Janet Elsbach was raised by people who did a lot of cooking, but she didn’t go to professional cooking school. A home cook inspired by seasonal food, the cravings of those she loves to feed and the idea of bringing people together at the table, Janet knows from personal experience that in times of illness and sorrow there’s nothing like the gift of food. Her new book, “Extra Helping: Recipes for Caring, Connecting, and Building Community One Dish at a Time” includes personal stories from the front lines of care, cooking shortcuts for cooks short on time and tips for tweaking recipes to suit all kinds of dietary restrictions. Janet tells us how “Extra Helping” came about, how illnesses in her own family changed the way she receives the gift of food, and about the surprise gift of Kollyva she received from a Greek friend following the death of Janet’s older sister from cancer. What Janet hopes to offer, with “Extra Helping,” is not so much a group of recipes but the idea that no matter what, you can begin.
NOTE: A portion of the proceeds from the sale of each book supports Feeding America and their efforts to combat hunger.
JANA – When my father died nearly 10 years ago, our family received lots of condolence cards, phone calls and flowers, which were all very much appreciated. But for me the most comforting gesture with the trays of food brought to our house by fellow mourners. I knew I had to eat, but I was so numb with grief the last thing I could think to do was pull together a meal. Thankfully, all I had to do was reach into our bulging refrigerator and heat up one of the many prepared dishes. In times of illness and sorrow, and certainly in times of caregiving, there’s nothing like the gift of food. So today, I’m happy to welcome one of those gift givers. Janet Elsbach is a mom, a blogger, a teacher, a cook, and author of the witty and beautifully illustrated cookbook “Extra Helping: Recipes for Caring, Connecting and Building Community One Dish at a Time.” Janet, welcome to The Agewyz Podcast.
JANET – Thank you so much for having me.
JANA – So in “Extra Helping” you note that food has always been love to you, and that you grew up in a household where the table was the point. I wonder if you could share a little bit about where you grew up, and some of the foods that made you, in your words, scoot closer to the table.
JANET – Well, I grew up between New York City and the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, which are pretty different places. And our circle of friends, really in both places, most of the social gatherings that I remember and family events, they all centered on food. We’ve had thanksgiving for – somebody counted it up recently – 35 years, I think with the same family. They were the people who originally introduced my parents to the Berkshires, where I now live full time. And we started sharing Thanksgiving with them years and years ago. And as people have married and had children and the families have grown, it’s become this enormous feast. But it’s really, the center of our family life is that idea of gathering around the table.
JANA – Any favorite foods that you remember from your childhood?
JANET – Well, the matriarch of the family I’m referring to is a Chinese American who was raised in Texas, but has written some Chinese cookbooks. And so she is a lethal weapon in the kitchen. She was really a guiding force in my childhood and as I’ve grown, and she and my mom used to get together once a week in the summertime and try to perfect some particular dish that was driving them both most crazy that they needed to recapture.
JANET – And my mom, you know, has a Eastern European background, so a lot of Jewish comfort food was part of our upbringing. There was a woman from Grenada who was part of our household for a long time, so there’s a lot of West Indian overlay. I sort of describe myself as a magpie. I like to sort of pick and choose from the various places. And my sister has a very close friend who’s Indian, and I love South Asian food, and I’m just always selecting little bright, shiny objects from – especially comfort food, which, it’s just so interesting to me the things that are consistent and the things that are different.
JANET – But I traveled through Cuba with my daughter and her Spanish class from high school, and someone had some traveler’s complaint. And so I asked one of our hosts for a banana. And they looked at me like I was crazy, because to me, you know, the various places that I had traveled, and been taught, when your stomach’s upset you eat a banana. And it was: No – absolutely not. Really the wrong way to go as far as they were concerned. But there are so many things that are consistent: kinds of rice pudding and chicken soup and types of, you know, hot drinks and things like that, that I’m always interested to see how those morph as they move around the globe.
JANA – Yeah. You wrote that you’ve chased some strange ingredients, healing nutrition and good food all your life, and now it has come to this. This is your first cookbook, right?
JANET – Yes. Yes.
JANA – So what inspired you to pull it all together? It’s really beautiful.
