Anne Zimmerman lives in and writes from the Bay Area. She is working on a book about the food writer M.F.K. Fisher.

Convalescent food

Food that makes you feel better

January 15, 2009

I am a grown woman who has lived away from home for more than 10 years. But when I get sick, I long for my mother.

There is something special about the way a parent cares for you when you’re ill. My mother knows exactly the kind of food I like to eat when I’m sick: toast, rice with butter, plain noodles, tapioca pudding. Foods that are bland and easy on the stomach. A mug of tea on the side or a tall glass of juice or ginger ale, always delivered with a colored bendy straw.

The food and drink wasn’t special, but it always made me feel better. It was my mother’s way of letting me know that she was genuinely concerned, that she wanted me to get well soon.

Getting sick as an adult is terrible. Often, there’s no one to take care of you, and you’re forced to drag yourself out of bed and to the store to purchase Kleenex and cold medicine. The world seems dark, cold, and cheerless. Your best friend, roommate, or significant other is never as sympathetic and kind as Mom. The moments that I have been home alone, sick, are some of the loneliest of my adult life.

So not long ago, when I felt a cold coming on, I grew worried. I was still adjusting to a new life in a new city, and I simply didn’t feel like dealing with the ups and downs of the fatigue, crankiness, and sniffles caused by being ill. I took my vitamins, drank lots of tea, and hoped for the best.

There was one bright spot. About that time, I received a big box full of homemade cardamom rolls from my mother. The rolls were made with her new KitchenAid stand mixer, the shiny black one she got for Christmas this year. She used my grandmother’s recipe, the one shared with her by Mrs. Hedin, a Swedish woman who lived next door when my mother was growing up in Houston, Texas.

A cardamom roll.

I’d never had the rolls before. Although they were a family recipe, it had fallen out of favor in recent years, replaced by scones, sticky buns, or the breakfast treat of the moment.

When I was home for the holidays, my mother was surprised to discover that I love cardamom, especially the cardamom toast served at my favorite breakfast joint in Portland, Oregon. “I love it too!” she exclaimed, and told me about Mrs. Hedin and her rolls.

Mrs. Hedin had no children, but she let my mother come to her house and watch her cook, imparting Swedish baking secrets as they sifted and stirred.

My mother dug out the recipe for cardamom rolls written in my grandmother’s spindly hand. We vowed to make the rolls soon, before my visit was over. Sadly, we ran out of time. “Next time,” we said as she dropped me off at the airport. There’s always next time.

The small braided rolls I unpacked from the shipping box were beautiful. They were simple white bread rolls, bound into figure-eights by my mother’s hands, the inner layers laced with cinnamon, sugar, cardamom, and orange zest.

When warmed in the oven, they were divine. I liked them best with butter and jam, but then again, I like nearly everything best with butter and jam.

I don’t know if the special delivery of my mother’s cardamom rolls helped me ward off the cold that my body was battling. But I do know that when I finished my breakfast of warm cardamom rolls, coffee, and a piece of fruit, I felt so much better.

Related recipe: Mrs. Hedin’s Cardamom Rolls

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