Bread

The Best Use for Salted Butter Isn't a Cookie

A recipe for when you lose someone you love.

March 18, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland

It was a Friday, and I was procrastinating. I had been working long hours for a couple weeks, but I was finally working from home, so my to-do list was shorter than it had been in months.

I woke up naturally, took the dog for an extra-long walk, and cooked myself a leisurely breakfast. I even called a girlfriend and played catch-up, gabbing for long enough that I finally had to force myself to hang up, telling her: “I really need to do some work.”

Photo by Julia Gartland

I sat down at my computer, took a sip of my second cup of coffee, and started to type. I’d barely finished a sentence when my phone rang again.

The voice on the other end was an old friend, and I knew immediately something was wrong—his voice shook. It was a moment I’d never experienced up to this point in my life: I was receiving news that someone close to me had passed away unexpectedly.

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Top Comment:
“This isn't about flipping cookies and what the proper use of salted butter is. It's about how a recipe can bring a memory to life and honour loved ones. Please. If not for the everyday articles focused solely on the making of food, at least give proper headlines to the thoughtful pieces like this.”
— M
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I’d experienced loss, but never out of the blue like this, never without a source or illness I was aware of, never without having a chance to say some sort of goodbye.

Andrew was one of my oldest friends. We met when I was 14 at a summer theater camp and eventually ended up at the same high school in the same group of friends. We stayed close when I moved away for culinary school, because he became increasingly interested in the food world, specifically studying beer and wine in his spare time. We shared goals, and spoke a similar language, as we each delved further into all things gastronomic.

I’d send him my writing, and he’d give me notes and encouragement. I’d mail him discounted beverage books I found on sale in the campus bookstore. He ultimately became a successful sommelier in Chicago. He had that natural flair for hospitality—I’d once heard someone describe him as "everyone’s best friend"—because he was among many things, a fabulous listener.

As a diner, he’d make you feel like the most special guest in the restaurant. As a friend, he’d make you feel...important, and undeniably cared for. He was smart, and so funny. I always told people I felt lucky to know him. Inside, I felt even luckier to have known him for so long: to have watched his journey from gawky teenage theater nerd, to high schooler with a garage band, to college student with a burgeoning wine collection, to well-coiffed man behind an impressive wooden bar, expertly reciting the recent additions to his menu.

He had that natural flair for hospitality—I’d once heard someone describe him as "everyone’s best friend"—because he was among many things, a fabulous listener.

It’s been a few months since I received that phone call. The grieving process has been decidedly different than I expected. I feel like I’m asking lots of questions, as if getting tiny details relayed to me will give me some sort of bigger answers.

Sometimes, I find myself tracking time. The numerical day he passed brings a painful twinge each month, as I mentally add another tick to the amount of time he’s been gone. The weeks leading up to his February birthday felt particularly uneasy. Even when I’m not able to be with people on their special days, I’ve always felt like I should make something for them. I’ll make people’s favorites from across the country to celebrate them, in my mind, even from afar.

Photo by Julia Gartland

I still make birthday cakes each year for my grandma, who passed more than 6 years ago. It’s been sort of my own version of the offerings on the altar for those who celebrate the Day of the Dead. The thought is that, if I bake something with a person in mind, then maybe I can reach them in some way. I don’t know if it ever really works, but it always makes me feel a little better.

Photo by Julia Gartland

I ate lots of meals with Andrew—everything from tasting menus in Manhattan, to fried food at dives in Chicago, to 1:00 p.m. "breakfasts" on my kitchen floor.

During a stint when I was working in a bread bakery, he once asked me my favorite bread to make or to eat. I told him, “Whichever one is still warm—slathered with salted butter.”

The memory of the crooked side smile he cracked upon hearing my response was what ultimately inspired this loaf. Salted butter, eggs, milk, and a little sugar enrich this soft brioche loaf, which I bake until it’s deeply brown (the kind of deep color from baking he’d once told me “everyone but the French were afraid of”).

The thought is that, if I bake something with a person in mind, then maybe I can reach them in some way. I don’t know if it ever really works, but it always makes me feel a little better.

That was the recipe I baked for his birthday this year—the year he would have been 33. I ate the loaf warm, with plenty of butter, on my kitchen floor. I’m not sure if he got the message, but I like to think he was leaning on the still-warm oven door listening to me ramble about what a difference the salted butter makes...making me feel, among many things, undeniably cared for.

Have you ever cooked to honor a loved one? Share in the comments below.

23 Comments

karen March 20, 2019
Sorry for your loss. My husband lost both his sister and his brother in the last two weeks and comforted himself with toast, toast and more toast.
 
Author Comment
Erin M. March 27, 2019
Toast always soothes the soul. So sorry for your losses.
 
