My mother died suddenly and unexpectedly last month. Although she was 87, her indomitable spirit and tireless energy made her seem eternal to me and to my friends. I hit the wall. The true north on my personal compass had failed. In the midst of the madness of mourning, though, I knew I would survive the buffeting of gelid waves of misery when I got hungry. A friend and I popped into a Chinese restaurant for a quick lunch. I’d almost finished my last nibble of steamed fish with ginger and scallion when tears sprang to my eyes as I saw a mother and daughter exit laughing companionably and I realized that I’d lost not only my mother, but my favorite dining partner.
My youth as an only child of older parents was punctuated with eating out: local ethnic spots and post-Sunday-service diner dinners marked my childhood. I became a young adult at the same time that Gotham was enjoying the beginning of its food renaissance: Birthday dinners for mom and me at the Four Seasons, fatherly talks at the pre-Trump Plaza, and family outings to La Fonda del Sol are tucked away in my memory bank. When my father died 15 years ago, I thought it had ended; my mom had never been all that interested. Yet she came into her own, as with many other things, in the 15 years and 13 days between their deaths. During my tenure as reviewer, she’s been my favorite companion—never canceling because of inclement weather or unpopular cuisine and always there with a ready fork to fill in at the last minute.
A trained dietitian, her background in food gave her a ferociously accurate palate, and she could taste a dish and sort out its seasonings and ingredients with the best of them. Even in her eighties, she maintained a spirit of gastronomic adventure and culinary curiosity and would try anything once. At one memorable dinner in Abidjan, she choked down the fish eye from the sauce claire, sparing me the embarrassment of pushing it around the serving bowl yet another time. Sushi, though, defeated her after a nibble, and okra remained a lifelong challenge.
Last Mother’s Day, we celebrated in New Orleans with a multicourse, multibottle meal at Galatoire’s, and I gleefully watched her struggle with her first hangover. She savored soul food even if no restaurant version could match her home cooking, but she wasn’t limited to down-home dining. She delighted in duck from Saul’s confit to Tse Yang’s Peking, and she adored getting dressed up for an elegant meal with starched cloths and gleaming cutlery.
Our last supper together was, fittingly, one of the grand $45-special lunches at La Grenouille the Saturday before Easter. She reveled in the cosseted elegance of the room, the lush floral arrangements, and the menu that combined classic and contemporary dishes. A confirmed Francophile, she was thrilled with the opportunity to use her near-perfect, always-at-the-ready French. The solicitous wait staff became our accomplices, clucking over my diminutive mommy like so many hens. The meal was glorious: a perfect combination of food and friendship. Little did I know as we sipped our postprandial champagne that our next restaurant meal was scheduled for eternity. I miss her terribly, but I know that she’s holding a table for me in heaven.