I weigh the pasta with a kitchen scale. I am trying to use up random leftovers from the back of the pantry: half a bag of penne, a handful of spaghetti. I break the long thin noodles into thirds and they shatter and snap, small shards fall to the floor and signal to the dog who comes running. 10.7 ounces. The recipe calls for 10, a further sign I was meant to make this; that the comfort I have been craving for months now will somehow come to me through this dish I have not tasted since I was a child.
The cans of tuna open with the tug of a tab, the sharp metal pulling away from itself with a crisp pop. I dump the contents of two cans, 5 ounces each, into the browned mushrooms and onions that have melted together in the large cast iron pan my mother gave me. The one she bought online from a vendor we’d met at a farmer’s market in the Berkshires who restores old pans and sells them. I was upset when I learned she’d thrown away my grandmother’s cast iron skillet, the one my father inherited. I suppose I can’t fault her for seeing the old, dirty pan as something to be shed. Or perhaps it was the memory of the woman who was less than welcoming to her—who cherished me—she was trying to get rid of.
I was diagnosed with Grave’s disease around the time I started trying to get pregnant for the first time. I knew something was wrong when I could no longer run for more than 10 minutes without my heart racing, forcing me to walk though I could usually run 6-10 miles with ease. I had been losing weight too. My primary care doctor ran some blood tests and said my thyroid numbers weren’t right, I had hyperthyroidism, and referred me to an endocrinologist. His office, filled with stacks and stacks of unfiled papers and medical books, was located at the back of a residential building a few blocks from Manhattan’s Hospital for Special Surgery. The kind of Upper East Side building where a doorman with matching hat and coat opens the door for you and smiles. I went to that office so often, the doorman came to recognize me.
When I think of the food my mother cooked when I was growing up, it was a combination of Japanese home cooking—chahan, omurice, special treats like panko-crusted chicken katsu and futomaki on the weekends when she could spend all afternoon in our apartment’s galley kitchen, rolling and breading on the mustard-colored linoleum—plus the few quintessentially American dishes in her repertoire. Her meatloaf, though she was a pescatarian who didn’t eat the final product, and tuna noodle casserole. The loaf was made with small cubes of Cracker Barrell cheddar and finely diced carrot folded into the meat. I can see my mother’s yellow rubber-gloved hands mixing together the orange squares and bloody ground beef that came squeezed between the Styrofoam tray and cling wrap, a double layer. My white American father loved this meatloaf, perhaps it reminded him of his own mother’s cooking. My white American husband loves meatloaf too, and my mother will make it when we are visiting from Cambridge.
The tuna noodle casserole was rich from the Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup. My mother baked it in a special dish whose white ceramic lid was shaped like the head of a bunny, its ears pinned back in at an angle so you could grasp them and peek inside. I can still taste the French’s crispy fried onions, from the red and white can, that coated the top of the casserole. At the time, I didn’t much care for the casserole, or the meatloaf I slathered in Bulldog sauce, meant for katsu. I find it ironic she made these dishes, when I much preferred the Japanese ones, and I know she did too. But the pressure to assimilate runs deep in the veins of immigrants, even in the security of their own homes. My mother’s casserole was but one seemingly benign manifestation of the falsehood that is American exceptionalism.
Autoimmune diseases such as Grave’s occur when your body attacks itself, perceiving a part of itself as foreign. They harm you, often silently, from within.
Now, we are all, to different degrees, faced with the threat of Covid-19. To cope, I bake loaf after loaf of bread I’m not supposed to eat. I stretch and fold the supple, slightly sticky doughs I’ve perfected with flour-dusted fingertips, transferring the stress of each day into something concrete. As I weigh ingredients and set various alarms to time rests and rises, the vast and immeasurable uncertainties expanding around me are kneaded into approachable segments. The loaves are hot and crackling when they come out of the oven. Substantial. Full of the very gluten networks that could reactivate my Graves.
My casserole comes out the oven, bubbling gently from beneath its breadcrumb layer. Its smell travels up to the second floor where my partner is working, wafting into the elaborate floral woodwork of the 130-year-old bannister, and luring him downstairs. He who never ate tuna from a can while growing up, who wrinkled his nose at the idea of a tuna noodle casserole when he saw me dicing onions and asked what I was making.
“This is delicious,” he says as he easily polishes off a second helping of mushrooms and large tuna chunks nestled between hot, creamy noodles.
Beth is the nurse practitioner who oversees my thyroid care. She practices integrative medicine and had me stop eating gluten some years ago. This treatment (one with just as many skeptics as supporters) pushed my Grave’s into remission, allowing me to hold off on the options laid out for me in a corner office of Massachusetts General Hospital. The world-renowned endocrinologist I saw there—still see sometimes to appease those who don’t acknowledge the legitimacy of Beth’s care—provided me with a simple solution: take a pill to destroy my thyroid and thus cure my hyperthyroidism. Never mind this treatment would have me relying on synthetic thyroid hormone pills for the rest of my life. Or that the pill he was suggesting is actually radioactive iodine, and would necessitate I stay away from my young daughters and our family dog for a week. Never mind he was asking the child of a woman born in Japan just six months before two atomic bombs were dropped on her country, to willingly irradiate herself. Those bombs melted coins together into piles I would stare at in a museum in Hiroshima when I visited as a girl.
Beth is not pleased when I tell her, via Zoom, that my solace during the pandemic has been bread. I know the risks, and yet I cannot seem to stop myself. What if what is good for my mental well-being is detrimental to my physical health. The air bubble-filled loaves and browned biscuits emerging from my oven calm me in ways nothing else can.
I miss my mother. It has been over a year since we have breathed the same air, hugged. My mother who hates cooking but loves washing dishes, making us the perfect pair. My mother with whom I usually get to spend Mother’s Day in Manhattan eating an overpriced brunch after which we take photos, three generations of strong, opinionated women in the same frame. The girls with their hair brushed, for once, wearing dresses my mother likely bought for them. My mother who moved to the United States from Tokyo for the second and final time after meeting my father at a bar owned by their mutual friend with the unforgettable laugh.
The casserole I’ve made is gluten-free. I use ingredients that allow me to alchemize a once glutinous dish from my childhood into a thyroid-friendly iteration—a small concession amid all the bread I’ve been eating, dipped in olive oil or hummus or both—the roux is creamy enough, the pasta isn’t too mushy, and the breadcrumbs are light, and brown well in butter. Though their crunch is no match for the French’s onions I don’t keep in my pantry. My mother still does.
Anri Wheeler is a biracial writer and a diversity, equity, and inclusion educator at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is a graduate of GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator program and VONA. More at anriwheeler.com.