a curry for lea – by elissa altman

I don’t know if it’s possible to be sick with grief, but maybe that’s what this impalpable scourge is. Take one heaping dose of unparalleled sadness, blend it with a few tablespoons of ennui, and you’ll feel like dreck. Trust me. I can promise you that.

By Elissa Altman, 2012 James Beard Award winner and founder of PoorMansFeast.com

I’m sick.
My nose feels like it weighs 87 pounds.
My head is pounding.
My body is aching.
My eyes are burning.
I think I may have a fever.

I never get sick. I really don’t. I spent last winter working in a hermetically-sealed petri dish surrounded by a pile of fluish people, and I never had so much as a sniffle. All my colleagues were hacking and coughing, and I was fine. But I’m sick now, and nothing is making me feel better.

I don’t know if it’s possible to be sick with grief, but maybe that’s what this impalpable scourge is. Take one heaping dose of unparalleled sadness, blend it with a few tablespoons of ennui, and you’ll feel like dreck. Trust me. I can promise you that.

My cousin Harris Wulfson died a few weeks ago, suddenly, unexpectedly, violently, tragically. He was 34 years old, a brilliant polymath who could play every musical instrument he laid his hands on (including the Tabla, the Bodhran, the Balalaika, and the Cymbalon). He would quote Ayn Rand and Doctor Suess, Tom Waits and Frederich Nietzsche, Nixon and Hegels, and Myron Floren, often in the same sentence. Children loved him. Women loved him. Men loved him. Animals loved him.

I loved him.

He sang klezmer tunes in perfect Litvakian Yiddish, and bluegrass like Del McCoury. He played the mandolin like Bill Monroe and the violin like Stephane Grappelli. When our highly musical family would get together, we would all grab an instrument, and he’d lead us like we were the Jewish Cowsills. When he played fiddle with the band, King Wilkie, the boys all stayed in his tiny Brooklyn apartment, and he showed them the sights he thought appropriate for a pack of modern bluegrass musicians up from the south; I’m not sure, but I think it may have involved taking them for a schvitz at the Russian Baths, although that part could be apocryphal. After he performed with the all-woman klezmer band, The Isle of Klezbos, he was made an honorary Klezbian. His remarkable, infectious, unbridled joy was always acutely balanced with an undercurrent of deep introspection: when he spent a summer studying Yiddish in Krakow, he insisted on celebrating his birthday at Auschwitz, the ghosts of a million lost souls wafting around him, singing him Happy Birthday. A peculiar, slightly disturbing thing to do, perhaps, but to Harris, it was perfectly logical, and he was pretty clear that it seemed the right place to be at the time.

Last year, he came to hear me read one night, down in Manhattan’s East Village, and he was a million miles away. We went for dinner to a local Tibetan restaurant near St. Mark’s Place; I was worried that he was okay, and I told him so.

“Stop asking me that,” he said, annoyed. And then he proceeded to order the hottest, most incendiary vegetarian curry on the menu. I think he might have ordered Yak Butter Tea, too. But as his face turned red and his nose began to run, he said that the curry was making him feel better.

One of the last times I saw Harris, he said “I want to cook with you. I want you to teach me.”

“What do you like to eat?” I asked, staring at this man who, at times, was so gangly and thin that I often thought he’d gone days without eating much.

“Curry,” he said. “Vegetarian or vegan curry.”

He was very matter-of-fact about it. He liked making breakfast, but these days, he was swapping tofu for eggs. Meat was pretty much a thing of the past for him. He said that he also liked making dinner, but he was just not compelled to cook anything that had eyes and a thought process (even a tenuous one). He liked pondering the fact that you could pull something out of the ground, or off a tree, growing and alive two seconds before, and that it might just be the most delicious thing you’ve ever eaten. He liked the fact that it wasn’t, he said, “prefabricated.” It was real food. And it didn’t involve any pain, on anyone’s part. There was no moral or ethical decision behind it.


