Saturday, May 15, 2010

Death, Birth and Beef Stew

In Memory of Emma C. Mayernik
May 28, 1925 - December 18, 2009

We stood by her bedside and watched her dying; slowly and seemingly painlessly thanks to medical technology and pharmaceutics. She is my husband’s mother, Emma Mayernik. She’d been complaining about stomach pains recently, but she ignored her daughter’s urging to go to the hospital, perhaps thinking it wasn’t anything severe, or more likely she was afraid. When she finally yielded and went in for tests, it turned out she had a bleeding ulcer, which then erupted and the trauma sent her heart into arrest. She had open-heart surgery, and was put on life support. The bleeding continued and couldn’t be stopped. Years ago she had a living will drawn up, and in it she was categorical: If in the event that she ever ended up in such a predicament, life support should be ceased. So just like that, within forty-eight hours, she was here and then gone. My husband and I had just gotten off a plane in O’Hare airport, and were about to make the journey to our apartment in South Bend, Indiana. We planned to spend a few days there before heading off to disparate parts of the country to share Christmas with our families. His father died in October, so he decided to spend the time with his mother, sister and nephews in Pennsylvania, and I would go to California to celebrate with my mom. We are gypsies, and separate holidays have become part of our tribal rite. But this year an untimely death changed all that, forcing us to realize that we actually don’t have as much control over our lives as our “vagabond” hearts would like us to believe. We were making our way to pick up a rental car when my husband’s sister called and urged us to come to Allentown immediately, or we might not have a chance to say goodbye.

And now we’re all in the process of dealing with her death, which at first entails mostly perfunctory tasks: making arrangements with the funeral parlor, the church, packing up her clothes, going over her will, etc. She wasn’t my mother, so I’m spared the anguish of that loss. Instead, I’m doing what I do best in crisis situations: making sure that everyone eats, and that they eat well. It’s freezing outside. I was born not far from this part of the state, and I’m reminded of the raw, frigid winters of my past. I was a February baby and I have a deep-seeded love of cold weather, but I’m suddenly feeling the need for warmth, and I’m inspired to prepare the following dish:

Brette’s Frigid Weather Beef Stew
Serves 6 (with leftovers)

3 lbs of chuck roast
2 small cleaned fennel bulbs
1 large yellow Spanish onion
1 head of garlic
3 carrots peeled
extra-virgin olive oil
two heaping tablespoons of tomato paste
orange peel
bay leaf
fresh thyme
three cups of strong beef stock
half bottle of hearty red wine (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache, etc.)
salt and pepper to taste

Cut the roast into two inch sized cubes (you can buy this cut of meat already cut into stew sized pieces, but it cost less, and it’s more gratifying, to cut it up yourself) and put aside. Cut the fennel bulb in half, and make medium-thin slices across the length. Cut the onion in half and cut off both the root and bloom ends. Slice it in the same manner as the fennel. Cut the carrots on the bias, so that you have long, beveled slices. Separate the garlic cloves and peel each leaving them whole. Heat a heavy, cast iron Dutch oven over medium high heat until hot, and add two tablespoons of the olive oil; sauté the beef in batches until it’s well browned (adding more oil if needed with each batch). Reserve the browned meat on a platter. Add more oil and sweat the aromatic vegetables (onion, fennel, carrots and garlic cloves). Add the tomato paste and stir until blended. Add the bay leaf, orange peel and the browned meat, and increase the heat to high. Add the wine, stock and salt and pepper to taste; cover until it reaches a boil and turn it down to a simmer. Cook for two hours. When the stew is finished, adjust salt and pepper and add fresh thyme leaves. Serve with roasted or mashed potatoes.

For a while we keep our spirits lifted with cheerful conversation, and in each others' eyes we find hope. An anonymous man in navy scrubs enters the room and informs us that we have to leave; he needs to perform some superfluous procedure, and our vigil is broken. Before we gather our coats, hats and scarves a tiny, bell-like piece of music can be heard chiming from the loudspeakers. It’s Shubert’s Lullaby, and its incongruous sweetness makes it all the more surreal that I’m bundling up in a room of an intensive care unit. “That piece of music is played throughout the hospital whenever a baby is born,” my sister-in-law informs me. Then we’re heading for the elevators, and I'm comforted by the image of myself at the stove preparing a hearty stew for her children, family and friends on a snowy December afternoon. Somewhere in this vast building people will soon gather together. They’ll encircle a man and a woman and they’ll smile, marveling at both the fragility and power of a swaddled newborn.

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