My father is ninety-one-and-a-half years old, and still manages to get himself onto an Air France flight each November to spend three months of the winter with us in Paris.
He’s always had remarkably good health, and until a few years ago, used to thrill our daughter every year with his daily exercise routine: two or three backward somersaults performed in the middle of the living room rug — not the usual parlor game. We all loved it, he more than any of us, I expect.
Sometime after 85, he started having to cut back, dropping first one of those somersaults, then a second and finally the last one a couple of years ago, when a gradual loss of weight exposed more bone, and his backward roll began hurting his spine. But he kept up his long, daily walks, both at home– along the seawall near the house where I grew up near Long Island Sound — and in Paris — where he would regularly stroll along the central, tree-lined promenade near our apartment. He would start out near the Place de Clichy just below Montmartre, and walk east, past the metro stops at Place Blanche, Pigalle, Anvers, and only turn back at Barbes-Rochechouart, where the metro comes up from underground and rolls along on an elevated track.
Last year, his walks became less frequent and shorter, and this year, he was upset to find that he didn’t have the strength to make it much farther than a walk around the block. As the days passed, he found himself more and more exhausted, and after a month with us, could no longer try to blame it on jet lag. He finally let me call in the doctor in January, who quickly diagnosed anemia. Even after only a few days on an iron-rich tonic, he was feeling a bit more perky, and the last couple of days I walked with him back and forth to the metro stop at Pigalle.
He hadn’t had much appetite this winter either — unless I made some old family treat like fettucine, kneaded and rolled out by hand when I had the time, and made with my old hand-cranked pasta machine when I didn’t. One recent rainy, dank Saturday night in Paris, the night of the great snowstorm around Washington, DC — a day when we kept getting emailed photos from family and friends in the area, documenting the depth of the snow — I didn’t know what to make, but knew we all needed comfort food of a high order.
So I made a quick batch of polenta, the thick cornmeal mush that my father’s family lived on before emigrating from northern Italy very early in the 1900s. I made the polenta with a mixture of water, milk and leftover chicken broth, which gave it more flavor and protein, turned it out onto a round wooden board, and served it with leftover Bolognese sauce and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
I didn’t tell my father what I’d prepared, and simply surprised him when I walked into the dining room with a big full moon of yellow polenta and placed it right in front of him. I cut it into slices, spooned the sauce on top, and let everybody add their own cheese. He ate two big slices, hungrily, and then went back for a third. It cheered us all to see him eating, with his old strong appetite, and clearly enjoying his food. So I filled his stomach, in the old way that I’ve been missing, and he filled our hearts.
Nearly as good, there was even some polenta left over, to be sliced and sauteed in butter, for the next day’s breakfast. Can’t ask for more.