Myrna stands in the kitchen and carefully pours me a glass of Pellegrino with her only working arm. I offer to help, but she turns me down.
“No, thank you, Alison. I’m slow, but I’ve got it.”
She has a beauty and grace that make me feel still and calm. She is powerful without indicating her struggle. She is present in a way I’ve never found anyone to be.
“Can I ask about the cancer?” I say, unintentionally whispering the word cancer because I don’t want to wake it. I don’t want to call it forward. It’s done enough.
I wear my fears on my sleeve.
Myrna ignores my anxious tone and tells me the cancer started in her breast a long time ago. She’s been in treatment for over 17 years. I start to feel unsteady on the wooden kitchen stool where I am perched. She continues to describe… cancer in breasts, lungs, brain. It has moved and grown over the years, the chemos have changed, and the treatment regimen has impactful consequences including heart arrhythmias. I wasn’t expecting words like this when I asked about her illness, and I’m not sure I hear them correctly, but I don’t want to ask her to repeat them. I’m so foolish and overwhelmed. I want to react appropriately, but I don’t know how. I want to hold her and tell her it will be ok, though she is clearly more aware of her ok-ness than I could ever dream of being. I want to say something deep and meaningful, but I see how narcissistic that is and I stop trying to arrange impactful words in my head. I try to imagine being brave for such a long battle, but I can’t process the nouns let alone their impacts. Here she is in front of me, standing gracefully in her kitchen with the sun streaming through the windows, pouring me a glass of fizzy water, seeming no more worn down than I do after a long day.
She is intrepid. She is beautiful.
I am annoyed with myself for being both frail and healthy.
I met Myrna through my parents, who own a house in Italy and have a brood of expat friends who live abroad full or part time. Myrna and her German husband Dieter own a house in Silvignano, not far from my parent’s home and they live in Portland when they are not in Italy. The first time I met Myrna and Dieter was when my folks visited Francis and me shortly after my move to Portland in March of 2016. We had lunch in their apartment on the Northwest side of town. I remember it well because Myrna, a well-versed cook, prepared a beautiful meal with fresh farmer’s market produce and a gorgeous piece of fish. I brought them an olive bread and a lemon thyme tart. I knew that she had some form of cancer and I wanted to share a nourishing treat or two. I guess I was expecting to meet someone beaten down by illness, even though I had heard my parents and their friends sing her heroic praises for years.
“One of a kind, that’s Myrna,” people would say. “Indomitable, dauntless, and spirited. She’s not like anyone I’ve ever known.”
In fact, during that week when my parents were visiting Francis and me for the first time in our newlywed lives, they seemed to want to spend more time with Myrna and Dieter than with us!
“Oh, you and Francis are tired of us,” they said. “I think we’ll cancel lunch and dinner tomorrow and see you the day after.” My mom played the whole thing off like she was doing us a favor. Sometimes heroism is magnetic. I understand the pull now that I’ve gotten to know Myrna and Dieter.
In May of this year, Myrna and Dieter had booked their Spring holiday to Italy when Myrna had a bad reaction to her most recent treatment. The doctors advised against travel. I think this news hit them especially hard after this year’s never-ending winter in Portland. Knowing that Myrna and Dieter were heartbroken not to experience the gorgeous Italian Spring, my dad had the idea to gift them a delivery of some home cooked delicacies made by his private chef daughter.
Myrna and I scheduled the delivery time and the menu. They would be having a paprika, fresh oregano, and garlic rubbed spatchcocked chicken with a spicy lime aioli; a farro salad with garbanzo beans, leeks, and Meyer lemons; haricot verts with citrus miso dressing; an arugula salad with fresh herbs and tomatoes; a boule of rosemary bread; and a carrot cake with lemon cream cheese frosting.
I was out of shape as a private chef after a 6-month long dry spell for my catering/ private chef company, and I was terrified I would screw the whole thing up. But once I was in action, it all came back to me. The weight of the knife in my hand, the smells of garlic and leeks sweating on the stove, the rosemary dough rising in a warm corner of my kitchen, the taste of frosting on my fingers. Private cheffing is much more intimate than catering because the food for private clients is most often reheated by them alone in their homes after a long day. It’s less fancy than a multi-coursed catered event where clients want to dazzle their guests with their impressive staff and food vocabulary. For me, the thrill of being a private chef is bringing people food that tastes fantastically fresh and intensely comforting. I want clients to sit down to my creations and think “I made it through my day and deserve this reward.”
