50: Getting to Know Jennifer

50: Getting to Know Jennifer

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Food and Love

Getting to Know Jennifer

Tell me what you eat and I will tell what you are.

~Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

The dark blue vinyl notebook on the kitchen bookshelf looks ordinary enough. Glancing through the three-ring binder, I note the neatly printed white tabs labeling the categories — appetizers, vegetables, seafood, poultry, meats, desserts, miscellaneous. They are written in Jennifer’s neat printing, in blue ballpoint pen; this book speaks of an organized mind. The opening pale yellow page is splattered with a splotch of oil, so it appears to be well used. Some of the recipes, like the ever-popular Caramelized Brie, have been photocopied from newspaper clippings, while others, like Mozzarella Crostini, have been typed out on white paper. The calorie counts and serving sizes are dutifully noted at the bottom of each. So, I can conclude that Jennifer was a woman who liked cheese and counted calories. These facts seem to be contradictory.

There are handwritten notes, in Jennifer’s big loopy script, noting the origin (Miami Herald, Mom, Mrs. Guilford, Kathy) of each recipe. So Jennifer was apparently a woman who cared about the origin of things. Pockets on the sides of the binder are stuffed with a variety of assorted recipes, in no particular order. These, I assume, were not the tried and true recipes in the main section, but recipes to be experimented with at a later date. Some were torn out of magazines (Grilled Lamb Chops from Bon Appetit), some handwritten on legal pad paper (Pasta Rustica) and some neatly cut off of packages (Indonesian Shrimp and Rice). Other recipes are from restaurants (Jalapeno Corn Bread) or grocery stores (Black Bean Chili) and some have handwritten notes attached.

“Jennifer, here is the recipe for the pound cake that I promised you. Also, one of my favorites — Banana Supreme. It’s easy to make and delicious if you like bananas and nuts.” Did Jennifer like bananas and nuts? I wonder. And there are Creole recipes (Red Beans and Rice), which I know she collected because her husband loved Creole food.

I know this because her husband is now my husband. Jennifer died at thirty-nine of lung cancer, leaving behind three young daughters and a grieving husband named Zeke.

When I first started dating Zeke, there were pictures of Jennifer — a striking brunette with chiseled features and heavy bangs — around his house, as well as her books and the ceramic cats she collected. According to Zeke, she loved reading, cats and, more than anything else, her daughters. A tax attorney who chose to stay at home after her second daughter was born, Jennifer truly loved being a mom. She was also smart, getting a perfect score on her SATs, something I could never hope to do in a million years.

But Zeke sold his house, I sold mine and we bought a new house that would be “ours.” The books and ceramic cats have been packed away, so what I am left with are these recipes in this blue vinyl binder; this everyday item that links me to my stepdaughters’ mother and to my husband’s deceased wife. I am reluctant to throw away any of the recipes she collected. What if it was a family favorite?

So I ask my husband if he remembers eating Pacific Rim Glazed Flank Steak or Greek Pizza. He does not. “What about Mahogany Beef Stew or Horseradish Mashed Potatoes?” I inquire. He shrugs with an apologetic look.

“Did Jennifer have any specialties she liked to cook?” I ask him as we walk around the block of our new house.

“She did make a good tuna curry,” he offers. I remember the discussion of the curried tuna before. It was a recipe that Zeke first loved and then came to dread, as it made repeat appearances on a weekly basis. I look at the recipe: chopped onion, green pepper, butter, sour cream, curry powder and canned tuna, mixed together, baked and served over rice. I cannot in my wildest dreams imagine making this dish. Nor the one on the other side of the same sheet for African Chow Mein made with ground beef and rice. Yet, here’s a recipe for Chili Cheese Soufflé that sounds interesting, and another for Mexican Chicken Strata that I have actually made many times. I wrote next to my recipe, clipped from the paper, “Everybody liked” in pencil. Of course, that was a different marriage, different husband, different life, and now with three little girls raised on pizza, pasta and chicken fingers, all bets are off with any recipe involving sourdough bread, black beans, and green chilies.

Looking at this collection of recipes, I feel an inexplicable sadness for the brief life of a woman I never even met. There’s one for Bear Biscuits, complete with illustrations, on how to turn refrigerator biscuits, raisins and maraschino cherries into a smiling bear face.

I wonder if Jennifer ever got the chance to make these with her daughters. They were only four, five and eight when she died. Mamma G’s Meatloaf was a recipe passed down from Zeke’s mother. I imagine Jennifer as a young bride mixing together the pork, beef and veal with sage, parsley and eggs to make her husband’s favorite dinner in the hope it would please him. I have made the same meatloaf (as a not-so-young bride) with the same hope in mind.

And here’s a collection of recipes printed off the Internet from The Barefoot Contessa, which promise “scrumptious party platters sure to sate even the most grinch-hearted guest” for the holidays. The five pages are stapled together and include recipes for Sun Dried Tomato Dip and Grilled Lemon Chicken with Satay Sauce. I look at the date it was printed — 11/30/00. This was a year after she was diagnosed with cancer, two years before she died. “So,” I think, “she was still planning on having dinner parties and entertaining.” In the face of chemo and cancer, I admire her optimism and zest for life. She gathered these recipes because she planned to live, love and cook, despite the unlikely odds.

“Her Poppy Seed Torte was good too,” Zeke adds, while we walk. I know this recipe as well. Zeke and I have attempted to make it together on two occasions. Each time we have gotten stuck at the same place and have had to call Jennifer’s mother in California for clarification. Each time she has laughingly obliged and talked us through the recipe. I have made a note of it for whenever the third attempt may be.

So, I will make the Bear Biscuits with Jennifer’s girls, who are now mine, I will make Mamma G’s meatloaf to serve my family when they are in need of comfort and I will try out the Grilled Lemon Chicken with Satay Sauce in hopes that it will sate a Grinch-hearted guest. I will carry on the legacy and cook the foods that Jennifer cannot, because this is what we do. We carry on in the face of uncertainty, we put one foot in front of the other even when it doesn’t feel possible and we plan dinner parties for the future because it gives us hope and happiness. And then we eat.

~Gina Lee Guilford

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