The chili is killing me.
I had two 1lb packages of ground turkey in the fridge that were looking gray around the edges. I knew I had to cook them up today. I threw a little olive oil in a big skillet and warmed it. I sliced open the hermetically sealed packages, dumped their contents into the shimmering oil and began breaking up the ground meat with a metal spatula and pushing it around in the pan. Sliding open my spice drawer, I grabbed the cumin, cayenne, smoked paprika, chili, onion and garlic powders. I threw an eyeballed amount of each at the cooking meat and the air in the kitchen became fragrant with their aroma, and heavy, suddenly, with emotion. A little knot in my chest burst into a radiant fireball of sadness fueled by the smell of those toasting spices. This is a simple dish I made almost weekly for my daughter, Lily. It was something she liked having in the fridge as a quick protein rich and low carb “go-to” meal, when she was hungry NOW or running out the door with no time for a real dinner. I texted her.
Mom: Making chili. Thinking of you!
Lily: Awww! Mommy!! I miss you so much! Wish I could have some!
But she can’t. Because she is in New Orleans. A freshman at Tulane. She moved into school on August 22. I flew down to help with the move-in, as did her Dad—separate flights, separate hotel rooms, averted eyes. We were polite and focused on our daughter and her needs that day, avoiding any mention of the fact that we’d be officially divorced in a matter of weeks, or that August 22nd was our 21st Anniversary.
I was afraid to go home. The words “empty nest” were not just a description of what my house would be once I got back, they were a buzzing neon sign blinking on and off in my heart and making it burn. So, postponing the inevitable, I booked a flight from New Orleans to San Francisco and reserved a rental car to take me to Napa. A few days with my son, a few more days of mothering, might help ease me into the idea that I would no longer ever be a full-time Mom again. But this wasn’t just an “idea”, or a transition, or a gradual shift. One day, August 21, 2014 I was still a full-time mom. On the afternoon of August 22nd, I said a tearful goodbye to my brave-faced daughter, then an awkward goodbye to my soon-to-be-ex-husband, (after a surreal and superficial shared ride to the airport). As I walked toward my gate, a 26-year-long lovely, love-filled journey ended at an emotional cliff’s edge, and there was nothing to do but jump.
And if this frightening free-fall were not enough, the heavens delivered a heavy-handed metaphor at 3:30 AM on August 23rd, just three hours into my visit to Napa. As I sat on the couch with my son, Max and his girlfriend, Theresa sipping wine and talking (they’d just gotten home from work at The French Laundry and hour earlier), an earthquake hit Napa valley—a whopping 6.1 on the Richter scale and we were just a few miles from it’s epicenter.
The ground felt like pistons pulsing inside an engine about to explode. The sound was that of a freight train speeding by an inch from your eardrum. The house vibrated and whipped violently in one direction then snapped back just as violently in the other, as the quake travelled below us. All the kitchen cabinets burst open and their contents exploded into the air, crashing to the floor. A computer flew off the desk and shattered. The dog barked frantically. I was screaming like a fool on a rollercoaster who can’t wait for the hellish ride to end. My son shouted, “Oh my God” over and over as we all held on to that couch for dear life. The power went out and it stopped. We’d survived and made our way through broken glass to the street, and waited out the night sitting in the car, parked far from the leaning power lines and a burst water main. At dawn we went back into the house to clean up the mess and finally got some Xanax-induced sleep.
Really? Did I really need a earthquake to punctuate the fact that my life was shaken to the core—that the geodesic plates of my existence were indeed on the move! Solid ground had shifted beneath me over the past nine months. Marriage? Over. Husband? Gone. Sweet Ruby the Dog? Dead. Daughter? Off to college and 1000’s of miles away. Son? All grown up and on the other coast. My little Tot the Cat? Run over by a car LAST WEEK!! House? Empty. What happens next to a 58-year-old woman who spent the last 26 years taking care of others? A vast unknown.
And I was doing great, really! I’d done some planning. My cooking class and event schedule was busy into the holidays. I’d enrolled in college myself, determined to chip away at the Master’s Degree in Counseling, that I’d wanted to do in my 30s but postponed when I got pregnant with my son. I had homework, and papers to write for God’s sake! I had these new workshops I was doing with groups of seniors on food memories and healing from the past, that were exciting and showed me a glimpse at a future in which I could combine all my passions. I’d nurtured a network of supportive friends and family to hear my rants and have me to dinner. I went for long walks in beautiful surroundings. Life was going to be OK.
It’s just that today, that chili…the aroma…cut to the heart in a way that nothing had since I had returned from Napa. The wafting cumin and browning meat wasn’t just a smell. It was a key that unlocked raw emotion. It was a code that deciphered encrypted sorrow. It upended the strategic scaffolding holding up my resolute cheerful industriousness. I tossed in the can of crushed tomatoes and as it came to a simmer, I was crying before I could even name why. I sank into an overstuffed club chair I keep in the kitchen, and my old dog Phoebe jumped up beside me to slurp up my tears. The chili made me ache and long for my daughter in a way I hadn’t let myself since she’d left. It made me understand that no one, absolutely no one, was coming home for dinner tonight or tomorrow or the next day. I was a mom with no kids to mother and a cook with no one to cook for. My refrigerator was stuffed with food, but I had no appetite.
Boo Hoo, right? As my German, no-nonsense, Holocaust-surviving mother used to say, “So, you have to suffer. So what!” As a woman who had a fair share of suffering in her life, I don’t think she meant to be without compassion when she said that. She meant to banish her own demons, particularly the one called Self-Pity. And she meant, I think, to teach me and remind herself that pain was part and parcel of a life well-lived. No one was immune to their share of suffering, so it was best to not take it too personally and move through it as quickly as possible.
I think I’ll put that chili in the freezer and start planning my Thanksgiving menu. Lily will be home for that.
- yield: Makes about 2 quarts
Quick Turkey Chili
2 lbs ground dark meat turkey (or other ground meat or meat combo of choice)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 heaping tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste)
1 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 26-oz. can crushed or diced tomatoes
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Put a medium stock pot or large braiser/skillet on medium-high heat. Add the olive oil and warm it until it shimmers. Add the tomato paste and all the dried spices and stir around the pan until the tomato paste browns a bit and the spices become toasted and fragrant. Add the ground meat and begin immediately breaking it up into small pieces with a wooden spoon or metal spatula. Continue breaking the meat up and turning it over in the pan until it is fully cooked and lightly browned.
Add the contents of the can of tomatoes, liquid and all. Stir to combine well. Reduce heat to medium and allow the mixture to simmer for 30 minutes or so and thicken. Taste and season with salt and pepper, or add additional dried spices to taste. Remove from heat and cool before storing in sealed containers. Should be good for about 5 days….if it lasts that long.
Note: I do not pretend that this is authentic, cooked-for-hours chili. If you want that it would be easy to find a great recipe in a google-minute. This recipe is not on anyone’s culinary cutting-edge! It’s one of those down and dirty quick and easy things mom’s sometimes make. I love it because it’s virtually no carbs — a tasty, quick protein meal to make kids eat before homework or a practice so they can focus and have energy for the task at hand. However you could make it a more traditional chili by adding drained and rinsed canned beans, or using fresh chopped onions and garlic at the beginning, instead of the respective powders. You could melt cheese over the top when serving, (I frequently do) and use chips to scoop it into your mouth (I frequently do this too.) — RR