltimore, actually. the skilled hands that will wield power over her are hands that will be excising cancer, taking it out from her breast, dammit, that place that keeps harboring cancer in women we love.

my friend is young. has children far too young. beautiful little children. a girl with such curls you want to sit her down with a set of oils and paint her, and frame her. a sweet big-eyed boy too little to be worrying about his mama. today or any day.

my friend, who writes roadmaps through kitchens, but really through life, for a living, for a newspaper, sent an email the other afternoon. short and to the point. let a whole string of us know with the click of a button that she was having surgery today, breast cancer surgery. she apologized for the abruptness of the news and its arrival via email. but she explained, as if she needed to, “i haven’t been much in the mood to talk.” vintage for my friend, telescoping so much in so few words.

she asked for whatever sorts of prayer anyone might happen to pray. then she mentioned, in a short string that sums up a mother’s worries, that casseroles, spring play-dates and dog dates would be more than welcome.

casseroles, it seems, are the latter-day pulling in of the wagons. when the distress call is put out, like so much gray smoke rising from the chimney of the house where the hubbub is happening, the women all through the village start lining up at the door with their casseroles, their bundt pans, and their tins filled with brownies.

here in the town where i live, the labyrinth of home-cooked, personally-delivered meals is astounding. i’ve seen it go on for months and months, strategically organized, right down to the plastic cooler on the front porch where meals could be dropped without ever disturbing the family inside nursing a young daughter through death, it turned out.

the meals come so fast and so furious, the need for air traffic controller is immediate. without asking, it seems, someone steps up and takes over that slot, too.

there is, when you’re the one being fed, nothing to do but sit back on your pillows and take in the great parade of great food, and unshakable friendship. some come quick, simply. some are elaborate works of caring. i still remember the kindergarten teacher who sent food for my little one and thought to make it into a smiley, silly face of cut-up fruits and squiggly pastas. my little one, who often doesn’t, gobbled it.

the point when making a casserole is that it is, often, the only darn thing you can do. we all know what a slippery slope we dwell on, we all know that to suddenly be whisked from your role there at the command center, in the kitchen, at the phone, in front of the computer, is to surrender all semblance of order in your life and the lives of those who you love.

in the case of, say, my faraway friend, she is, God willing, going to be all about the business of healing. even if she hadn’t asked, the impulse would be there: to bake something, make something, take something, do something, dammit, to ease her equation. even if something boils down to nothing so much as a few chicken breasts, rice, broth, a sprinkle of herbs, salt and pepper.

in the casserole for my friend, which was only one made in her name (the distance is daunting, a serious impediment to personal delivery), one made as my way of harnessing forces, sending deep casserole vibes out into the far-flung universe, i took that casserole up a notch or three.

you see, she is all about cooking. she writes, droolingly, about cooking. i have called her for years my latter-day laurie colwin, that magnificent writer of food (“home cooking,” “more home cooking,” both still in print), but really of life, who died way too young, at 48.

i realized yesterday i stop my comparison of my friend to laurie at the point where her words make you hungry and fill you all at the same time. nothing more. no further comparison.

so inspired by my friend, i took my stand-by, family favorite, chicken rice grammy, dug it out of the old wooden box that i hold together with a red ribbon these days. and i spun it up a notch, made it chicken rice for my faraway friend.

added red peppers, wanted a splash of intensity for my friend, even if it meant my one boy who would eat it would curl up his nose, shove red bits off to the rim. added artichoke hearts. this was my friend, for crying out loud. sophisticated, elegant, always-producing-the-unexpected, my faraway friend, this was.

slid it into the 350 oven, filled the house with its savory perfume. these were vespers for my friend, lifting and rising. an hour later, i took it out of the oven, slid spoon into thick creamy middle. this is comfort as comforting as it gets.

nearly three springs ago, my friend wrote about bringing ready-to-eat meals to a friend of hers who’d been up all night having a baby. “if she can deliver life,” my friend wrote, “you can deliver dinner.”

she went on to tick through the essentials: it need be “something sturdy enough to endure the car trip. resilient enough to shrug off freezing or reheating or neglect. and yet, nothing so grab-n-go as to be mistaken for K rations.”
she finished with this, most essential: “a dish that suggests hope.”

she went with risotto, risotto with shelled english peas. i went with rice and artichoke hearts. the intent is the same: my faraway friend, wherever you are, however knotted your tummy, there is a casserole baked and waiting for you. now all i have to do is figure out how in the world to mail rice, broth and perishable chicken.

i am certain as i could possibly be that i am preaching to a choir of practiced casserole bakers, a whole phalanx of hot meal deliverers, whether you have a casserole story, a recipe, or a tip for taking that delivery up quite a notch, won’t you please pull in your chair and spill here at the table?
and, oh, by the way, here’s my chicken rice for faraway friend….