At 8:30 this morning I parked my car on a quiet Dundee street under grey skies. I started to unload its trunk wishing the light would improve, but being equally grateful for the impending rain and walked into The French Bulldog. Sounds of Lucinda Williams and Adel pumped overhead in the deli on Underwood Street in Omaha, Ne. Chef Bryce Coulton emerged from between two sliding barn doors prepping a fennel sausage dish we will photograph for the book. Soon after, Dana Damewood, the book’s photographer, and Cindy Driscoll, my assistant in all things food related, arrive, and together, we convert the space into a photo studio, where today Bryce is not only the subject of the images but also part of the support staff behind them.
Like restaurants, books are filled with invisible stories about the process, the kindness of strangers and the community it took to write them, this book is no exception. I was a little more than 1 year into working on the project and the mother of an 8-month-old and 2 1/2-year-old when my husband started losing weight. We would wake two times per night from the cold, damp feel of sweat soaked sheets. I would get up change them then wake up two more times to nurse our baby. Between the night sweats and the weight loss and my husband’s endless, painful coughing we could feel our unspoken fears ache into our bones. In December, after multiple rounds of useless antibiotics our family doctor admitted my husband to the hospital. For a week, doctors tossed out potential causes seemingly at random, but tests came back with more questions than answers. They ruled out tuberculosis, strange infections from bad water and pneumonia. They teetered on cancer and other rare diseases. We waited.
My friend Anna set up a meal train for those who wanted to feed us. Many friends stopped by to visit, brought dinner and offered support, all of which I am grateful for, but Bryce surprised me the most. I had only met him once before when I had interviewed him for the book, yet he made enough fresh pasta, savory rice pie and apple cake to feed me and my children for months. I was astounded by the generosity of this relative stranger. And even now, years later, I have a difficult time understanding it.
On Christmas Eve, I sat in the white and beige hospital room while my in-laws wrapped presents for the children and put them under our tree. That afternoon, my husband’s pulmonologist came by to tell us we were free to leave the hospital, but he still didn’t know what was wrong. We drove home weary, but thankful to be together. I had no energy to make something special for Christmas morning breakfast. It was our first as a family of four. Our first with a lingering uncertainty. Our first with so much worry and still so much for which to be grateful. We came home to little ones ready and eager to see their father and Bryce’s apple cake sweet and warm with cinnamon resting on our kitchen counter. It was better than anything I would’ve made myself and perfect for Christmas morning breakfast.
A day or two before the New Year we learned my husband’s illness was due to Histoplasmosis. He had inhaled fungus spores common in dirt, most likely, when he ran a half marathon months earlier. Inhalers and anti-fungal medicine led to his eventual recovery four months after he fell ill.
That was two years ago now and I can still taste the cake as I write this post. I taste the care and compassion of a person I had met once. I can taste the relief it brought to my weary heart. I can taste the comfort it gave me to feed my babies and my ill husband something made with love, even if I wasn’t the one who made it.
Food is the plate on which we serve our humanity. It is made perfectly, not when the spices are balanced or the texture just right but when the intention in offering it to another person is pure. I experienced that flavor on Christmas morning and it was the perfect gift for me.
Years later on this rainy morning, I move about The French Bulldog, a restaurant Bryce co-owns with two other amazing people, arranging sausages on platters and pouring soup into bowls. I stop briefly to discuss the process of writing a book over roasted tomatoes and sweetened pork belly. I stand here nodding, listening and navigating one dish after the next while thinking about the back story to this moment. About how my healthy husband is home playing with our children while I arrange plates and bowls in a restaurant full of humanity.
I spent nearly four years traveling through Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota writing about chefs, farmers and artisans for my cookbook, New Prairie Kitchen, which is available online now and will be available in bookstores in May 2015. Many of the people I encountered impacted me on a deeply personal level. The confines of print left me wanting to tell you more about them and my own evolution so I’m sharing a bit more of their stories in an occasional series called Backstory. You can read Part 2 here.