My younger brother, Gonzalo, and I had not seen each other for at least seven years. For reasons that are hard to explain, I stopped traveling to Argentina in 2009 and hadn’t seen him much since. As he stepped off the plane to a cold, bitter winter in New Jersey, I wished our reunion was under different circumstances. It was 2016, a few days before Martin Luther King Jr. weekend and the biggest nor’easter we’d seen in decades. And we had to do the unthinkable: We were saying goodbye to our mother.
The last day our mother was conscious was on that Saturday. She spoke softly with my brother and me, chit-chatting here and there with what little voice she had left—as you do when you’re trying to avoid the monstrous, glaring elephant in the room. At one point, Gonzalo stared out the window and asked if it was really going to snow. He really wanted to see snow. “Don’t worry, you are going to see tons of it,” Mom whispered, faintly smiling.
She died that Monday, January 18, as the snow quietly started to lie on the ground and lasted for what felt like ages. One of the many times my mom kept her word no matter what.
Everything afterward felt rushed. Goodbyes usually feel that way. They come too soon and rarely do you want to say them. The day after she died, we decided to go to her apartment. She lived in a senior citizen building in Jersey City, and we managed to get to her place, even though the snow made it almost impossible to walk the six blocks that separated my apartment from hers.
So there we were, alone in her studio that she had proudly decorated and filled up to the brim with plants and pillows and her huge collection of owls. The apartment was small and had that very unique scent of a senior citizen’s home. You know the one. Even my mother knew the one. She often joked that it smelled “viejo.” Then again, her studio also had the faint scent of incense and cigarettes, the latter of which is what killed her in the end.
It was hard to be confronted with her memories and the dust that began to form around them. Having to pack up her place proved even harder. While my brother was trying to comprehend how our mom spent her last months, and how she lived in such a tiny place, I was trying to figure out how in the world I was going to empty it. He wanted to save everything and wait. I wanted all of this to be done yesterday. I was too close to it.
We started going through her things without a clear idea how we were going to do it. We weren’t even sure where to properly start. So I went for what I knew best: I started with the fridge. After all, her fridge was my domain, and I had been organizing it for months. I knew my mission as I stepped into the kitchen.
Up until the day she was hospitalized for the last time, I went to her place daily with food. I made sure to fill up her fridge with things that brought her joy during the course of her cancer treatment. I knew what she liked to eat and what she did not. I bought everything from strawberry ice cream to vanilla yogurt to watermelon. In fact, I used to make tiny melon balls and fill up two- or three-quart containers so she always had something fresquito to eat.
It was the first time in a little bit that I had checked her freezer. It held many things: pints of ice cream toppling over each other, Ziploc bags with bread for her morning toast, coffee, ice cube trays, and, of course, the one leftover meal—her fish.
My mom only ever cooked for a crowd, which seems to be genetic because I’ve had the same issue for years. I recently learned to scale down my recipes for one or two people, but she never did. She would make large batches of food and freeze them until she remembered she had them, or until I showed up hungry. And there it was: my mom’s fish, her special recipe that she made for us. Oven-baked white fillet of fish (usually cod or whiting), over thinly sliced potatoes, red peppers, onions, and spices that vary from time to time depending on the day—from dry oregano to thyme—and, of course, olive oil, salt, and pepper. It was her caballito de batalla. Her war horse. The dish we always liked and never complained about. A winner every time.
Tears began to stream down my face as I stared at the frozen Pyrex container wrapped in plastic. I wanted to somehow hold on to this (to hold on to her) for just a little while longer. But we also had loads of packing up to do and I was starving. So we went for it. My brother and I stopped what we were doing and sat down to eat together. And for a brief moment, it was as if my mom was with us, keeping her word and taking care of us one last time.
Since then, I’ve made her fish numerous times. I can easily replicate the recipe and only now do I realize what a gift that is—to have had my mom pass down something so personal and so precious to me.
I believe food makes things better, no matter how frozen or simple it is. The act of eating, in the company of others or alone, is a caring act. Caring for others but also caring for yourself. After all, food is what we all have in common. We all need to eat! But as we all well know, it is so much more than that. Food has rescued me in many moments—and not only because I sold food to survive. I cook to entertain; I cook to be liked; I cook to be loved.
I’ve made my mom’s fish countless times, but it’s never tasted as good as on that cold January day. That was just one of the many ways food has saved my life.
Copyright © 2021 by Gaby Melian; Illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.