The Living and the Dead

Recipe # 12 risotto with mushrooms and spinach

Luca had planned on making risotto for his good friend Jonathan who was coming from the East coast to stay with us for a few days. Actually, Jonathan is my friend from college, but since he is so much fun for Luca to hang out with I can no longer lay claim to him. The minute Jonathan walks in the door he belongs to Luca and only Luca. The minute he walks out the door, Luca wants to know when he is coming back.

Jim, Luca and I spent the day at the Dia De Los Muertos festival at Luca’s school. Jim’s father died in February, and Luca had honored him on the altar his class made for the festival. All day people wandered through the otherwise dull and smelly “cafetorium” quietly viewing the altars set up by the classrooms. It was a stunning sight. Tables were laden with hanging lights and candles, papel picado, paper marigolds, bread and fruit, dancing skeletons, sugar skulls and photos of loved ones who have passed. There were photos of grandparents, photos of dogs and cats, an occasional newborn baby and some too-young, recently deceased parents.



The photo of Luca and Grandpa that he put on the altar

One boy in Luca’s class lost his father one week before school started and on the table he placed a photo of the two of them as well as a New Yorker magazine, addressed to his father, because it was his favorite.

In one corner of the room of altars was a tree full of paper butterflies. People wrote the names of the dead on a butterfly and placed them on the branches.


It is impossible to walk through this room and not be moved both by the visual beauty and the significance of children coming together in this way to honor their ancestors. In Mexico where this tradition originated children grow up in a culture that, once a year at least, laughs at death while acknowledging its power to take from us those we love the most. Here in the USA, there is no such awareness of death and very little sense of our own ancestry.

The making of the altars took several days and during the process Luca said, “I am more sad about Grandpa now than when he died.” I was glad that Luca felt a renewed sadness about his grandfather. This is what these rituals are for, I thought, to remember and give rise to our grief and to give it a place free of the usual distractions. The past two years at the Dia De Los Muertos school festival, Luca has honored my brother Niles who died in 2007. Luca was five when he went to Niles’ memorial service, his first, and then he watched his mother grieve intensely and for months on end. My grief was like an unruly guest, one who makes normal life impossible and shows no sign of of ever leaving.


Luca and Niles in a photo on last year's altar

When Grandpa died, we were told to keep Luca at home, something that went against our instincts as parents. But because we had to respect the wishes of the rest of the family, and because we were assured there would be a service for Grandpa sometime in the future we went back East without Luca. One day in April after all talk of another memorial for Grandpa had died down, Luca drew this card.


He insisted on going to the beach to throw it in the water. So we walked to the beach and Luca threw the card in the waves. Then he built a little mound in the sand and knelt with his hand on it as though praying, although praying is something we don’t do in our household. Jim and I watched Luca carry out his solitary memorial service, a little dumbfounded, a little happy that he had found a way to memorialize his grandfather even though he had been shut out of any such communal experience.

We happen to have a gorgeous copper risotto pan and for this reason and others I always love making risotto. The suggested optional ingredients listed in the recipe for risotto in Fanny at Chez Panisse are mushrooms, wilted greens, fresh peas, ham and saffron threads for a golden risotto. I had figured on mushrooms and spinach and asked Luca if he liked those additions. He did. But first he made his usual announcement: “I don’t want to work with the onions!” (I was already chopping them.)

IMG_0654Then he said he had to count his money first. I have no idea why he had to count his money right then, but it seemed urgent so I waited. He got out his math notebook and his spending jar and now there was money all over the table.

After about ten minutes I implored him to take a break from the counting and start the rice. “For Jonathan,” I reminded him. He hotfooted it to the kitchen.

The onions went into the pan with the olive oil and butter, a bay leaf and some thyme which Luca read out pronouncing the “th.” He said we needed a sprig and I explained that we didn’t have fresh thyme and showed him the dried stuff which was a decent substitute. He nodded his assent. He stood over the pan on his stepstool stirring and saying “Mmmmmmm…” as he took in the aroma. Alice Waters is a huge fan of thyme and the divine smell of it cooking with oil and onions may be a major reason why. Luca looked at the cookbook and read the part about adding saffron, so I took down some saffron and let Luca smell it. He wasn’t too impressed but I added it anyway.


Luca had decided to double the recipe, so in went two cups of aborio rice and Luca stirred that around, but a bit lazily so I urged him to stir with more energy. He did and then the rice began to glisten.


“Now comes the fun part,” I said, and told him to ladle the chicken stock from the other pot on the stove and pour it onto the rice. Interestingly, this recipe does not call for ladling a bit at a time and then the constant stirring that other risotto recipes do. Instead, it says to cover the rice with the stock, cook the rice for 10 minutes and then pour in the rest of the stock and cook that all down. Much easier! So Luca, cautious as ever, ladled tiny spoonfuls of chicken stock into the rice until the rice was covered.


Then he asked if it was OK to go back to counting his money. What was it about the money all of a sudden? Did it have something to do with spending the day in the presence of the dead? I remembered that when Niles died one of the unexpected effects of grief on me was an intense desire for a steady and robust income stream (to this day unattained).

Luca went back to his money and when the rice had absorbed all the stock I let him know that it was time for more. He called out, “Just a second!” I said that the rice was going to burn if he didn’t add more stock, and he said, “Wait a minute!”
“The rice isn’t going to wait a minute,” I said with a surge of delight. It wasn’t me waiting at the door for him to put his shoes on. It was the rice! His beloved food! He was out of his chair in a second and up on his stool ladling in more stock. He gave it a stir and went back to counting by tens and fives.

When the rice was almost ready, in went the mushrooms and spinach and Luca stirred those around. “Spinach. Yum,” he said. Just then the doorbell rang and Luca ran to answer it.

“Hey buddy!” I heard Jonathan say and he and Luca hugged in the doorway. We all sat down to the risotto with grated parmesan and plenty of black pepper and a little salad and wine. The risotto was delicious.

What better way to honor the dead than to cook for those who are still living?

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