JANET – Well, thank you. Years ago, a friend of mine invited me to be part of a women’s writers evening, and I realized I needed something. Although I’d been writing on my own for a while, I needed sort of something out in the world, to stand for this interest of mine. And it was in the early days of blogs existing and somebody said, Well, start a blog. And I said, What am I gonna have something to say about every day? And she said, Well, everybody wants to know what you guys are having for dinner, just write about that.
JANET – So I started a food blog. And that was right around the time that my oldest sister was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. So starting to write about food and put my writing out there coincided with entering this period of really intense caregiving for my sister, and receiving care from our circle as she went through her illness and we went through her death. And then there was a lot more illness and events going on in my family at the time. So it was just sort of a crash course in both giving the care to whoever I was looking after directly, and just receiving the additional support that was required for my little family to be able to offer that to my relatives that were stricken. And the cookbook really came from that.
JANA – And the cookbook came out of that. Okay. How long did it take you to produce this? It’s so detailed. And multi- layer in many ways, it’s very detailed.
JANET – I mean, I would hesitate to say it’s a life’s work, because I certainly wasn’t working on a book over the course of my life. But when I sat down to write it, it was my friend Alanna who, through the same group of friends who said, Write this blog said, Now write a book. And I said, Okay, what do I write it about? And she said, Well, you’re so good at showing up with food, just write about that. And so I started pulling from not just the writing that existed on the blog, but what I’d internalized over the years of being looked after. I’ve had very good luck being looked after by some incredible family members and friends. There’s a certain intuition for how to nourish somebody when they’re taxed in some way, and I’ve always paid attention to that. So it was harder to narrow down what to put in the book than it was to amass enough to put in there. And then when the mechanism of just thinking about it, in terms of different life situations really helped me to put each collection together – each chapter’s collection of recipes.
JANA – Right. Well, let’s talk about the way the book is organized because it is organized in a very particular way, more or less from birth to death.
JANET – Oh – I hadn’t thought about that.
JANA – Different lifestyle – different life cycle occasions, I guess you could say.
JANET – Yeah, like, I was sort of struggling to think about how to put it together. And when that matrix appeared, it just everything – I don’t know if you’ve ever had that experience where, just everything, all of a sudden you go, oh, oh, oh. OK. So this goes there and this goes there. Like, you know, sort of organizing a closet. It was like, Okay, now this makes sense. And then thinking of each life event in terms of, you know, the different kinds of things you’d need to offer somebody: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A snack, a beverage, that kind of thing. It was a hard process to get – to push some things aside, but it helped to think about each chapter.
JANA – Yeah, I don’t think a cookbook has ever been organized that way. At least that I know of.
JANET – It’s funny, you’re saying that because when you do a book proposal, one of the things, counterintuitive to me, that you have to establish is that other books like your book exists. And I really struggled to find anything later than about 1920 that was this idea of cooking for, you know, it was sort of called “invalid cookery” in that time period. But there’s a lot of special diet for this particular ailment, kind of cookbooks, or this particular belief system, and a lot of cooking as gifts, you know, banana breads and beautiful things in a mason jar. But I couldn’t find, other than the woman who wrote Laurel’s Kitchen wrote a cookbook about caring for people with food. And I found that kind of late in the process. But that was really it.
JANET – It was interesting to see that. I think that was written in the 70s. That was very sort of vegetarian, nature bound cooking. But it was hard to find a model or another example of something like that. And I think it speaks to -somebody once said to me, and this is a little bit of a digression, but – somebody once said, when you go to Disney World, you don’t see anyone emptying the trash, which you don’t really notice when you’re walking around Disney World. But it’s all done from underneath, it all gets sucked down into this underworld where all the maintenance takes place. And I remember thinking about that, again, the first time I was helping to look after – it was a friend and in this case, somebody who was really ill – that it was like, You moved into this other universe that just wasn’t visible in day to day life.
JANET – And I think it speaks to the way that we’ve kind of organized our lives now, that illness and recovery and grief, we don’t want to think about that. So they’re pushed aside or it’s handled in this invisible sphere, and then when you slip through, then you’re not prepared. You’re not equipped in any way, because you haven’t had a model of, how do you do this? How do you maintain your own family life and care for this person? How do you know what to cook for someone whose doctor has told them they can’t have salt but all they want is salt? There aren’t any models for that.
