Image Credit: Kiele Twarowski
When you died, I turned to food. Not in the way most do—hunched over a carton of Chinese takeout in the bath, head in the freezer while shoveling down ice cream—but by entrenching myself in the fine dining of San Francisco. I had never been an adventurous eater, but I would tell anyone who listened that I was trying to expand my palate. I would eat anything, even shellfish, which I am allergic to. I stopped caring if my tongue ballooned, or eyes threatened to swell closed. The hives didn’t bother me as much as your absence.
The day you were pronounced brain dead, I went on a Tinder date with a man who had worked in fine dining since he was a child. His father owned a restaurant and gave him a start peeling potatoes in the kitchen at age nine. The idea brought me comfort, that he was once as new to the world of fine dining as me. Before our date he’d texted and asked how I was. I responded that I wasn’t doing too well because I’d gotten some bad news. He’d said he was sorry and that he hoped he could cheer me up with some good food.
Our date was at a dim sum style restaurant in Japantown. You were technically still alive—on life support, a strange organ farm waiting for harvest. I hadn’t cried yet, though my eyes had turned perpetually glazed and red, giving me the appearance of being stoned, and I was hungry as if high. My date asked how are you doing? and I stuffed my face instead of answering; poppy seed buckwheat-beef tongue pastrami pancakes, salt-baked celery root with black butter bernaise aioli, duck liver mousse with an almond biscuit. Me, the girl who was made fun of as a child for only eating white foods—cereal, chicken fingers, buttered rice—in mourning sought solace in a mousse made from liver, and from a duck, too.
At the end of dinner, I confessed what happened to you over a glass of Sonoma Valley’s Banshee Winery Pinot Noir. One of my closest friends of eight years was in an accident this weekend, I told him, thinking back to the caesar salad I was eating at Lagunitas Brewery when I got the news. Can I ask what happened? He inquired. I told him the truth, which is that you fell from a ladder. I could tell he wanted more details, but I didn’t have them. I had the scene perfectly envisioned in my mind, put together like a recipe:
(1) climb a ladder to watch the sunrise,
(2) be the last of your friends to make the climb,
(4) fall three stories,
(5) pass out on impact,
(6) never wake again.
What I actually knew was that you’d fallen from a ladder sometime in the day or morning before your college graduation and were never going to rise from your coma; the rest I’d pieced together through comments on Facebook and words from mutual friends. The sunrise bit I’d made up entirely—I knew you liked to stay out all night. I needed to make sense of things, hungry to understand why you’d been climbing in the first place. Even though I’d never known you to wake happily before noon, climbing to a rooftop to watch the sunrise was the only feasible explanation I could come up with. My lack of information and understanding seemed to make the fact that we’d grown apart since entering college on separate sides of the country even more tender. I regretted every summer I’d worked a job anywhere but our hometown, wishing I’d spent them with you instead. How could I have let so much time pass us by? It had put a wedge between us.
When your organs were harvested and you were pronounced officially dead three days after the fall, it was the day of your twenty-second birthday. There’s an old wives tale about souls that enter the world the same day they leave it that was recited at your funeral, but I don’t remember it. What I remember is slurping down Marin Miyagi oysters, described as briny and sweet, with Tabasco sauce at a dimly lit steak restaurant in the North Bay, the Liberty Farms Duck Leg Confit I ate smeared on bread at a restaurant near the Museum of Modern Art, the sashimi with wild microgreens my date described as earthy in flavor, the elegant and towering trumpet mushrooms hidden in cream sauce drenched pasta. A summer of trying to fill my mouth before it had a chance to say I miss you.
My mind was constantly a barrage of questions: Did you know you were going to die as you fell? Were you fucked up climbing that ladder? What made you fall? I wasn’t close enough to you anymore to know the answers, as some of your best friends surely did. The distance I’d let blossom between us felt unbearable, especially knowing that we were once inseparable, best friends. So I threw myself into something I could know—something with a science behind it—and listened intently as the fine-dining-chef-turned-bread-baker explained the way he fed yeast to dough, all while eating torn bits straight from the fed loaf itself.