“But you’re not a vegetarian,” I said, remembering the burgers we had had together at Annie’s in Aspen, many years ago. I remembered buying him enormous jars of herring in cream sauce, which he would happily consume while sitting on my back deck, eating the fish straight from the container with a silver salad fork.

“There’s this woman I really like,” he said, cutting me off. “And she’s a vegetarian.”

“I see,” I said.

He went on: she lived in this great house in Brooklyn, filled with great people who were always coming and going, stopping and eating. She had a spectacular kitchen built of dark, warm wood; it opened out onto a thriving, ancient vegetable and fruit garden that had nourished scores of people, for years. It seemed, the way he described it, that it was a kind of sanctuary, where people showed up, and, as the late, great Laurie Colwin once said, you fed them and took care of them before sending them back out into the crazy, dangerous, unruly world.

“It sounds like a commune,” I said.

“Don’t kid yourself,” he responded, “it is. It’s the best place, filled with the best people.”

Most of Harris’s friends were vegetarians. But more important, Lea was a vegetarian, and he loved her. He wanted me to teach him how to make curry for her. Maybe with a little bit of spice.

“You know, it’s the greatest act of love there is for someone–cooking for them,” I said.

“I know that,” he responded softly. He smiled shyly, like a child, and stared at his feet.

I never did get to teach Harris how to make a simple curry, or to cook together with him in Lea’s kitchen–the center of his universe, the place where life was great, and kind, and safe. And, in my own moments of peace and reason, I wonder why he was so bent on learning how to make this particular dish. But then, I think back to a time a few years ago when I was sick–honestly sick, not just summer cold sick–with some uncategorizable illness involving a lot of physical, breathtaking, mind-numbing pain, the cause of which was, and still is, a mystery. The only thing that made me feel remotely good was curry. When my doctor, an Iranian woman, asked me if there was anything that made me feel better, I told her.

“Is it strange?” I asked.

“No,” she responded. “Curry almost always contains turmeric, which is an ancient, well-known cure for colicky babies– It is also known to calm, to soothe, to ease hurt; it is hugely comforting.”

Maybe that’s why Harris loved it so much, and maybe that’s why he wanted to learn to make it for this woman he adored. I’ll never know for sure. But when we returned home after the funeral was over, after we sat shiva, and after Lea and his friends and his sister and brother-in-law and parents and grandmother and cousins were left looking into this great, vast void created by his absence, it was all I was hungry for.

Even now, it’s all I can seem to eat.


A Curry for Lea
Serves 4

  • 2 medium yellow squash, cut into chunks
  • 1 medium zucchini, cut into chunks
  • 1 small head cauliflower, cut into florets
  • ¼ cup vegetable or canola oil
  • 12 fresh or dried curry leaves, torn into small pieces
  • 2 dried red chiles
  • 2 tablespoons fresh, minced ginger
  • 1 small onion, peeled and minced
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon prepared curry powder
  • 1 15-ounce can coconut milk
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1 block tofu, drained and cubed
  • chopped fresh cilantro, to taste
  1. Place a large pot of water over high heat and bring to a boil. Set a steamer over the pot, and lightly steam the squash, zucchini and cauliflower until just soft. Remove from heat and set aside.
  2. In a straight-sided, large skillet, heat the oil over a medium high flame until it begins to shimmer. Add the curry leaves (carefully; they will pop and crackle) and the chiles. Stir well.
  3. Lower the flame to medium, add the ginger, onions, and garlic, and cook until soft, about 8 minutes. Add the coriander and turmeric, and stir to combine well. Add the tomatoes, curry powder, coconut milk, and water, and bring back up to a burbling simmer. Stir well, lower the heat, and cover for 8-10 minutes until the flavors begin to meld.
  4. Add the tofu cubes and the steamed vegetables, and continue to cook, stirring well, for another 5 minutes.

Serve over rice or quinoa, topped with a handful of fresh cilantro.

Originally for the Huffington Post

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