8 ways food can help after heartache

Posted at 3:44 PM, May 22, 2013
and last updated 2013-05-22 15:44:23-04

By Kat Kinsman

Editor’s note: This is the thirteenth installment of “Eat This List” – a regularly recurring list of things chefs, farmers, writers and other food experts think you ought to know about.

(CNN) — Everybody eats. We may all come from different places, belief systems, political affiliations and football divisions, but at least once a day, every last one of us puts food into our bodies to fuel us for the road ahead.

We also all suffer loss, both on a global scale and in the gut. At times like these, eating might seem like the least important, most impossible task on the planet, but it can feed so much more than the stomach.

A shared meal, a dropped-off plate of cookies or a raised glass can add a much-needed note of normalcy in an overwhelming time. As groups like Operation BBQ Relief and Team Rubicon speed toward Moore, Oklahoma to feed and assist tornado victims, here are eight stories of times when food helped people find a little bit of respite in a world turned upside town.

1. After Newtown, healing people one pie at a time

Beth Howard lost her husband suddenly and tragically at the age of 43. In an effort to make sense of it all and connect with other souls, she began making and giving away pies. When tragedy struck Newtown, Connecticut, Howard did the only thing she could.

“Beth Howard pulled up to Newtown in her 24-foot-long camper, loaded with 240 apple pies.

She dished out pie to kids from Sandy Hook Elementary School, grieving parents and anyone who asked.

She describes herself as an attaché for grief, with her greatest gift being pie ‘made from love.’ Most people simply call her ‘the pie lady.’

‘Pie is meant to be shared,’ she said. ‘It’s meant to be given away.’

As she spoke, there was a knock on her door. Women preparing a wake for one of the slain girls would like some pie for mourners.

“Could we give them three pies?” a helper asked.

‘Of course,’ Howard said. ‘Will you please put ribbons on them?'”

Read – Bringing healing to Newtown, one pie at a time

2. After a funeral, the comfort of macaroni

When my beloved uncle died after a long, cruel battle with Parkinson’s Disease, it left a hole that felt as if would never be filled. A simple plate of pasta helped more than I could have ever imagined.

“Moments before, it had seemed wrong to do something so life affirming and self indulgent as eating — especially something at all delicious — while Father Bill had suffered for so long and would never sit down to a meal again. Penance was clearly in order, enough plain water and bread to keep breathing and walking, but nothing else.

But someone had clearly made this dish — stood at the stove and cooked this comforting food, knowing that some grieving people would need to eat. I took a forkful.

It was humble, delicious and solid and tasted as if it were made with love. Father Bill would have approved. I cleaned my plate.”

Read – Filling the void — eating after a funeral

3. After the Boston bombings, a chef opens the doors

Chef Jason Bond, like all his neighbors, was at a loss when makeshift bombs tore a hole through his beloved city. In the midst of the confusion and chaos, he opened his restaurant and gave people a place to rally.

“We realized that we each help by doing what we do; medics medicate, journalists report, the police protect. As a restaurateur I did what I do, which is care for people and provide sustenance and healing.

As a cook, I wanted to be open and offer care to the people in my neighborhood who needed the comfort, distraction, a meal, a break. We were all shaking, but we could be shaken together. As a business owner, it was no time to make a profit, so the entire sales of that night were given to help aid the people and the families who were affected by those bombs a few hours before. More will be given as we go forward.”

Read – Serving up comfort food after a tragedy

4. After a chef’s health crisis, food for the heart

Chef Michael Anthony of New York City’s Gramercy Tavern is smart, talented and beloved by colleagues and customers alike. When his aorta suddenly tore, sending him into emergency open heart surgery, the community he’d always fed returned the favor.

“After my surgery and homecoming, the gestures of encouragement poured in: get well cards, concerned emails, thoughtfully chosen books and poems, inspirational movies and carefully packed handmade food. I appreciated everyone who reached out during this time, but it dawned on me that the cooks had a special ability to connect and communicate by the food they shared. Some simply nourished and others dazzled but everyone told a story.

With the help of these restaurant folk and their deliveries, I eased my way back in to being myself again by tasting each expression…chocolate chip cookies felt just like a pat on the back.

