Almost every human characteristic has a yin and yang. Your spouse’s “stubbornness” at home is called “tenacity” at work. All the times I got into trouble in grade school for talking during class translates to my being a master at small talk. A so-called detriment in one setting is a tremendous asset in another.
And so it is with denial. People accuse each other of being in denial as though it were leprosy; and it’s true that in some cases, it’s a debilitating, paralyzing condition. But it’s also a coping mechanism. It allows us to take in huge, momentous heaps of information in small, digestible pieces. In this sense, denial is a blessing. It’s our brain’s way of turning the spigot down to low, so that we can really understand what’s happening, bit by bit. It’s like that one-handed catch on tippy toes in the endzone: you wouldn’t have believed it if you hadn’t seen it over and over in slow motion.
Denial, when it really counts, eludes me. It’s not in my DNA. And I miss it, dearly.
Let me give you an example.
In January 2006, my mom canceled a date with me and Aunt Denise because she was running a fever, which is a big deal for a transplant patient, because they take tons of medications to suppress their immune systems. The fever turned out to be a symptom of an infection that for a normal person would mean a round of antibiotics and a couple of days on the couch, but for mom, it meant a week-long trip to the hospital.
Long story short, her doctors did a routine CT scan of her kidneys during the hospital stay, just to make sure all was well. By the time the CT scan images were ready, she was home and over the infection. No big deal, right?
The next thing I remember is sitting with my parents in the hospital office of my mom’s nephrologist, to discuss the results of the CT scan. And if you know anything about nephrologists, or parents, you know that the kids of the patient don’t get called in unless something is up. I was wearing a navy skirt suit, with brown pumps, and hose, because A) my industry was the last to accept pantyhose-free business attire for women, and B) given A, my industry certainly hadn’t embraced taupe or beige as a coordinate with navy, at this point. My, how things have changed since then. But, as usual, I digress…
So, I’m sitting there, with Mom, Dad, and this kidney expert. And he did this move straight out of an episode of ER, dramatically shoving the films of Mom’s innards into a backlit display panel on the wall. I didn’t need to be a radiologist to see why they asked me to be there: the dark clouds inside mom’s left kidney said it all. (For the non-informed, fuzzy blobs are not at all what you want in a kidney. Or any other organ, really.)
The doctor started yakking about these blobs, and how, given her history of polycystic renal disease, they really should investigate. Via surgery. He was sooooo smooth. Such a good doctor. It was obvious that he’d really paid attention in Bedside Manner 101.
But I was the Girl Who Knew Too Much. I knew that the cysts from polycystic renal disease were prone to developing into tumors, and these blobs were almost surely cancer. I knew that they had been monitoring Mom with routine scans since her transplant, and that we wouldn’t be having this conversation if something hadn’t suddenly changed. And sudden changes are another sign of cancer.
I asked what the worst case scenario was. He said something vague, like “it’s hard to say,” but the look in his eyes told me all I needed to know.
My gut turned to mush. I pretended that my phone vibrated with a phone call, and muttered something about the office, and needing to take it. I closed the door gingerly, and then bolted for the restroom. I didn’t think I’d make it through my valiant fight with my stupid pantyhose, but I prevailed. And about two seconds later, I started seeing stars, and I realized, someone’s going to break in here an hour from now and find me on the floor with my pantyhose literally in a wad. Being a proper Southern woman, this simply would not do.
So, I fought back the little birdies that were tweeting around my head, and wrestled myself into a presentable state, whereupon I stumbled out of the restroom and collapsed at the nearby nurse’s station. By this point, my parents had finished the consultation and found me down the hall, in an exam room, on a gurney, hooked up to a blood pressure monitor. A white hospital blanket covered my navy suit, and my stupid clunky brown shoes stuck out like I was the Wicked Witch of the East under Dorothy’s house. Great.
That day, I fully accepted the high likelihood that my mother had cancer, in the span of about twenty minutes, and that things would never be the same. Sure, it’s nice to think “anything can happen” and “let’s wait and see”, but I don’t have that in me. I don’t exactly know how, but I knew. And instead of taking it in small incremental doses, I swallowed it whole, like a snake eating an ostrich egg. Which, by the way, the human psyche is not equipped for — hence the passing out. From this vantage point, denial looks like a luxurious psychological outpost somewhere near Tahiti. I was currently camping in Full Reality, near the South Pole.
Food is comforting and predictable. Food doesn’t hand out diagnoses, or prognoses, or any other form of bad news. Food is food. That is all.
The best comfort food demands my full attention, so as to completely distract me. All five senses are employed: it looks good, it sounds good, it smells good, it tastes good, it feels good. It IS good. And for the short while that I’m cooking it, and eating it, I’m good, too. It’s an ephemeral substitute for actual denial, and I’ll take it.
My favorite comfort food of all time requires almost a full hour of my attention at the stove, and it’s worth every single second. It’s warm, and toothsome, and bursting with umami. I could quite possibly eat it every day.
I first had barley “risotto” with roasted vegetables at Farrago, a great restaurant in mid-town Houston. In a rare move, I knew I had to try and replicate it. Amazingly, Joy of Cooking had a recipe for the risotto, and I figured out the rest on my own. I top mine with roasted or sauteed vegetables — any mixture will do, but a medley of bell peppers always seems to be involved — and generous sprinkle of canned french fried onions for crunch. You know, the kind that people use on green bean casserole… it may sound strange, but it totally works.
BARLEY AND MUSHROOM “RISOTTO”
4 to 6 tablespoons butter
1 1/3 cups finely chopped onion
8 oz shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and caps diced
1 cup pearl barley
2/3 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon mashed or finely minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt (omit if using Parmesan cheese)
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
6 cups chicken stock
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
Warm (but do not simmer) the chicken stock in a saucepan over low heat. Heat the butter in a large deep skillet until the foam subsides. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until tender but not brown (about 7 minutes). Stir in the mushrooms and cook until softened. Reduce the heat to medium-low; add the barley and stir until glazed with butter. Add the wine, garlic, salt (if not using Parmesan), and pepper and cook, stirring, until the liquid is absorbed.
Stir two cups of the chicken stock into the barley. Simmer slowly, stirring occasionally, until the stock is almost absorbed. Add the remaining stock 1/2 cup at a time, allowing each addition to be absorbed before adding the next and stirring often. The barley needs 45 to 60 minutes’ cooking to become tender. If you run low on stock while the barley is still very underdone, reduce the heat. If you do run out of stock, finish cooking with hot water.
This risotto can be made up to four days ahead. Let cool completely, then cover and refrigerate. Reheat in a skillet over low heat, adding a little water and stirring frequently.
Serves 4 as a main dish and 8 as a side dish.