I’ve been spending a lot of time lately – for the last year, in fact – at the Eastlake home of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Luckily, I’m not the patient, but not so luckily, my mom is. My mother and sisters and I all marvel at what good care she’s receiving; if you have to have cancer, SCCA is one of the best places in the world to be treated. And I use the word “care” very intentionally, because it’s not just top-notch medicine happening here, though the doctors and nurses and nursing assistants are clearly highly skilled. It’s also the waiting area with the extraordinary view of Lake Union that makes you forget for a while why you’re there, and the volunteers who come around offering bottles of water and hand massages, and the cashier in the café who quite happily handed me a free latte when he made the wrong kind by mistake.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that we’re extraordinarily lucky to have access to this care. I know that not every facility has the resources to provide the kinds of things that SCCA does. I also know that I’m lucky to work for myself, and that my reasonably flexible schedule means that I can take my turn among the daughters spending time with Mom at SCCA. On the days I’m able to be with her, Mom and I fall into a bit of a routine: I’ll sit in the chair next to her and tap away on my laptop getting work done while she plugs in with an audio book on her iPod.
The nursing staff there is wonderful – chatty when you want to be and perfectly un-chatty when you don’t. When it’s the former we’ll fall into conversation about one thing or another, and on one occasion we got to talking with one of the staff about Ethiopian food and where to find the best in Seattle. (Meskel on East Cherry, in case you’re wondering.) But things got especially interesting when she said who we really should talk to was her friend, Miheret, who works with her at SCCA. Next thing I know Miheret has stopped by to say hello, and the conversation turns to the making of injera, that wonderfully spongy bread that accompanies Ethiopian food and serves as the utensil with which one picks said food. When they first came to the Pacific Northwest, she said, the only way to make injera was with self-rising flour and it was making her family sick as anything. It was the teff that she was missing – a tiny tiny grain that wasn’t available here until relatively recently when they began cultivating it in Idaho. (This last bit was of particular interest to Mom and me, with our family’s Idaho origins.)
So 14 years ago Miheret embarked on a mission to perfect the recipe for her own injera, one made with teff that would be healthy for her family to eat. She makes hers with brown and ivory teff, as well as the starter, water, fenugreek, and a little thyme, and not self-rising flour and barley, as with other injera. Magically, we happened into Miheret’s life just as she was putting the finishing touches on the recipe, and starting to share the fruits of her labor with friends and family. Ever so graciously, she offered to bring some to me, all I had to do was call her a couple of days in advance so she could prepare the injera for me and we could settle on a time to meet. I also came away that day with a small sticky note of ingredients and directions for making two dishes to go with the injera, one with cabbage, carrots, onion, and pepper, and one with lentils and more onion. When the day came early this week that I picked up the injera from Miheret she had also included a bit of the berbere spice mix, something I’d read about in my quest to find a lamb recipe to go along with my vegetables. Quite thoughtful of her, because when I’d looked at various recipes for the mix they all seemed dauntingly complicated for my weeknight meal.
But the thing of it is, the meal I assembled from Miheret’s injera and berbere spice mix, and a Sunday night of cooking with Aran, and a Wednesday afternoon of cooking with Mom, was less about the food and more about the connections that food represented. The fact that we were able to share this meal with family and friends was what I loved about the experience. I am grateful that Miheret and her colleagues at SCCA take such good care of my mother, care that has extended beyond the building and right into my kitchen. That connection continues, too, because when she handed me the injera Miheret also invited me into her kitchen to learn a bit more about cooking Ethiopian food. I can’t wait – and I’m already thinking about what food tradition I can share with her.