JANET – So I found it really motivating that I couldn’t find another example of a book like this, because what I wanted to give people more than, you know, how to make this particular Peruvian chicken soup was, just a place to start. Start somewhere. Here’s a little bit of information to get you started, and then pay attention to the person you’re taking care of. And then it’ll build from there. But I was really struck by the, sort of, wasteland of guidebooks to help people understand it’s such a basic thing.
JANET – If you’ve gotten through anything from morning to night – a day of sickness, a day of health, a day of anything, doing your tax returns – you’ve eaten something. Everybody eats. It’s one unifying thing. So it’s such a basic sort of world of information. And we’re not giving people any guidance on how to do it.
JANA – Well, I love the idea that for you, it’s not just an expression of love, but it’s essentially a form of care. You even refer to the lunch boxes packed for your kids when they were young as “a care package I pack every day.”
JANET – You know, over the course of three children and a lot of school, I didn’t always have such romantic feelings about the lunchbox.
JANA – And that comes across in the writing.
JANET – But in a perfect world, it felt like a care package.
JANA – I love the fact that each chapter begins, sort of, with an introduction of some kind that is a little bit educational, but it really doesn’t read that way. I mean, your writing is really kind of this blend of whimsical and philosophical, academic and little hip, you know.
JANET – Oh, thank you.
JANA – It seems like you did as much writing as assembling of recipes. Did you have to do a lot of research for this?
JANET – I definitely had to coalesce a lot of things that were just in the back of my head kind of formlessly, and then that informed a way of looking – that would, for example, set me off thinking about the rice pudding that my mother used to make, or the rice pudding that my friend Susie makes, then I started looking at how does that manifest around the world. And it was a little bit of a dangerous road to go down. Because at that point, I felt like I could have written you know, the Encyclopedia Britannica of invalid cookery, because there’s so much out there in the world. So it kind of opened things up.
JANET – And then I had to pull it back in to, you know, the limited amount of space that I had to do it. But by training or in terms of my life, I’m more of a writer than a I’m a home cook, I’m not a food professional by any stretch of the imagination. And I always try to emphasize that because people will say, you know, I didn’t go to cooking school, and I certainly didn’t go to cooking school, it just has to do with what you pay attention to. And it’s all through the prism of really just being a home cook. I was raised by people who did a lot of cooking, but I didn’t go to professional cooking school.
JANA – Mm hmm. Janet, in the introduction to “Food for Solace,” that chapter… the introduction itself was really moving. You wrote about your sister’s illness, and your grief following her death. I wondered if you could reflect on this period a little bit when you were no longer traveling, and now you were receiving sustenance instead of providing it.
JANET – I’ve just read a wonderful book called, “How to Be Loved” by a woman named Eva Hagberg Fisher, and she talks about these various situations in her life where she had to learn how to receive. Being, you know, sort of an independent person, or being more inclined to offer help than to receive it. And it is as much of a skill set as offering it, especially if you’ve been in the mode of caregiving, where your life – and I’m sure you know – is just ruled by the needs of this person that you’re taking care of. And then there’s the inconvenient fact of your actual life, your own family and your own work obligations and things like that, and trying to shoehorn all that in. There’s a limited number of hours in a day, and then if it just happens to be in a case where somebody dies, then there’s this flood. You know, you come into this period of time where your time is just not as full as it has been.
JANET – And grief itself is just exhausting. And I’ve always been amazed every time by how physical an experience it is. It’s not just an intellectual exercise – you know, something that happens in your mind. It’s a very physical feeling. And we had been really well cared for – I don’t mean in any way to minimize that – through her illness, and the amount of traveling that I’d had to do. Friends were showing up for my family at home, all throughout that process, but then to be home and just, to be basically unemployed. You know, when you’ve been taking care of someone it sort of feels like you’re out of a job, in a way. And then you’re alone with these very intense feelings, just learning how to admit that you needed the dinner. Or, having it provided for you and receiving it are two related but not identical things, you know.
