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How I Returned to the Kitchen After My Mother's Death

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There was a time when I didn’t separate foods into categories based on their potential to become emotional landmines. There were years when I didn't have to suss out whether Thanksgiving yams would make me cry, or a Mother’s Day frittata would touch on a grief-nerve too live to bear.

My mother was my portal into the world of the senses: She taught me to cook without recipes, to experiment freely with whatever ingredients were on hand, to look first to the earth, and second to the demands of hunger. But in 2008, when she died, the kitchen suddenly became a foreign space filled with hotspots of loss.

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Black Sesame-Crusted Tofu Bowl with Quick-Pickled Veggies & Cilantro Tahini
Black Sesame-Crusted Tofu Bowl with Quick-Pickled Veggies & Cilantro Tahini

In the months after her death, I felt infantile, my twenty-four-year-old self reduced to the lowest common denominator of adult capacity. There were days when I couldn’t bear to step into the kitchen at all, so weighty was the pall of her absence. Gradually, I steeled myself to eat simple foods that offered maximal comfort, foods I ate as an infant. One ingredient was particularly pacifying, a food that was also one of my first words: Fuff. (Or, in adult English: tofu.)

My parents were hippies at heart, lovers of nutritional yeast and bulk bins and blue-green algae. My mother plied me with millet and carob from the time I was a toddler. And tofu, tofu was our mainstay. Tofu baked with freshly grated ginger, toasted sesame oil, and soy sauce; tofu smeared with olive oil and coated with cornmeal and yeast and Spike seasoning blend; tofu sautéed in butter and Bragg's; tofu pan-fried with tamari and garlic and, yes, more yeast.

At fifteen, I bought my mom a fridge magnet with an illustration of a 1950s housewife standing gleefully over her stove, except this one said, “What couldn’t that woman do with tofu!” It was the apotheosis of her kitchen identity: She was a tofu whisperer, and my father and I praised her excellence at multiple meals each week.

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But the kitchen, I learned, was also a locus for vulnerability and intimacy—a space where my mother could be most herself. My father would often coerce her to dance with him on the bit of wood flooring in our open kitchen, the two of them in their inside-only Birkenstocks and their chunky camp socks. My dad’s soft, practical hands and my mom’s long fingers, their deep brown eyes laughing at each other, the two of them dancing. To Sinatra. Swaying to “Our Love is Here to Stay.”

Sometimes I felt embarrassed watching them in what seemed like such a private moment, their romance, their singing to each other, my dad in his hopeful croon promising his love to my mom, my mom utterly surrendered to everything they were together, all the ways their love had stayed. Had lasted. Even as the house around them crumbled. Even as her body crumbled. She knew how to cook tofu, and so would I.

This, then, was how I put myself back together again in the kitchen, summoning those moments when the wholeness of our family was so plain and joyful it didn’t hurt. Remembering her as she was before, relearning the tastes and textures and foods that she gave me. Now, when I make tofu, I feel her in me. Drain the water. Slice the curd. Marinate. Remember. Feel it all.


Photo by Lily Diamond

This black sesame-crusted tofu is a riff on the baked ginger tofu my mom made weekly. Here, it’s topped with another childhood staple: tahini, or sesame butter. We drizzled tahini everywhere, on sprouted bagels, rice cakes, fresh fruit, and steamed veggies (a.k.a. Hippie Cuisine 101). Which brings me to this luscious black sesame-crusted tofu bowl with cilantro-tahini sauce.

The perfect meal to make for a dinner party or a casual friend gathering, it comes together in about 40 minutes, it’s infinitely customizable, and it’s super delicious.

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Black Sesame-Crusted Tofu Bowl with Quick-Pickled Veggies & Cilantro Tahini

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Serves 4

For the quick-pickled veggies and the cilantro-tahini sauce:

  • 2 medium carrots, washed and tops trimmed, thinly julienned (about 3/4 cup)
  • 1/3 medium watermelon radish (or radish of choice), washed, trimmed, and thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon ume plum vinegar or 2 1 ⁄4 teaspoons sherry vinegar plus 3 ⁄4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1 tablespoon fresh mint leaves, minced
  • 1/4 cup tahini
  • 1 teaspoon ume plum vinegar, or 3 ⁄4 teaspoon sherry vinegar plus 1 ⁄4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon miso paste
  • 5 tablespoons water
  • 1 small garlic clove, crushed
  • 1 tablespoon loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves

For the rice, tofu, salad, and assembly:

  • 1 cup basmati rice
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 block (about 14 ounces) firm tofu
  • 4 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon ume plum vinegar or rice vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
  • 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons black or white sesame seeds
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • 3/4 cup thinly sliced cucumber
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh cilantro, plus cilantro leaves for garnish
  • 1 sheet toasted nori seaweed, cut into small pieces
  • 1/2 avocado, sliced
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Recipe from KALE & CARAMEL: Recipes for Body, Heart, and Table published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Photos copyright © 2017, Lily Diamond

What foods do you turn to to ease back into the kitchen? Tell us in the comments below.