By Suzanne Evans
A couple of friends and I were chatting one day, as we often do, about how our brains are going down the tube. We laugh, but it has an edge. It is a short step between joking about forgetfulness and feeling the hovering spectre of Alzheimer’s, a disease that has sucked the life force out of people we cherish.
Not one to wallow in fear for long, Heather demanded we muster a defensive line. On the list of protective life-style choices we know, including exercise, learning a new language, or playing a musical instrument, we thought the suggestions of eating well and socializing sounded like just the things to focus on. Surely these activities could be pulled together and shaped into a cooking club.
With the help of Heather #2’s genius sense of humor—yes, my culinary companions are both named Heather, making it extremely difficult for me to forget who’s in the club—we came up with a title for ourselves. Henceforth we would be the Anti-Alzheimer’s Silly Sisters Cooking Club. To clarify our professional image, Heather #1 bought us chef’s hats inscribed with our acronym, AASSCC. The Cs, she insists, are silent. We rarely remember to bring our hats to meetings, but we have them. Somewhere.
The plan was to meet each month, alternating houses, and cook dishes based on a theme. We all have small kitchens, so we decided to mostly cook in our own homes and then finish off at the host’s house. To increase the level of mental exercise, we agreed to only try new recipes. Then Heather #1 declared that it was not enough to just socialize with each other; we had to meet new people to further stimulate our brains.
So we lit upon the notion of the guinea pigs. Whoever was hosting would invite a couple of friends whom the other members didn’t know. Rather than cooking for their pleasure, we invite them, lovingly, as test subjects. It turns out sitting down to dinner with strangers is also a wonderful opportunity to open our minds to new ideas.
For the inaugural dinner of the AASSCC, Amanda and Tim, seasoned theatre folk and writers of children’s tales, were our guinea pigs. As expected, they brought a sense of play and openness to the table. The theme, as for many of our dinners, was based on a national cuisine. As soon as our guinea pigs arrived, we swaddled them in bright-coloured kimono-like robes from the local second-hand shop in preparation for a Japanese meal. They stepped into their roles with humor and grace, and, we discovered, some first-hand experience and a literary interest in Japan. Tim had worked there and had written a Japanese character into one of his novels. As well, his father had fought in the Far East during World War II. We learned a lot that evening from the difficulties of making sushi stick together to the challenges of understanding the culture and history of another nation.
Sometimes we branch out in our themes, like the time we had hippie food to celebrate Heather #2’s new hip. Great idea, but where do you go after tofu, granola, and those brownies? Answer: health food. All the vegetables and unprocessed foods that were good for the hippies are still good for us, whether you have flowers in your hair or not!
As our club matures we add to our traditions. Twice now we have invited all our guests from the previous year plus their partners for a blow-out feast. It is very satisfying to see all our guinea pigs dressed up in outrageous costumes and meeting each other for the first time. They are eager to bring contributions which we usually decline, but going forward we have decided to suggest that instead of bringing food, they make a small donation to the Alzheimer’s Society.
I grew up with a mother who, while fully capable of serving magnificent meals, sweated the process. Only when all was done and she had taken her seat at the head of the table, ready to make the toast, would her face soften into a smile. Then her pride at gathering friends and family around her culinary creations would shine forth. At all too young an age, her smile and the character that went with it disappeared under the cloak of dementia.
I have inherited some of her kitchen anxiety and who knows what else, but cooking for interest and education is both liberating and far less stressful than catering to guests at a regular dinner party. If a dish, or even a whole menu, doesn’t work, no worries. It was made for the challenge and the pleasure.
Only once has this been an issue. While celebrating an Argentinian theme, we produced an unusual number of meat dishes. That evening our three delightful guinea pigs seemed particularly thoughtful as we described the method and all the ingredients in each dish. Then, one by one each smiled and gently announced, “I’m a vegetarian.” After we uncurled ourselves from our fits of laughter, we found plenty to fill their bellies. We haven’t forgotten that night, a suitable mark of success for a club whose aim is to make memories and hold on to them.
Suzanne Evans has thought a lot about food and companionship, especially while writing her forthcoming book, The Taste of Longing, the story of a Canadian woman who wrote a cookbook while she was a starving prisoner of war in Singapore during World War Two.