JANET – Someone can show up for you with dinner, but if you – I just learned this phrase – if you receive it in worthiness, you know, if you receive it intentionally, it’s a whole different experience. It’s not just, Oh, yeah, I’m too busy to get dinner tonight but thank goodness there’s a lasagna, but – Oh, I exist in community, and I can’t provide for myself right now, and here are these people who can provide for me. It really informs the way I look out for other people now, having received it. You know, I think I showed up for people in grief in a completely different way before having those very personal losses than I do now.
JANA – What’s the difference?
JANET – It kind of carries over across – you know, this struck me reading the book – curiosity is really the nugget of all of these things. Somebody said to me when my sister was first diagnosed – she was an expert in the particular kind of cancer that my sister had, and she said, I’ll tell you everything I know, but remember that your sister is a statistic of one. She’s having her own experience of this illness, it will manifest in her in her own particular ways. And everything that’s in the books, and everything the doctors know, and everything you can look up online has limited relevance. It’s really what’s happening for her.
JANET – And you know, I’ve forgotten more than I can count of the things people told me, but that really struck me. And my sister was a very individual person. And I learned a lot about self-determination from her as she went through that process. But that idea of just paying attention to this particular person, despite what you’ve read and despite how you think this is going to affect them or you, just be curious about that. Like, what are they actually hungry for? What do they actually miss? You know, what is important to them?
JANET – And you can read from morning tonight about the stages of grief and all that kind of stuff. But if you show up to someone’s house and you just look, and see, you know, Oh, gosh, they don’t need another lasagna. Look at this kitchen! Like, let’s put this together in a way that makes sense. Or, some people need to be left alone and they mean it. And some people need to be left alone and they really don’t. And figuring all that stuff out, I think curiosity and trying to show up without too much ego, you know, be okay with them and not needing you in that moment. And don’t let that become: well, they don’t need me, so I’m not going to come back. Because I’ve learned it’s so cyclical, and it can spin very quickly. Today I may want to be left alone, but tomorrow, I might not. And if you can continue to just offer and learn from what’s rejected and what’s accepted and what they’re interested in, what you know about them, what seems appealing to them – I feel like that really informs more than, Oh, you know on day four, you bring tuna casserole.
JANA – Right. Where was your sister living? Because I know you did travel.
JANET – She was living in Westchester. I live in the Berkshires, so our houses are about two hours apart. But she went all over the world looking for care. She had a very particular belief system about the kind of care that she was open to. And that was a real struggle for our family, because a lot of people – and this is true, I mean, again, speaking of things that are universal – when you have a baby, any kind of life experience, you are going to encounter people who know exactly what you should be doing. And sort of like the woman said to me, it’s really only as relevant as it is relevant. If somebody tells you that, you know, lima beans are going to cure you, but you don’t want to eat lima beans, you know, you’re going to have to get in right relation to that. You’re either going to need to own your desire to not eat lima beans, or come around to lima beans. You know, everybody has their own set of tolerances and appetites and beliefs. And when that is forced into existence with a diagnosis, it looks different for everybody.
JANA – Mm hmm. And in terms of traveling out of the country to get care, would you, for instance, go with her?
JANET – Yes.
JANA – I’m trying to picture what that looks like.
JANET – She traveled to Mexico and to Germany. Once to Mexico, twice to Germany. And then she was always on the hunt for people domestically. So there was a small group of people that were taking care of her and we would do it in rotation. And we would each take a period of time. And that became my education in, well if I’m doing that, it’s a real round robin. You know, if I’ve been plucked out of my own life to show up here, my life is still going on, those lunch boxes still need to be packed, they still need dinner every night. So it really was – like I said, it was an education in community. Because I could only do that for my sister because somebody was offering care to my family at home. And that cycle is endless.
JANET – I used to work with new moms, and I met a lot of people that way but also just having children myself, and being in school communities – women who were just almost like religiously devoted to this idea of showing up for people who’ve had a baby, because they either had a very visceral memory of someone showing up for them when their baby was born – you’re so vulnerable and so hungry in every way at that point, both for the food and for some sense of community – or not being shown up for.
