I lost interest in cooking and eating after Jimmie died. It felt like the natural progression – he stopped eating, I stopped eating. Eating afterwards felt disloyal in a way as it’s such a confirmation of living. And grief has a weight of its own that I hadn’t remembered. It draws you down and convinces you that you need less to survive. Once you eventually get hungry, you realize that it’s also not as much fun to cook for one as it is for two, which is an added disincentive to cooking and eating.
So when Jimmie’s niece, Niki, asked if I could help her out by having her stay for two weeks with me, I quickly agreed. Not only is Niki an accomplished chef, but she is a creative and intelligent woman. I knew that she would be busy with her own outside work while she was “in residence,” but I also knew having her there would be a tonic. And it was.
When I say Niki is accomplished I mean she’s really accomplished. She studied at the Culinary Institute, worked for six and a half years with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in the Bay Area, being sent to the American Academy of Rome as one of the first visiting cooks as part of the Rome Sustainable Food Project. She has built a healthy resume as a personal chef for many distinguished clients. Through these clients as well as through her many residencies at Salmon Creek Farm, she manifests a passion for sustainable and healthful eating, and an appreciation for interesting artists and people in general. She’s got a healthy skepticism about the trappings of wealth and a facility to hold her own amidst her clients. I have no doubt that Niki is as interesting and talented as any of them, but with a quirky self-deprecating twist, and an insatiable curiosity about the world. She extrudes confidence in the kitchen as easily as she presses garlic, and watching her in my humble kitchen zone was a privilege during her two week residency.
I first met Niki when she was about six; she and her sister Gina came to New York with their Grandma Claire, Jimmie’s sister. Their visit coincided with the early days of our courtship; in fact, they arrived the morning after I’d spent the night at Jimmie’s Upper West Side apartment for the first time. I remember this with the clarity of smell-o-vision because I’d draped my jeans over the living room chair and one of Jimmie’s cats, Flicka, had sprayed them to make them hers; when I rose to get dressed in the morning to meet his nieces, the pants reeked. Chagrined, I’d borrowed a pair of Jimmie’s jeans, which were way too big for me, and my corroding memory loops a rope belt around my waist a la Ellie May Clampett to meet Jimmie’s sister Claire and Niki and Gina for the first time.
The weekend was wonderful, getting to know Claire and her two granddaughters, by the side of the boat pond in Central Park, and walking Jimmie’s scholarly German Shepherd, Jasper around the Upper West Side. I had no idea at the time how accomplished they would both become. Gina has become a landscape architect of great renown, and Niki a top flight chef.
This Niki demonstrated many times during her two week visit: the morning she offered to take over the scrambled eggs task I was just beginning, presenting me about ten minutes later with a beautiful french rolled omelet with fresh broccoli and onions. I think she had noticed my morning regime of Ninja smoothie, and however healthy it was, it clearly wasn’t holding me over. There was the Sunday night she prepared us swordfish and potatoes. And the fresh chicken soup, with home-made broth, an array of perfectly-cooked vegetables, with separate gluten-free quinoa pasta deftly added after microwaving the soup and a parsley pesto oil to put on top. Or one of the last nights she was there, cleaning up the fridge and making a delicious curry with chick peas, carrots, celery and tomatoes.
In between the cooking, we puzzled together over the woes of the world, the challenges of surviving a catastrophic loss, and how to make people value your work more. Our life seminars played out over the pieces of several puzzles over the two weeks. Here are some of the pictures from our favorite, Reader’s Paradise. As we worked the puzzles intricate bannisters, we fantasized about dropping into the library once it was assembled on the gold tablecloth.
We geeked out over the carpeted stairs, the array of different types of bannisters, the stacks of children’s books. We stayed up way too late, figuring it, and all the issues of the world, all out.
Niki’s visit was perfectly timed in my early weeks of grieving. She provided a dash of modeling independence and courage, a splash of silliness, a rasher of empathy, and daily affirming hugs which telegraphed that my emotional ups and downs were normal and welcome. We happily whiled away the two weeks leading up to both of our departures for the Christmas break. In the last day, we started on the 1500 piece Kodak hot air balloon puzzle which now sits on the dining room table, ready to take me into 2019 still puzzling about this new world I find myself in. Over the break, I demonstrated a bit of what I’d learned from Niki about chicken soup to my son and his family. Thank you, Niki!