Valerie is not a cook. She doesn’t have the patience; she doesn’t have the diligence–mostly because she doesn’t have the interest. She also refuses to taste as she goes because she doesn’t like to ruin her appetite. Consequently, she often ruins mine. I hate to sound harsh, but my partner’s pesto is too salty, her marinara is too bitter and her broth is too bland. This morning, despite all my pleadings to stay away from the stove, Valerie goes into the kitchen to cook. Slowly, she melts a few nubs of Irish butter in a pan. She adds some Wondra flour to the butter and stirs the two together until the mixture looks fairly smooth. With a teaspoon, she adds some drippings from a roast turkey we had purchased from the grocery store, thins the roux with a little water and adds a sprinkle of Kosher salt. Then, with an intensity I have rarely witnessed, she picks apart a turkey breast, carefully separating the skin and the fat from the meat, and places the choicest parts on a clean, white, bone china dish. At last, she pours the warm gravy over the small mound of shredded meat. Although she has yet to taste her masterpiece, the chef does seem to be uncharacteristically focused. “What are you doing?” I say sleepily as I make some coffee. “Feeding Shana,” she replies.
Feeding our standard poodle has been the greatest challenge of our lives. Unlike every dog I have ever known, Shana has always been a fussy eater. She tolerated grass-fed hamburger, dismissed grilled chicken. Mashed sweet potatoes bored her. If the Scottish salmon was freshly poached, she would nibble on it, but she would never eat it cold and especially not if you mixed the fish with rice. She did, on the other hand appreciate certain rituals. She liked to go to the health food store for a little bacon and egg sandwich, especially if the orange yolk dripped on the toasted bread. And, during cocktail hour, she did relish a thin slice of pate on a crisp rosemary cracker. But as time has passed, Shana’s dainty appetite has decreased and she currently eats even less than a super model. A month ago, after our wood-fired workshop, Shana refused even a bite of her favorite treat: seared rib-eye steak. A myriad of exams, blood tests and ultra sounds later, we were informed of the reason that our 11-year-old purebred had lost 10 pounds and most of her appetite: cancer.
Despite all my culinary training, I have been unable to get Shana to eat. It’s hard not to get frustrated and depressed when my pet, who is constantly fighting nausea, rejects my offerings. I have tried so many different gourmet combinations and alterations to no avail. But Valerie will not give up. “I’m not ready to lose this dog,” she tells me with tears and determination. And so, my partner sits down cross legged on the floor, next to the dog who is curled up in her dog bed, and in a quiet, soothing voice, Valerie talks to Shana. “Now Shana, I have made this specially for you and it is so delicious, I know you will want to eat this turkey.” Shana turns her head away and Valerie takes a small bit of gravy soaked meat, opens Shana’s clenched teeth, and shoves the turkey down her throat. I expect the dog to get up and move away in disgust. But instead, she looks straight at Valerie. “You see, I told you, it’s delicious. Now you try some.” And then Shana does something miraculous. She smells the plate, takes a nibble of meat, then another. She laps up the gravy, while Valerie lavishly offers praise and affection. “You see,” Valerie says, stroking Shana’s long fluffy ears and smiling up at me. “It’s all in the presentation.”