Cooking with Dana for the Last Time
Dianne Jacob fondly recalls a troubled cousin who had a culinary flair.
The day before Dana died, his therapist phoned to say I should come. I flew in from Oakland and settled on Dana’s couch in his Los Angeles apartment. Dana was watching a cooking show on his new giant television. He sat in a wheelchair, straining to breathe.
“I would have liked to become a chef,” he said quietly. He was 49 years old, obese, with no college degree, and too smart for the minimum wage jobs he had held. I nodded. I knew he was a good cook, but I’d hardly ever eaten his food. Mostly he made it in the middle of the night, and then left a mess in the sink.
I was there on the couch as Dana’s cousin, but by then he was more like a baby brother. All our parents had died. Dana, in the last stages of a cancer diagnosis, lived with two caregivers on a trust fund managed by a friend of the family. His dad had taken care of him for years, and now it was my turn. I wasn’t there because I felt I owed it to my uncle, even though he had loaned me money to buy a car and let me sleep on his couch while I attended journalism school. It was because I loved Dana.
I knew he was a good cook, but I’d hardly ever eaten his food. Mostly he made it in the middle of the night, and then left a mess in the sink.
Back when I lived with Dana’s family, he was still in high school, a chubby kid with a five o’clock shadow, a big chest and skinny legs. He played cello in the school orchestra and bagpipes in a marching band. Sometimes we hung out on the chaise lounges around the swimming pool after school, watching rats run in silhouette along the overhead wires. I only remember one deep conversation, where Dana said his girlfriend was mean.
My aunt, an Italian Catholic from New York, did most of the cooking. She liked meat. She cooked with a package of cigarettes tucked into her cleavage and a lit one dangling from her lips. She made dishes I had never eaten: baked pork chops on a bed of Stovetop stuffing or tripe spaghetti in tomato sauce. I watched her open a paper envelope of hamburger meat and pinch off bits to eat raw, eyes closed in a reverie.
One night Dana took over the kitchen. He poached a Cantonese chicken and served it with two kinds of dipping sauce: ginger scallion and black pepper. The family dog licked my bare toes under the table as I dug into the cleavered white chicken with my chopsticks. I dipped the pieces into the sauces and marveled at the deep flavors and the silky texture of the chicken. Dana, I realized with a start, had taught himself to cook restaurant-quality food.
I was there on the couch as Dana’s cousin, but by then he was more like a baby brother. All our parents had died. Dana, in the last stages of a cancer diagnosis, lived with two caregivers on a trust fund managed by a friend of the family.
I was not as ambitious. When I left home in my early 20s for Los Angeles, I made dishes I’d never eaten, torn from the newspaper: egg foo young, trout stuffed with shrimp, lasagna. I had mixed feelings about cooking the Iraqi-Jewish food my family ate anyway. It all seemed too time consuming and fattening. Everything was stuffed: Onions and tomatoes filled with spiced meat and rice. A sweet and sour beet stew with stuffed dumplings bouncing in the broth. Baked rolls and cookies stuffed with date paste and shredded coconut. Deep-fried foods, like turnovers stuffed with meat and onions, and crisp fritters with tangles of grated vegetables.
Cookbook author Claudia Roden nailed the work required when she said that Middle Eastern food is purposely intricate. “If you didn’t labor over a dish, people thought you didn’t love them,” she said in an interview. “A one-pot meal would be an insult.”
Dana understood this. He wanted to remember our family just as I did, but not by serving their food to others. Cooking it was a way to grieve and remember. He knew that if he didn’t make their dishes, the foods would not exist.
So Dana and I bonded over our shared love of eating and cooking. Later in his life he wrote me long, emotional emails about loneliness and wanting to live a normal life. His diagnosis as a young adult was “bipolar with psychotic tendencies.” He had tried to work but he struggled too much. He spent a lot of time in the closet of his bedroom, alone with his thoughts. The death of his father, when he was 38 and still living at home, was a particular blow.
One night Dana took over the kitchen. He poached a Cantonese chicken and served it with two kinds of dipping sauce: ginger scallion and black pepper…Dana, I realized with a start, had taught himself to cook restaurant-quality food.
“I miss dad so much,” he emailed. “The memory of him being here just the other day is almost gone. My doc said that after the shock of his death wears off a deeper sense of loss comes. Well it has come. Without my father I have almost no love in my life. Searching for love brings up a plethora of other problems. Looking at all of this I guess I am not doing so bad. Still I am taking too many naps during the day. Stress level is REALLY high.”
I’m sure Dana would have liked more friends. Instead, he was stuck with me, a cousin seven years older who didn’t have much in common with him except eating and loving his parents. But here I was, on his couch.