JANET – I did an event for the book in Seattle, and there was a woman sitting during the presentation just nodding and nodding, nodding. And she came up to me afterwards and she said, I’m a pastor’s wife, and we had moved to a new community because he had started with a new church. And when we had our first baby, nobody came. And she was sobbing, sobbing. And she said, And I vowed in that moment, like basically, nobody would have a baby within 40 miles and not get dinner. And her children were grown. But it was clearly just still such a painful memory for her. And I met so many women who are just absolutely devoted to bringing food to new families when a baby arrives. It’s another one of those veils that you pass through, especially with the first baby. You’ve gone from life without children to having this dependent creature. And it’s the kind of the first introduction to the other people around you who are raising children, and who will be your community.
JANA – You know, I’ve interviewed a lot of caregivers, and they have traveled to a sibling or parents, even an estranged parent, to care for them. But I don’t think I’ve really heard a lot from people whose care schedule was what sounds like somewhat unpredictable in terms of location, for you.
JANET – Yeah, it was – there were three or four occasions where she went abroad, and the rest of it was mostly where she lived. But she didn’t live where I live. So all of us were doing this kind of round robin rotation traveling,
JANA – Right. I mean, you had to gather passports. And so you were kind of a traveling caregiver, really.
JANET – Yeah. That was very interesting, because there’s a certain disorienting aspect of this chapter in the book about how you kind of reorient somebody who’s been traveling, because it’s disorienting. You’re out of your – both the time difference and the cultural and environmental differences. And then to be trying to maintain care for somebody under the circumstances was definitely challenging.
JANA – Around all that.
JANET – Yeah. And the other thing, I mean, the other thing which I think I touch on in the book is, caregiving is – as I’m sure you’ve found in your interviewing process and your own life experience – it can be very isolating experience. And then to be also, on top of that, in a foreign culture was… that was [a] powerful, formative experience.
JANA – Mm hmm. I like the idea that you raised – and maybe you can talk about this – the importance of eating with someone who is sick. Not just making food and dropping it off, but eating with someone.
JANET – Well, I – yeah, I think you know, the legions of books that I could find, like I said, we’re sort of dietary, nutritional informative about what kind of nutrition might be necessary. But there’s so much more in food than just the calories and the nutrients. And because caregiving is very demanding, both emotionally and on your schedule, there’s a checkbox kind of mentality that can happen where you’re like, I gotta get lunch up there. Okay, lunch is done, I’m going to go do the laundry. And what you’re missing there is that, not only have you and this person dropped out of regular life into the mode of illness, but that person has kind of dropped even further. Because, you know, you as a caregiver can code switch back and forth. You can go back to your regular life and sit down with your family. But that person may be can’t. And there’s this perfunctory quality, that feeding someone can begin to take on. And you miss that – you realize this person, that maybe it’s been a month since they came down to dinner.
JANA – Yeah…
JANET – Or, went out to lunch. Or, you know, if the person’s occupied eating their food, then you’re liberated to go and attend one of the other bazillion things that needs to get done. But eating and community is sort of a foundational part of existing in community. Passing the salt and talking about your day as you’re eating. And, Oh I like this and I don’t like this, and all that kind of exchange that happens, micro and macro around the table. So I do try to talk about little ways to just make it dining again, not just checking off the boxes: this meal is now done.
JANA – It gets to the idea for you that food should be a source of support, really, and not necessarily a chore or a medicine sort of thing.
JANET – Right. And there’s so many, very tempting roads you can go down that way that, you know, all these books about “this diet will cure this disease” [and] so forth. You’re encouraged, or restrictions are handed down from doctors about salt intake or fluid or protein or anything else that may be warranted by the lab work. And I think – modern medicine is a whole other podcast – but modern medicine is probably overlooking a lot of ways in which food could be a source of healing.