Anthony Bourdain died not long after you. I had made him into a sort of god in my mind—Kitchen Confidential my makeshift bible, watching Parts Unknown wasmy way of worshipping—and felt he, along with fine food, could fill me enough that my grief would cease to exist. There’d simply be no room for it. If I ate enough fried duck egg, drank enough rich beef bone broth, learned to plate foods beautifully enough, and was able to make enough reductions, I’d be cured of my sadness. I was sure of it. But Bourdain—who was supposed to take your place—vanished just as you had. I began to think of him jumping from the Golden Gate every time I passed over it, even though I knew that’s not how he died. I imagined that slipping into the wet darkness of dying is a type of falling. For this reason, I thought you two must share a sort of understanding I could not have, and pictured you both eating somewhere in the sky, laughing at me as I mustered the courage to try steak tartare for the first time.
While eating raw fish in the Mission, I thought of our Friday night sushi dates in high school, back when I classified the whole ocean as dangerous. This was four years after you had convinced me to try lobster—after only a bite, I erupted in hives and my tongue swelled to the point that I couldn’t talk like myself—and I was still only brave enough to order avocado rolls. You were wild, trying everything on the menu; the stranger, the better. I was horrified when I found out that ‘unagi’ meant ‘eel,’ recoiling at the idea that I’d been dipping my sweet potato tempura roll into eel sauce. Now, in your absence, I revelled in eating the calamari that truly looks like small octopi, took meticulous, thoughtful bites of oysters that still tasted like the sea they came from. I didn’t bring my Epipen; a part of me wished I’d have a reaction as I did that day with you.
I believed it was because of the man I was eating with that I had the courage to do so, that his knowledge of the world of fine dining is what allowed me to enjoy porcini dusted donuts on Sunday mornings rather than simple eggs and toast, but I think it was your passing, the fact that I knew someone who had passed at all. Before you, I’d never even had a beloved family pet die, or a grandparent. You were my first taste of what it feels like to long for something with your whole body. I interpreted the longing as hunger for months, and I thought food could fill me. I thought that if I filled myself with enough foods, I could live for the both of us.
The night I realized I couldn’t eat my way through grief, I was enjoying chicken liver paté and roasted Japanese pumpkin with fresh ricotta, fried sage, and habanero honey at the wedding of one of the baker’s coworkers. I drank gin and tonics with a lemon twist and fig jam one after the other, thinking of nights you and I used to get drunk in high school, the way that coming home at holidays during college felt like a reliving of our past together, and realized that could never happen again. My parents had moved from our house in Chicago to the suburbs of San Francisco, the Four Lokos we used to sip on were made illegal because of a dangerous caffeine to alcohol content, I had graduated, and you were dead. Unlike the coworker, you would never be married, or find love. The wedding felt like a slap in the face, and I cried hysterically into my asian pear and chicory salad with black sesame tahini, pecan and pickled ginger. The salad did not heal me. Neither did the paté.
Nine months after your death, I’ve gone back to my simple ways of eating, cereal again a staple of my diet. I don’t have the money to eat expensive meals every night—not that I ever really did—though fresh grief allowed me to ignore that fact. Even so, I still watch Parts Unknown like it can heal me, screen interviews of Bourdain like they’ll bring you home. I still catch myself believing that if I drizzle syrup on my microwavable, freezer burned waffles in the perfect way, life can again be as beautiful as it was when you were here. I try to convince myself that there is a recipe to heal.
Courtney Cook is an MFA candidate at the University of California, Riverside, and a graduate of the University of Michigan. An essayist, poet, and illustrator, Courtney’s work has been seen in Hobart, Lunch Ticket, the Cerurove, and the Killer & the Sweet Thing, among others. When not creating, Courtney enjoys napping with her senior dog, Francie.