Each bite made me feel a profound sense of thanks to those who lent a hand or a meal when I needed it most. Through the careful choices and deliberate styles, informal gestures and intricate work, whether immediately consumed or painstakingly preserved, we communicate so much with those who are at the receiving end of a thoughtful meal.”

Read – Chefs with Issues: Food for the heart

5. After Irene, seeking comfort in pleasures

When Hurricane Irene, raged through Upstate New York, it laid waste to entire towns. Almost everyone lost something. Some people lost everything. Everyone wanted to help.

A post appeared on a community Facebook page:

“‘Want to help but don’t know how? Thursday & Friday 5-9pm at the Sharon Springs Firehouse we will be baking cookies. Everything we make will go directly to those in need, via our Sharon & Carlisle firemen. Please COME HELP BAKE or donate: flour, sugar, eggs, chocolate & butterscotch chips, oatmeal, cocoa, zipper seal snack & sandwich bags. ALSO wanted small bottles of bubbles (3-4oz best) just to give a kid a reason to smile for 5 minutes. PLEASE SHARE THIS.’

Cookies. Everyone can wrap their heads around cookies, even when their world is crumbling around them. In the midst of chaos, total loss and bleak uncertainty, it’s a small taste of normalcy. So very much more is needed, but anyone can start with that.”

Read – Hungry for normal in a terrifying time and After Irene, a community bands together to feed its own

6. After Katrina, hungry for a taste of home

New Orleans’ distinctive cuisine is deeply ingrained in the city’s identity. When floodwaters threatened to wash away all ties to the food the region holds so dear, a glimpse of a familiar label was a beacon of hope.

“Poppy Tooker recalls the grimness of the post-Katrina grocery stores. ‘When the grocery stores reopened, there was no butter, and just no place for anyone to buy fresh food.’ Then one day — a glimpse of normalcy.

She says, ‘Way up on the top shelf, under the generator lights, I saw a package that looked familiar and I pulled it down. There’s this bakery called Brocato’s that had just celebrated their centennial, and I’d heard that they’d gotten five feet of water and I couldn’t find the owners. I figured I might never see these cookies again, so I bought maybe 20 packages of them.’

Tooker continued, ‘I was sitting on my couch surrounded by all these cookie boxes and I saw this sticker on the side, next to the centennial sticker, and it said ‘Best by August 2005.’ I started crying, saying I should just get a tattoo that said the same thing because that’s going to be true of all of us.'”

Read – New Orleans: The food that got them through

7. After 9/11, seeking comfort in food and drink

When madmen tried to destroy our home, my fellow New Yorkers and I used food and booze to soothe, numb and make our way through a wounded city.

“Nachos are uncomplicated and pleasing — salty and crispy and laden with cheese and a kiss of spice. They’re all I could wrap my head around, and since I had no one to cook for at home, nacho dates with similarly shell-shocked friends became a regular part of my social schedule. Volunteer, then nachos. Movies, then nachos. Drinks — with nachos.

Plenty of friends were more than willing to fall into the nacho swing — unless they’d developed a food tic of their own. One friend could only choke down grilled cheese and another couple subsisted entirely on breakfast foods. Anything more elaborate than that was a shock to the system — except for drinking. Everyone did plenty of that as well as sleeping (both alone and…not) and for a while, with this, we swaddled our souls and tried to adjust to a New York with a hole shot through its heart.”

Read – Pouring whiskey in the wound

8. After a tornado, bringing in barbecue and community

Pitmaster Drew Robinson knows the grounding force and grace of a simple offer of food. When tornadoes hit his home state of Alabama, he and his colleagues sprung into action to bring barbecue to the masses.

“My friend John Egerton told me once that sometimes when people have lost a loved one or are in despair all you can do is take them a bowl of potato salad and tell them you’re sorry.

You feel an immediate sense of helplessness when you see mass amounts of acquaintances, friends, and neighbors suddenly stripped of everything. If you are lucky, that helplessness gives way to an involuntary reaction where you just try to do what you know in order to help ease the burden if even just a little bit.

Being in the restaurant business our reaction was to start feeding people.

Did those meals solve people’s long term problems? No. But the meals eaten around makeshift tables provided a place for everyone to come together and established time for some to begin shoring themselves up to move forward.”

Read – Serving up gratitude in troubled times

Visit CNN Impact Your World for ways to help the people affected by the tornadoes in the heartland.

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