JANET – But even in a positive way, if you’re looking at it that way, it’s helpful to remember that there’s more than just the amount of vitamin C in this serving of fruit. There’s, you know, how it smells, and it could look pretty in a bowl, even if you’re harried and running around, and you as the caregiver and the person that’s offering it, gain something by standing there and admiring the nectarine in your hand before you slice it. And the person you’re giving it to also receives more than just the vitamin C if it’s, you know, Oh, I sliced it, but I also fanned out in the bowl, or put it on a pretty napkin
JANA – Right. Well, I mean, I think you would be the first person to admit that your cookbook is not a medical book, but certainly it pays very close attention to the various ways in which food, ingredients can be tweaked to really support and restore one’s health if you’re caring for someone. It’s kind of sneaky that way. And I like it for that reason. I mean, I would love to do a whole podcast on food as medicine. But you’re right. I mean, it’s not just the ingredients and the dish, it’s the presentation, it’s the waiting and the looking and the handing it to and there are sort of processes, that’s kind of a clinical word even, but the care that you engage just in preparing the meal and handing it over and sitting with someone – these are all healing properties in a way. And your book does a really nice job of including, also, variations to accommodate health needs.
JANA – So I guess that is a good way for me to dovetail into this kind of existential question, which is, I know that your dad also had three cancers, and your other sister had two cancers, right? Your middle sister?
JANET – Mm hmm.
JANA – And then your oldest sister from had cancer. But I wondered if your experience of their cancers changed the way that you cook? It’s a bit of an existential question, but have at it.
JANET – Okay, I’ll try. Well, I think every one of those experiences changed me, and changed what I pay attention to. And that curiosity that I was talking about before, looking at the person and finding out what they’re hungry for, and reconciling that with what they’re allowed to have or can tolerate, always pushes me to figure something out. I talk in the book about, if somebody has 74 different things that they can’t tolerate that, you know, don’t try to make a dairy-free, wheatless, vegetarian, chicken pot pie. Make them something that actually draws on the things that they can have. But that question of appetite is – I mean, speaking of existential questions – like, that is really intriguing to me. Like, what we’re hungry for. And listening to that, culturally, I think we’re trained to kind of not listen to that anymore.
JANET – But listening to those appetites and yourself – and I definitely cue into that in a different way for myself, having watched and tried to satisfy those appetites in somebody who was going through something. Some of the teachers that I’ve had – that was what drew me to them, is that they had that curiosity and this weird intensity around trying to solve for: well, if this person has had a feverish illness, what would cool them? Or if you have one of those head colds where you just can’t ever feel hydrated, how do you counterbalance that? What can you offer them that will counterbalance that? And when I feel out of sorts with my body, the very quick way to kind of get back in accord is to listen to those kinds of things. What’s the identifying characteristic of how I feel right now? And then what would meet that? And caring for people when they’re going through something definitely honed that ability.
JANA – If you want to pay attention.
JANET – Yeah. [laughs]
JANA – Are your parents still living?
JANET – My dad is. My mom died in February, so we’re renewing–
JANA –oh, I’m so sorry.
JANET –our relationship with loss, and receiving support. Thank you. And my dad has Parkinson’s, so he has an ongoing experience of illness that has its own set of demands.
JANA – Yeah. I asked that question in part because I’m curious, but also because my mom is still alive – she’s 90 – and I’ve noticed as she’s gotten older that her appetite has changed. And there are certain things she enjoys now that she never used to really enjoy. And I find that fascinating. Like, she has a real sweet tooth now and she never used to really eat a lot of sweets. Have you found that, with, you know, with the older folks you know?
JANET – I do. I’m selfishly taking that to mean that my quest to enjoy a poached egg may not be over. Maybe when I get really old, I’ll love poached eggs. There’s still time. There’s still hope.
JANA – [laughs] Why is that so important to you?
JANET – I feel like I should have a better relationship with eggs. I feel like – I love them, and I feel like it’s a measure of your sort of tolerance of different foods that there’s nothing that you say out of hand, I don’t eat that.
JANA – Right. Right. It seems so dogmatic. Extreme.
JANET – So yeah, I think all of those things change. Just watching my children as they’ve grown; my oldest was an incredibly selective eater, you know, didn’t like more than a certain number of foods involved, and touching whole categories of things that she didn’t like. And she now orders the spicy eggplant. So I think there’s a lot of transitions that we go through. And speaking to your point, if you’re not dogmatic about it, if you just allow it to ebb and flow, it does tend to change. And I think those things are important. I think if you’re constantly arguing against what your body’s asking for, or ignoring what it’s asking for repeatedly, you’re missing this data stream, that could be really important.
