After a bad fall, my 92-year old mother, Lois Bartlett, is convalescing at a hospital in her hometown, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Despite her many ills, she is sharp mentally and interested in getting better. It’s her appetite that’s gone.
A slim and tall woman (she seemed like a tree when I was little), she has always eaten just about everything enthusiastically and until now, has done her own cooking and shopping.
“The food is awful here!” she wailed. I had to agree that the overdone purees and tough slabs of meat were nearly inedible.
“Just give it a good try.” I advised. She had a better idea.
A few days later, she explained, “Christina is bringing me food.” Christina Minielly has known my mother for over 30 years and most recently, has been a caregiver and lunch provider.
“What is she bringing you?” I asked, thinking about some nutritious soup or perhaps some vegetables or fish.
“Sandwiches and potato chips!” she chirped. “And usually, there’s enough for my dinner too!”
Your ten-year old probably shouldn’t have a steady diet of sandwiches and potato chips but at 92? I think it’s great. She’s back to eating and in fact, that sandwich probably has everything she needs, as least for now.
About 20 years ago, my father was dying of lung cancer. I was appalled by his diet of canned soups and frozen food and wanted to make sure that he was eating ‘correctly’. Who knows? Maybe I thought I could cure him. I tried to tempt him by cooking various dishes with delicate sauces and special vegetables. Sometimes, he’d say, “Don’t bother too much with lunch. Isn’t there some Campbell’s soup on the shelf?”
Ha! I’d think. Nothing like that for my dad! No sirree. Everything from scratch.
On another occasion, he was more forthright. “I’d really like some Stouffer’s Turkey Tetrazzini”. Suddenly, I was caught short. Why wasn’t I feeding him what he wanted? His life was really down to weeks at that point. Shopping and cooking was eating into some nice time we could spend together, sitting and reading or reminiscing.
So, I learned a lesson. Throughout your life, eating well is important for many reasons and health is only one of them. But at the end of life, all the constraints of keeping yourself alive are not so important. If my mother wants potato chips, she should have them. When she’s stronger, maybe she’ll go for that nutritious soup I’d like to make her but I can wait.
If you have an elderly relative or friend who you’d like to cook for, it is a wonderful act of kindness. My mother’s young artist friend Rhonda Davis often brings her tasty treats. “You know this stuff, hummous, is really good!”, my mother commented one day, fishing around for more pita bread. Bear in mind, that your older friend won’t eat much and heavy pots or bowls will be hard for a frail person to handle easily. A pint of soup, a small container of stew, or a slice of pie will be just right.
If you’re cooking for a sick friend, bear in mind that lots of food that smells and tastes so good when you’re well has the opposite effect when you’re sick. Spicy or rich foods, dairy (especially cheese and cream), strong tasting fish or meat are the culprits here. Also, the texture of certain foods, such as steak, can be hard to handle. Salads and salad dressing can taste much more acidic when you’re not feeling up to par.
So what’s left? Soup is a good bet with clear broth and some good vegetables, a bit of rice, and a little chicken. Some folks like rice pudding or applesauce. Using a mild cheese, a warm grilled cheese sandwich can be tempting.
My husband’s mother, Mary Allman, also had a poor appetite in her last weeks. One day, I made her a simple egg custard. It was plain and digestible and she ate some of it. It sparked some memories of her childhood which she recounted with quiet pleasure. I enjoyed the stories and was glad that the custard coaxed them out and had given her a little energy.
This dark time of year certainly brings out wonderful generosity and kindness. I am grateful to Christina and my mother’s neighbors who have taken time to bring a very old lady things that she likes to eat.
Here are a few recipes for our older friends.
Egg Custard Also called cup custard or baked custard, this makes a simple dessert for any age and is especially good topped with fruit.
2 cups milk 3 tablespoons sugar pinch salt 4 yolks (or 2 whole eggs) 1/2 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
In a medium-sized bowl, combine the milk, sugar and eggs. Beat well. Add flavoring.
Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Pour the custard into 5 or 6 individual ramekins or small Pyrex cups and set them in a baking pan. Pour about an inch of hot water into the baking pan and bake about 45 minutes.
Test for doneness by sticking a knife in the custard. If it comes out clean, the custard is done. Don’t overbake as it will get tough.
Green Soup For when you’re feeling a bit low. Homemade broth makes a big difference here, especially if well-skimmed of fat and not too salty. You may leave out the egg but it adds some protein.
2 cups broth (chicken, beef. or vegetable)
1 cup spinach or chard, chopped or shredded finely
1 egg, slightly beaten
Heat the broth to the boiling point and stir in the greens. Cook over low heat a few minutes until the greens are wilted and tender. Stir in the egg.
Serve with plain toast or crackers.
Makes 2 small servings.
Breast of chicken can be pleasant enough for a sick person but it can easily be tough or too bland. A little lemon juice helps to keep the chicken tender.
1 boneless chicken breast
1 teaspoon dried dill or tarragon
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the chicken in a very small baking dish and squeeze some lemon juice over it. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with dill or tarragon. You can also use fresh parsley, if you prefer. Dot with a little butter and cover the dish tightly with foil.
Bake for 20 minutes and check for doneness. Cook a few more minutes if necessary.
Makes one serving.
I read M.F.K. Fisher’s glowing words about milk toast a few years ago and at the time, thought they were a bit ridiculous. But then I came across this pencilled notation in an old cookbook of my mother’s next to the recipe for milk toast:
“Mama likes this.”
No doubt she was referring to her own very elderly mom. Milk toast is a lovely soother for anyone who is ailing but especially nice for babies, young children and the elderly.
1 cup milk
2 slices bread
Heat the milk until it is simmering but not boiling. Toast the bread and butter it (sparingly or generously depending on the condition of the sick one). Pour the hot milk in a large bowl, break up the toast into pieces and serve at once with a spoon.
There are versions where cinnamon and raisins and a little sugar are added.