That last morning, he measured his oxygen saturation level. It read in the low 80s, which meant that not enough oxygen had reached his body. (A level of 95 is considered normal.) I called 911 and watched out the window as the paramedics loaded him into the ambulance a few floors below.
Was this it, I wondered? Or just another visit to the ER? He had been in and out so many times, with me in tow. Early on a doctor put him in hospice, but he didn’t die. Another doctor gave him a bone marrow transplant, hoping to extend his life.
When I left home in my early 20s for Los Angeles, I made dishes I’d never eaten, torn from the newspaper: egg foo young, trout stuffed with shrimp, lasagna. I had mixed feelings about cooking the Iraqi-Jewish food my family ate anyway.
Based on past emergency room experiences, I knew I would be in the hospital for hours. I needed food that was quick and sustaining. In his freezer, I found dozens of plastic containers of portioned meals. Dana must have instructed one of the caregivers to make a vat of our family’s food. It was an Iraqi-Jewish dish of braised chicken with peas over turmeric-tinted rice, meant to soak up the reddish sauce. I heated up one container for a fast lunch as the ambulance sped away.
The dish was spicier than I remembered, but Dana liked hot food. I shoveled in the chicken and peas, worried about getting to the hospital quickly. I couldn’t savor it or think about what this symbolized for us: our dead relatives, whom we grew up with and missed.
When I got to the hospital, Dana was nearly naked on an operating room table, glassy-eyed and quiet. Any irritation I felt about yet another hospital trip melted away. I covered him up with a sheet and talked quietly. Then, out of Dana’s earshot, I explained to the ER doctor that, due to a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order, the hospital was not to try to keep Dana alive.
“He only has a few hours left anyway,” said this stranger. They moved him into a room. I held Dana’s hand as I stood next to the hospital bed. He seemed too exhausted to talk. When I turned away to call my husband he passed, as if too polite to die before my eyes.
Dana and I bonded over our shared love of eating and cooking. Later in his life he wrote me long, emotional emails about loneliness and wanting to live a normal life. His diagnosis as a young adult was “bipolar with psychotic tendencies.”
Back in his apartment, I threw out the stained Pei Mei Chinese cookbooks he had cooked from, earmarked and torn. I threw out his pots and pans that were stained and dented from use. I packed up his two Moosewood cookbooks, simply because I found a Christmas card from me in one of them, and because he loved a lentil soup recipe in the other. He used to make a giant pot of the lentils when he dieted and eat it for every meal, for days.
Dana was extreme like that. I always thought he ate well, but once he had to rely on his caregivers, his diet must have suffered. His weight had blown up in the past few years and he probably weighed close to 300 pounds. To my surprise, his death certificate from the Los Angeles Department of Public Health said he suffered from malnutrition.
His last trip to see me came just a few months before he died. He drove up when he was getting too sick to stand at his Best Buy job. He took lots of Xanax then for anxiety, so that he could deal with his fellow employees. They were all younger men who didn’t want to befriend him. Dana was desperate to be liked and desperate for company. They probably smelled it on him.
In my kitchen that day, we looked through cookbooks, deciding which version of mahashah to make, an Iraqi-Jewish dish of vegetables stuffed with rice and ground beef. He stood at the counter chopping and cooking, but struggled to control his body and mind, and paused to catch his breath or sigh.
“I hope I can start to believe that people actually like me again,” he wrote me in an email before he drove up. “It has been a long time since I have felt that many people like me. Especially people I just met for the first time. I have been so afraid of everyone. A lot of this is because I was unreliable, because who knows when I could get out of bed? I have grown to hate myself. I don't know how much better I can do now but I have to accept myself.”
In my kitchen that day, we looked through cookbooks, deciding which version of mahashah to make, an Iraqi-Jewish dish of vegetables stuffed with rice and ground beef. He stood at the counter chopping and cooking, but struggled to control his body and mind, and paused to catch his breath or sigh. Even sitting at the dining room table took effort, despite the cocktail of pain drugs he self-administered.
We chose a cookbook recipe instead of one he learned from our aunt, which he left at home. I watched Dana blanch the tomatoes, cabbage and onions and prepare them for stuffing with casual confidence and precision. It gave me renewed respect for his skills. It was good to see him excel after so much doubt and struggle.
Dana would have been 60 this year. I have a file with his school photos and death certificate. On my bookshelf there’s a tiny photo of us in front of another cousin’s house, our arms around each other. There’s also shot of me and his dad, clowning around, trying on hats on Venice Beach. I hardly ever make our family’s dishes, still. There’s no one to cook with who wants to remember them. It was how Dana and I expressed how we cared.
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