JANA – Yeah. So what does your care package to the busy caregiver look like? Can you put one together on the spot?
JANET – Oh, boy. There’s so many nuances there, whether they’re nearby or far away, and if they’re taking care of somebody, you know, under their own roof or they’re having to go, like you said, take care of a far flung relative. But the care package for the caregiver definitely emphasizes a little bit of luxury and a little bit of self-care – like intense pleasure. Something I wouldn’t necessarily offer someone who is grieving, but somebody who is harried and constantly pouring out, needs to fill the cup. And shorthand for that is something really luscious or just really satisfying. So if I happen to know them, that’s easy. ‘Cuz if you know the person loves chocolate, it’s all or bust. Or, if you happen to know what actually makes their eyes perk up you can just do that. But I try to give them something that feels a little bit naughty, a little bit, like, too pleasurable.
JANA – Uh huh. I love that.
JANET – Because you kind of overcorrect, when you’ve been pouring it out.
JANA – And probably something nutritious, I’m guessing, with you.
JANET – Oh, absolutely. Yeah. My mother was a big believer in the nutritional power of chocolate.
JANA – Uh huh. Well, what did you receive that you appreciated, that you remember – if anything. A random question.
JANET – I have such a vivid memory of – I have a friend who at the time lived in a lemon orchard, and I’m obsessive about lemons. I’ve been teased repeatedly that this really should have been called The Book of Lemons, because lemons are in everything in the book. And she would pick me a box of lemons with the leafs still on them, and just shove them in a Priority Mail box and send them to me.
JANA – That’s awesome.
JANET – Yeah, and it has very little to do with nutrition, but she was preventing scurvy, certainly. But even if people who have said to me, Well, I can’t do what you do because I don’t know how to cook, the only thing I know how to make is brownies. Or the only thing I know how to make is, you know it’s, insert whatever the one thing [they can make]. And I always say, Well then make that. Because even in the worst case scenario, if the person can’t eat what you’ve brought them, you have still conveyed to them that for the entire amount of time that it took you to think of it, get what you needed, put it together and get it to them, you were thinking about them. And that is really powerful. And it’s powerful, really I think, even if they don’t grok all those steps, there’s something about like, Oh, wow, look at that – chocolate cookies for me!
JANA – Yeah. It’s so kind.
JANET – Yeah, maybe they can’t eat them and they have to give them to the nurses, or they give them to their kid’s teacher, or whatever. But you’re still just paying it forward. But it almost doesn’t matter what you make, or what you show up with. It’s as much the act of showing up and everything that that carries, and everything that is implied.
JANA – So true. I should have asked you this earlier, but I’ll ask now, or ask you to reflect on it, which spoke to me because I’m Greek, of course. So this example of your Greek friend who made the Kollyva for your family, which is – for the many, many non-Greeks listening to this: it’s a mourning ritual that usually takes place about nine days after the death. And Greeks, we don’t say that they’ve die, we’ve say they’ve fallen asleep, to reinforce the belief in the eternal life through resurrection after death. And so, was that the first time that someone had made the Kollyva for you? Tell us what that was.
JANET – Well, not only that, despite the fact that my uncle was once in the Foreign Service in Greece and so I had traveled there and have family that has, you know, a lot of friends, and feel rooted there in a lot of ways, it was the first time I even heard of one. And my friend, who – speaking of my devotion to lemons… this woman is… she really understands the power of a lemon. Our bond is this mutual understanding of lemons. But she came back from a business trip, got off the plane and put that thing together. And as a Greek person, I’m sure you understand that that is a job of work, to put that together.
JANA – Yeah, it’s not hard to make. It’s just very time-consuming.
JANET – It’s very time-consuming. There’s a lot of steps. There’s no mix that you prepare and put it together. And it came, and it was festooned with flowers. It was in the winter, but she’d gone to the store and gotten orchid blossoms and the thing was so beautiful. And again, it conveyed that idea that, wow, this exhausted person had taken the time to put this thing together.
