40: Food Served with Love Tastes Best

40: Food Served with Love Tastes Best

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Food and Love

Food Served with Love Tastes Best

There is no greater loan than a sympathetic ear.

~Frank Tyger

“Your mouth looks like chopped liver,” the dentist said. “You have three cavities!”

No wonder I had such a toothache. I felt so ashamed. It must have been all those chocolate chip cookies I ate as my dinner. Most days I’d buy a box on my way home from work, along with a paperback mystery — my way of escaping into oblivion. At twenty-three, I was miserable, working at a job I hated, unhappily single while my two best friends were married.

In 1965, “nice girls” lived at home until they married. But the four-bedroom apartment in the Bronx where I lived with my parents was suffocating. It was the sixties, and times were changing. Young singles flocked to Manhattan to work and play.

“Everyone’s moving to the city now!” I told my mother.

“So if everyone jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you?” she asked.

I daydreamed about a glamorous life in the city. I’d go to folk concerts, throw wild parties, have fun! But when I actually moved into a studio apartment in Manhattan, my life often felt empty.

To pay the rent, I worked at a state agency, helping men on parole find jobs. Young and inexperienced, I was terrified by those rough guys who’d served time for armed robbery, murder and dealing drugs.

Weekends were daunting. At best there’d be a dinner date, but long stretches of empty time made me ache for someone to love. One evening at a dance, in the arms of a stranger, I feared I’d be alone forever, going to work, and then numbing myself with mystery novels and junk food. I couldn’t bear to marry until I was in love, but how long would I have to wait?

When the phone rang, it was often my mother, worrying about me.

“Have you met anyone yet? Are you getting out to socialize? Did you hear that Harriet is engaged to a doctor?” Her barrage of questions made me feel like a total failure.

The worst blues hit on Sunday nights, when I pictured everyone else nesting with their loved ones. That’s when I’d pick up the phone and call my Aunt Libby to see if she was home for a visit.

My mother’s younger sister, Libby, had never married. Feisty and independent, she was the only woman in my family with a career. As secretary to New York’s traffic commissioner, she rode to work in a limousine! Even without a husband or children, she seemed way happier than my mother. Watching her live with zest made me feel less anxious about being single.

On those Sunday nights, I walked down Lexington Avenue, past the florist with lilacs in the window, past the Mom and Pop stationery store, then down the steps to the dingy subway. As the train rumbled along, I daydreamed about seeing Aunt Libby again.

I pressed the bell to her apartment, she buzzed me into the building, and I could hardly wait for the elevator to take me to the fifth floor. There she stood at the end of the hall in the open doorway, beaming at me — a tall, zaftig woman with curly hair, her dark eyes shining with love.

When she enveloped me in a comforting hug, happiness flooded me. I inhaled the lemon scent of her cologne, absorbed her warmth, and knew everything in my life was going to be all right.

Inside the apartment, Libby settled on the loveseat, while I plopped down on the antique oak rocking chair with a blue Chinese rug at its feet. Healthy houseplants in brass pots and oak floors polished to a gleam made the apartment a welcoming home.

After a while, we entered the narrow kitchen where Libby made our tuna supper. It was simple, yet wonderful. Tuna mashed up with plenty of mayonnaise and diced onion. Juicy tomato wedges. Potato salad fixed with mayonnaise, grated carrots and celery. Some slices of soft challah — a braided egg bread with a glossy brown crust that tasted almost as sweet as cake.

As we ate, we talked about everyday things. Libby’s friend Dora, who was fighting with her husband. My horrible boss, a skinny man with a beak for a nose, who ordered me to wear suits. My latest boyfriend, or lack of one.

“I don’t know what you see in Gino,” Libby said. “He’s so coarse!”

She meant my Italian boyfriend, a printer with fingernails permanently stained with ink. He spoke like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. To me, he was tough and sexy, so exotic compared to the nice Jewish men I grew up with. Still, Libby’s comment stopped me from considering him as “husband material.”

What I remember most is our laughter; Libby laughing so hard tears ran down her cheeks, me laughing until I could hardly breathe. She got hysterical about the time I flushed her ring down the toilet when I was two years old.

“I still owe you a ring,” I said.

“You’re off the hook.” She held out a gold ring she’d found on the street, a piece of good luck proving life was full of wonderful surprises. When she died she left it to me, along with her mother’s diamond ring.

Tears of sorrow flooded Libby’s eyes when told me how much she missed her mother. Libby was free with her joys and open with her sorrows. Everything between us flowed easily. In Libby’s apartment I could be myself without worrying about what I said.

One night, as we sipped tea and nibbled on macaroons, I confessed I was dropping out of my master’s program in English Literature.

“I made such a mistake, wasting a year and all that money. I should finish, but I just don’t want to!” I agonized.

“That’s why they made erasers,” Libby said, brushing away my regrets. What a relief! Libby made me see that mistakes were human. I could change my path and start over.

Just hearing her name still evokes a feeling of home. She’s passed on, but her tuna suppers live on in my life, reminding me of her loving spirit. My husband Tom and I fix those suppers here in Portland on Sunday nights, in memory of Libby, and to share a quiet evening of our own.

Together we prepare the tuna. Tom mashes it until it has a flaky texture; I add mayonnaise and salty capers. Like Libby, I arrange tomato wedges along with some new touches: carrot sticks, green olives, sweet pickles, and celery stuffed with cheese.

“I love our Sunday night suppers,” Tom said recently. We were snuggled up together on the couch, after a tuna supper, watching a movie.

“Yes, they’re so comforting,” I said.

When I fix food to share with someone I love, no matter how simple the meal, it feeds my soul. Tuna suppers have become a beloved ritual in our home, and I always feel thankful to Aunt Libby for that tradition, and for the comfort she gave me years ago.

~Barbara Blossom Ashmun

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