I had planned on delivering Myrna and Dieter’s food around 3:00 that day. As I was packing up to go, Myrna sent me an email asking if they could push the delivery time back a few hours. She explained she was at the hospital because the day before, when she took her stress test on the treadmill, the fucking hospital had forgotten to attach the safety device that stops the machine if the patient wavers at all. She took a misstep and fell off the treadmill, breaking her nose, her cheek and shattering her shoulder.
When I arrived at their home later that day, Myrna’s face was black and blue. Her nose was bandaged, and her arm was in a sling. But you know what? She was absolutely stunning regardless. I explained what I had cooked for them as I unpacked the Tupperware containers. She grinned and nodded as best she could. I couldn’t stop smiling even though I was looking at a woman who had been to hell and back.
That night I told my parents about Myrna’s fall. The doctors didn’t know if she would ever have use of her arm again, leaving her unable to write or drive or cook. Stunned and heartsick, my parents decided to offer another two weeks of food.
My world came alive. This felt bigger than a regular job. I’m always happier when I’m in the kitchen and grateful to be providing food for anyone, but honestly, I’m not exactly up for sainthood. I feed the rich.
To be of service to someone in genuine need gave me a feeling of purpose I haven’t had in a long time. Also, Myrna and Dieter are world travelers. They have adventurous taste. They aren’t afraid of spices or complex flavors or BUTTER. I felt reinvigorated with my own profession.
The news of Myrna and Dieter’s gourmet delivery service spread through the Italian countryside, and suddenly a check showed up in my mailbox from a friend of theirs who wanted to contribute. Then another, then another. Strangely, I think the treadmill fall motivated an immediate call for action that all the years of cancer treatment hadn’t. People had always wanted to help but didn’t know how. She had to be knocked into a lonely powerless position to feel how not alone she truly is.
I’ve been cooking for Myrna and Dieter for over two months now. Every week, I say to them, “Ok, one more week to go.” But the support just keeps showing up.
Throughout this post I’ve shared some photos of dishes I’ve delivered to Myrna and Dieter. They’ve liked many things, but Myrna keeps saying that the mushroom/ scallops were her favorite. So, without further ado, here is my version of Scallops Dynamite.
They are, indeed, dynamite as are the people you share them with.
Thank you, Myrna and Dieter, for being such an unexpected and impactful part of my life. I am forever grateful.
Scallops in Sesame Mushrooms with Dynamite Sauce
- 12 cremini mushrooms
- 1 teaspoon of sesame oil
- 12 u10 scallops
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 4 tablespoons mayonnaise, preferably Kewpie Mayonnaise, which is Japanese
- ½ teaspoon fresh lime juice
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- ¾ teaspoon chili sauce, such as Sambal Olek
- Chopped parsley for sprinkling
To make the mushrooms:
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
- Destem and clean the mushrooms. Toss them with the sesame oil and place them upside down on a baking sheet lined with tin foil. Season with salt and pepper.
- Bake the mushrooms for 10-15 minutes, making sure they don’t become shriveled.
Meanwhile, for the scallops:
- Dry the scallops well with a paper towel. Season them lightly with salt and pepper.
- Heat the butter and olive oil in an ovenproof pan until the foam from the butter sizzles away. Add the scallops to the pan and don’t touch them at all. Let them cook for 3 minutes and then turn them over and immediately pop the pan into the oven and cook for 2 more minutes. Remove from oven and let the scallops sit for 3 minutes.
To make the sauce:
- Mix the mayonnaise, fresh lemon juice, sugar, and chili sauce in a small bowl.
Place the mushrooms on the plate and fill with 3/4 teaspoon of sauce. Place the scallop into the mushroom divet and then drop a bit of sauce on top. Sprinkle with parsley and be really happy.
And if you’d like to see how I do it, take a look at this clip from KATU’s Afternoon Live (just click on the picture).