Elinor has always been an enthusiastic eater: very slow, excruciatingly tidy. “She would eat a whole fish, using her knife and fork, and leave only a tiny pile of bones in the corner of her plate,” Edward told me. He’s been dining with her for sixty years, “so I know her eating habits.”
But now they’ve changed.
I’ve seen it. Last Friday I joined them for lunch in Katonah after our trip to Arthur Avenue in the morning. Edward prepared fried whiting on the bone and a green salad. Whiting has a very simply skeleton and it is easy to push the meat off the bone, but Elinor has forgotten how. I watched while she ate with her hands, the knife and fork clearly too complicated for her to handle. It’s not like she can’t physically use them—she has only a little arthritis—but it’s like she can’t mentally organize the steps involved in cutting her food. Nor can she eat and carry on a conversation if the food on her plate requires much maneuvering. So she is silent at the table, focused on moving food from plate to mouth, eating randomly like a child, her plate, once so organized, now a mess.
Food is the enduring metaphor in our family, and the chaotic state of her eating reflects the disruption of Elinor’s mind that none of us want to believe is permanent. This has distressed Edward very much, but as he has become accustomed to Elinor’s new reality, he has taken to precutting her food (a piece of lasagna, for example, is unmanageable without precutting) or making pasta dishes that are easy to spear with a fork, like pasta with caponata. The dish is not only delicious, but more importantly, because she can manage it, Ellie can engage a bit more in conversation.
For us, as we watch her slowly disappear, that’s as nourishing as food.
Pasta with Caponata
Edward makes caponata frequently throughout the summer with his garden eggplants. He’ll often add a sliced avocado or a can of tuna fish packed in oil when serving it as an entre, and with the leftover caponata, he makes this wonderful dish.
2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 lb eggplant, peeled and diced (about 2 cups)
1 celery rib (about 1/2 cup)
1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
1 small tomato, coarsely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
2 tablespoons capers in vinegar (see Note)
2 tablespoons wine vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon pine nuts
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
¾ lb farfalle or penne pasta
1 can tuna packed in oil, drained (optional)
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan
2 tablespoons julienned fresh basil leaves
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over a medium heat. Add the eggplant and cook over a medium high heat, for 15 minutes, until lightly browned, mixing often.
Remove the eggplant with a slotted spoon and add the onions and celery to the skillet. Lower the heat and sauté, stirring occasionally. When the celery is tender, about 10 minutes, add the tomatoes. Cover and continue to cook, mixing the vegetables together, for 10 minutes more. Add the eggplant.
Drain the capers and soak them in cold water for 15 minutes. Rinse and blot on a paper towel. In a small pan heat the vinegar and sugar together. As soon as the mixture boils, add the capers, pine nuts, salt and pepper to taste (it’s fine if you like more or less capers or pine nuts). Simmer for 1 minute, and then add to the eggplant mixture. Cook over a low heat for 5 minutes. Adjust the seasoning. Transfer to a large serving bowl. The dish is best served at room temperature, but it is fine cold as well. This is the caponata, which can be served on its own, or used in the pasta dish.
Bring a big pot of salted water to a boil and ad the pasta. Cook until al dente, drain, and pour over the caponata. Add the tuna if you want. Toss gently, and garnish with the Parmesan cheese and fresh basil.
Note: If you use capers in salt, soak the capers for about 10 minutes, then drain and rinse.