Kitchen Mystic by Paulette Licitra

The Deconstruction by Karen Cantrell

Patisserie de Pakistan by Gregors Johnson

Meals of a Lifetime by Rebecca Keller

Ode to Risotto by Donald Newlove

Fully Committed by Doug Sovern

Biscuits and Gravy by William Blomstedt

Keeping It Tidy by Alan Linton

If I Knew You Were Coming by Alisha Lumea

On Your Only Day Off by Nicole Edwards

Bagpipes and Pan Fried Smelts by Ted Radakovic

Joseph Conrad’s Dark Linguini by Giovanni Berchtold

Missing Something by Jean-Luc Bouchard

We Love You, Mayonnaise! by Alona Martinez

Japanese Food by Esther Cohen

Raw Köfte by Hardy Griffin

Proust's Soup by Giovanni Berchtold

A Sacred Virgin by Paulette Licitra

on a friday evening by Keith Leidner

Ropa Vieja by Raul Palma

Deidre's Last Meal by Esther Cohen

Wired by Alan Linton

Chestnut by Katherine Gleason

The Moon is an Outdoor Sandwich by Patty Houston

Garlicky Greens by Lois Marie Harrod

First the Shell, Musical; Then the Custard, Irrevocable by Sarah Begley

Meals of Choice by Dorian Fox

A Low Table by Christian Aguiar

The Sylvian Fissure by Rosalie Loewen

Two Versions of Eating Potatoes by David Spiering

Conch Salad by Michele Ruby

Hopper by Michael Onofrey

Caution: Coffee is Hot by Gary Scott

The Fairy Part by Alberto Giuseppe

Foie Gras by Judith Edelman

Rosemary and Olive Oil by Gail Gauthier

Mario's Shoes by Natalie Parker-Lawrence

Cake by Marianne Villanueva

Retreat: October on Copper Mountain by M.E. Parker

The Sandwich Diaries by Angus Woodward

But There Was No Star Anise by Andrew Martell

Fruit Route by Susan King

Meals of Choice

by Dorian Fox

October 2013    

“Arsenic—I detect a hint of arsenic,” Mr. Carlyle said, grinning at me like a spook from his adjustable bed and then dipping his spoon again into the bowl of lamb stew I had prepared that afternoon. Because he wasn’t expected to last through the week, on account of an aggressive case of colon cancer, he found that sort of gallows humor particularly brash and amusing, and to be honest I did too. “Could you do a roulade tomorrow—my mother used to make a beef roulade when I was a boy” he said, with sudden seriousness, and I looked at his impossibly frail shoulders and his eyes like a pair of briny olives and nodded and said of course.

Did I ever expect that after four years of study at the American Institute of Cuisine, under the tutelage of the world’s finest culinary minds, I would end up as a hospice chef at Final Frontiers, serving last meals to the terminally ill? Everyone else in my graduating class has since found their niche in the ranks of high gastronomy—Ethan is a sous-chef under Vincent Spitz at Orange Moon, Paulo was runner-up on Kitchen Deathmatch and opened his own bistro in Manhattan, Imogen is in Chicago flash-freezing bacon at Élan—put it that way.

Figuring I should spend some time with my folks before hurling myself headlong into the restaurant grind, I had made a temporary move to my hometown of Rice Lake, Wisconsin, with my diploma and my official AIC whites in my suitcase, intending to stay a month or two, at most. Gall runs high in my family, though—on my mother’s side, at least—and almost immediately she was lobbying for me to re-root, talking down big city life and hailing Wisconsin as some kind of foodie’s paradise: the farm-fresh produce, the bratwurst, the cheese. Her scheming included leaving the classifieds from the local paper, with fat red marker-rings like calamari around any food-related jobs, no matter how menial, on the kitchen counter, which I would skim and drop in the recycling bin, until one day an item caught my eye: Talented Chef Wanted to Serve the Dying. Instead of finding the idea unsavory, I was intrigued (once you’ve been taught to butcher a pig, nothing is really morbid) and I showed up at Final Frontiers that afternoon for an interview, receiving an offer on the spot; they had me commit to a four-month stint—it’s now been a year and a half.

Just before a person goes, provided they aren’t ailing from Alzheimer’s or dementia, the memory often becomes knife-sharp and they can recall the best meals of their lives, meals they want to experience again. Knotty-limbed and wizened, the residents in the home aren’t much to look at, so who would guess that one man with heart disease had spent years sampling the best eateries in Paris, or that another woman with emphysema had fallen in love with curries trekking through the mountains of Nepal? Life is about more than what we eat, but it’s amazing how tied to the past our taste buds and stomachs are. Many of them want comfort food—soups, mashed potatoes, meats with rich sauces and gravies, sweet cakes and custards—which I try to prepare straightforwardly, but with a personal flourish. Now and again, more often than I’d expect, I’m given a challenge—Beef Wellington, Gruyère soufflé, coq au vin. Oven space in a home for the dying being what it is, I can’t take everyone’s requests every day, but I try to meet one weekly entree or dessert demand for each of the twenty-or-so residents, especially when the nurses tip me off that someone is on the cusp. Practically all of them, once they’ve eaten, thank me and share stories about what the particular dish I’ve made means to them; some cry; the more food-savvy ones will congratulate me on pulling off an especially rare or difficult meal they’ve asked for. Quail eggs Florentine, escargot drowned in garlic butter, even foie gras with onions and figs: I’ve had to scour specialty grocers and farmers’ markets for ingredients, or sometimes call in favors from friends on the coasts, having them airmail fresh scallops or a jar of saffron; occasionally I’ve exceeded my monthly food allowance and had to pay out of pocket, but in the end it doesn’t matter to me, as long as the meals get plated.

Recently I baked apple tarts in little ceramic ramekins at the request of Mrs. Eldridge, who grew up near an orchard in Vermont and now at ninety-four was in the throes of acute pneumonia.

“So if I die tonight,” she said after finishing the dessert, breathy and barely audible, “at least I had one last piece of apple pie.” Those words about diced my heart to bits—how could they not? Under all the silly human trappings and airs of sophistication, it felt like Mrs. Eldridge was saying to me, we’re just simple creatures with simple needs—as if when the dark begins to swallow the light, we only want to be fed a good meal, to feel the flavors mingle on our palates in a final burst, before we’re sent on our way.

Violent coughing spasms shook Mrs. Eldridge that evening and she was gone by the morning, but with a full stomach, like she had predicted. When the night-watch nurses told me that she had died, I felt an emptiness in my gut, like I always do, and when Mr. Carlyle passed the next day, before I was finished prepping the stuffed cabbage he had requested, I thought again about quitting. Xeroxed copies of my résumé have been piled on my desk for months, some in manila envelopes which are already addressed to the executive chefs at places like Chop House and Kumquat and Dénouement.

You might think I’m nuts when I tell you that my friend Paulo of Kitchen Deathmatch fame called this week, saying a spot had opened on the line at his bistro, which was mine for the taking if I was ready to stop spoon-feeding invalids and move back to the Big Apple; and that I considered it for a moment, thinking of gourmet patrons and stainless steel counters and everything I’d expected for myself, but I said no thanks. Zagat’s will never feature a description of my seared filet with truffle butter between its crimson covers at this rate, it’s true—which in some circles is as good as immortality—but lots of things in this life can sustain us.

  Dorian Fox grew up mostly in Pittsburgh, but now lives in the Boston area where he recently earned his MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Emerson College. Some days, he helps make delicious pastries at an artisan bakery. His work has appeared online in Monkeybicycle, Barrelhouse, Prick of the Spindle and Bright Lights Film Journal.

Photo used under Creative Commons.