Bri L. March 19, 2019
I am sorry for your loss—it doesn’t help much now but there does come a time when all you remember is the love. The idea of celebrating those we love (whether still here or deceased or just far away) with a favorite food offering on their birthday, or anytime really, is lovely. Healing and memory and joy all in one. Thanks for reminding me to do more of that.
 
Lori J. March 19, 2019
So sweet! Just realizing how powerful this is in the healing process.
 
Author Comment
Erin M. March 27, 2019
Thank you so much for sharing this <3
 
macncheez March 19, 2019
so beautiful and that bread looks amazing, just made an account to comment that I ALWAYS read your stuff - actually one of the few bloggers/writers I still follow. thanks for sharing this!!
 
Author Comment
Erin M. March 27, 2019
Thanks so much for following along!!
 
Martha A. March 19, 2019
My father was a cook in the Army. An Indiana boy, he had barely gotten off the farm until he shipped out. He loved to bake bread, and though I doubt he experimented with bread flour, his favorite was French bread and he collected several styles of pans. After his death, I gave the pans to my friend, Leslie, because she loved to bake bread. When she died, suddenly, I re-inherited the pans and make French bread every Sunday as homage.
 
Lori J. March 19, 2019
Good for you! Congrats on re-inheriting your dad's pans! What a terrific way to honor him!!
 
MARTHA R. March 19, 2019
🍸. Certainly full circle, just as it will always be if we have the time. Therein lies the challenge. I highly recommend bread as a vehicle.
 
Author Comment
Erin M. March 27, 2019
Yes, I'm so glad the pans are back with you - what a wonderful weekly tribute <3
 
Lori J. March 18, 2019
My father passed away very suddenly and unexpectedly, just a few weeks ago. His favorite meal, a great steak(cooked only in butter, S&P, and a sprinkle of garlic powder) with a baked potato.
Once all my siblings and I were together in Dad's house, I raised his freezer of the tenderloins he'd just purchased and cooked his favorite meal for my brothers and sister. They were grateful, and realized why Dad preferred to have me cook that meal for him, rather than any of the many great restaurants in the area.
I felt completely blessed to have been able to do this for us in honor of our Dad, and look forward to doing it again for all four of us every year on his birthday! We desperately miss him, but this is by far the best way to honor him in the future. I'm in love with idea!!
Thanks for sharing, and sparking a new tradition for us to partake in!!
 
Author Comment
Erin M. March 27, 2019
Love this story! Thanks so much for sharing!
 
Stephanie B. March 18, 2019
I really love this idea. I lost a very close friend a year and a half ago. I guess it was expected? If you consider finding out your friend has a rare, severe form of cancer before the age of 30, and then she's gone within 3 months as an expected event? Anyway, I still haven't found a way to celebrate our friendship, or honor her, or confront her loss in a positive way. I think I'll give something like this a try. Thanks for the great idea, and I'm truly sorry you lost your friend.
 
Author Comment
Erin M. March 27, 2019
I'm so glad it speaks to you! I always find comfort in cooking, and even more so in eating - so sorry for your loss <3
 
Jill D. March 18, 2019
My mother has been gone 10 years and every year I celebrate her birthday with her favorite meal; a cheeseburger, french fries, and a chocolate malt. The flavor of the malt powder gets me every time. I cannot drink a malt without tears. She was fanatical with her love of chocolate malts (never ever ever a shake). She was wonderful.
 
Author Comment
Erin M. March 27, 2019
I love this so much. I may not be able to drink a malt without tears now, too! <3
 
Gloria G. March 18, 2019
Losing a friend unexpectedly is the worst. My sweet friend Ryan passed almost 6 years ago and he had the same ability to make everyone feel like he'd known and loved you forever. I bet wherever they are, Ryan and Andrew are hanging out. Cheers to them.
 
Author Comment
Erin M. March 27, 2019
Indeed - cheers! <3
 
M March 18, 2019
This is a beautiful piece. I love the idea of honouring loved ones by making something to indulge in yourself -- adding a sensory experience to your remembrance. I think I'm going to have a happy hour cocktail in honour of my grandfather today.

I *REALLY* wish F52 would honour it's content with proper headlines that suit the article. This isn't about flipping cookies and what the proper use of salted butter is. It's about how a recipe can bring a memory to life and honour loved ones. Please. If not for the everyday articles focused solely on the making of food, at least give proper headlines to the thoughtful pieces like this.
 
Author Comment
Erin M. March 27, 2019
Hope you enjoyed your homage cocktail - cheers to your grandfather! <3
 
JMcLelland March 18, 2019
That was a beautiful tribute to your friend.
 
Author Comment
Erin M. March 27, 2019
Thank you <3