JANET – And I love those gestures across cultural lines too, both because they’re educational and also because this idea of food building community, kind of getting back to that idea of like watching rice pudding move around the world and transform in all these places – even the name from language to language, to my crude, non-linguistic ear, was like, wow, there’s a lot of similarity in the way these things appear. And so I just felt like, when somebody offers you something like that, that just comes from their family tradition? It’s so powerful and moving and comforting. And also, this thing was beautiful. And it was – the gesture was so meaningful.
JANA – Can you describe what it looked like? The other thing I wanted to ask you was, did they put the first and last initials of your sister’s name on the Kollyva? That’s optional, but…
JANET – I remember that she did. And it was this beautiful bowl, and filled with all different greens and seeds, and decorated with pomegranate arils and dried fruit and sweetness and honey and covered in powdered [sugar] – it was, it was startling, because it wasn’t part of my culture. So I wasn’t even looking at my watch going, oop, this is – cue the Kollyva! Because I didn’t know that such a thing existed. And so here this thing landed and it was so powerful.
JANET – Anything like that, that both ground you in – and it has, I’m sure you know better than I do – that it has this meaning of here are all these seeds that you take in, in the memory of your lost loved one, and then the idea of taking in the seeds and then your life carries on and then… it sustains you to keep going until you become Kollyva and it’s all that kind of cyclical nature.
JANA – Right, right.
JANET – All of that, I was just so receptive to all of that in that period of loss and mourning and thinking, you know, all those existential questions about what it all means and, you know, memory and legacy and all that. I was just so struck by it. It was really beautiful. But we had a memorial many months later and she made it again – a giant one. I always laugh because I think that Greek people don’t know how to cook for two people.
JANA – No. That’s impossible.
JANET – It’s always 20 people at a minimum.
JANA – Yeah.
JANET – So anytime you say, I need six pans of Spanakopita – she’s on it. You know, that’s her level of skill. So we had this giant memorial celebration, and she was able to make a giant one, which was much more comfortable for her than the tiny little one.
JANA – For sure. Yeah, there’s a reason that Greek cookbooks didn’t really start getting produced in earnest, probably until the late 20th century: because no one ever uses measuring cups.
JANET – No. And certainly not small ones.
JANA – [laughs] That’s right.
JANET – Definitely big ones. And I love the magpie quality of choosing foods from around the world and that kind of thing. I’m also that way with tradition, and in a way I could make it what I needed it to mean, because I don’t have all that history with it. And that we could pull that out and make it be part of the kind of hodgepodge offering that we were doing – I love that. I love that kind of sampler quality of, you know, the sort of rich embroidery of all these, pulling from all these places.
JANA – Mm hmm. Well, do you have any last thoughts? Is there anything that you’d like to talk about that we didn’t get to?
JANET – I think we touched on most of it. The message that I hope comes across from the book and from this conversation is just start somewhere. Start where you are and don’t be too limited. What I was hoping to offer people was not so much a group of recipes but this idea that no matter what, you can begin. You have what is needed and you should try to make it more comfortable to talk about these things, and the ways that we show up for each other and giving and receiving. I think that’s how we will knit everything back together.
JANA – What a great message. We’ve been speaking with Janet Elsbach… she’s the author of the book, “Extra Helping: Recipes for Caring, Connecting and Building Community One Dish at a Time.” For non-caregivers, the recipes in this book are totally doable and preparing any of them for an ill friend or a sibling who’s the main caregiver in your family, is a wonderful way to show them you care. For caregivers, when someone says, Is there anything I can do? Say, Actually, yes: pick up a copy of “Extra Helping” and prepare anything for me from the, “Food for Solace” chapter, or one of those care packages from chapter six, or really anything from the book. Anything works. In any case, we’ll have a link on the Agewyz website to Janet’s website, where you can check out some of her other recipes, buy her book and read her blog, which is called, “araisinandaporpoise.” That’s P-O-R-P-O-I-S-E, which is – very clever – which is the name of her website “araisinandaporpoise” – all one word. So Janet, thank you so much for being on the show. And thanks for this beautiful, beautiful book which I encourage everyone to buy.
JANET – Thank you so much. This was really a pleasure.