My mom died a few years back and my siblings and I took turns caring for her at home near the end, along with medical and hospice support. It was difficult of course, but to my surprise we all spent a lot of time sharing old stories and laughing heartily, often over food. I then wrote a novel about a troubled 18-year-old tending to her beloved guardian Aunt Fran who has recently been diagnosed with cancer. It’s called The Coldest Winter I Ever Spent (out March 7, 2023)
The story is fueled by good food. Aunt Fran is a wonderful cook from Dallas, Texas and she’s been teaching main character Delilah. Her specialties include: buttery Jalapeño cheese grits, buttermilk biscuits and fried chicken, pimento cheese, proper southern cornbread (not sweet), and a mean cheese straw-- those crisp, savory, flakey treats dusted with cayenne pepper—that feature in two scenes. One scene is funny and involves a Labrador Retriever. The other shows just how much ground Aunt Fran is losing.
You see, Aunt Fran’s cancer is a virulent strain, not unlike the one that took my mom too quickly. And Delilah fears that losing this woman who has meant so much to her, might cause her to lose her life too. Yes, it’s irrational, but what, you’re rational all the time?
During the course of Fran’s illness, friends bring over spinach quiche, seven-layer bean and salsa dip, and a macadamia tunnel-of-fudge Bundt cake. A later scene in the story involves Delilah, her estranged father, and a weakened Aunt Fran, all sitting down to dinner together over a crab casserole (more cheese!) delivered by a friend, and an arugula and spring-mix-from-a-bag salad with a Dijon-vinaigrette that Delilah makes. Dad contributes a crisp white French Chablis, and a German chocolate cake with coconut-pecan frosting—Fran’s childhood favorite. Despite the family’s many tensions it’s a gentle, warm reunion, and they don’t know it at the time, but it’s their last meal together.
The story’s set in San Francisco, so naturally great local food figures: North Beach coffee house Lattes, burgers and fries, Ghirardelli hot fudge sundaes, fish tacos and beef burritos, and eggplant and Brie sandwiches on whole grain. And Delilah and her father talk turkey, coming to a new understanding over fragrant, take-out green curry chicken, red rice, and shrimp-packed Tom Yum soup.
As you and I know, food is inextricably tied up with family dynamics, history, and culture, not to mention nostalgia and comfort. It’s what sustains us emotionally as well as physically, especially in times of loss. Novels are almost always about struggle and loss of some sort. How can a writer not include heaps of memorable food?
Thanks for stopping by to share your food for thought, Ann!
Ann Jacobus is the author of YA novels The Coldest Winter I Ever Spent (March 7, 2023), and Romancing the Dark in the City of Light. She teaches writing at Stanford Continuing Studies, is a long-time suicide crisis line volunteer, and a mental health advocate. She gravitates to Tex-Mex and BBQ.