Soul Kitchen: Some Thoughts on Food and Cooking After Brain Injury

Su Meck, for BrainLine
Soul Kitchen: Some Thoughts on Food and Cooking After Brain Injury

In 1988, Su Meck was 22 and married with two children when a ceiling fan in her kitchen fell and struck her on the head, leaving her with a traumatic brain injury that erased all her memories of her life up to that point. Although her body healed rapidly, her memories never returned. Yet after just three weeks in the hospital, Su was released and once again charged with the care of two toddlers and a busy household.

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I don’t think I was ever a particularly great cook. When Jim and I first got married, I was given a variety of recipes, written down on 3x5 note cards. They included several of our personal favorite meals, salads, and desserts from both my mom and Jim’s mom. And I think I did a pretty good job of keeping Jim and myself adequately fed for our first couple of years of marriage. Fortunately for me, Jim is not a terribly picky eater and will eat pretty much anything that is set before him. The trick with Jim is always having food prepared and available. If he ever misses a meal, or has to wait too long to eat, watch out!

I don’t remember this, but after my brain injury, when I was still in the hospital, one of the things I was taught how to do was to make tuna fish salad. I am sure tuna fish salad was used as a “training food” for food preparation and kitchen safety purposes in rehab because there are a lot of different steps in preparing tuna fish, as well as a lot of learning how to use various kitchen tools. I was taught — over the course of several days — everything from operating a can opener (to open the can of tuna fish), to properly and safely using a knife and cutting board (to cut up celery, carrots, hard-boiled eggs, and apples), to using a measuring cup (to measure the proper amount of mayonnaise), to stirring all the ingredients together with a spoon in a big bowl, and then to finally manipulating another not-sharp knife in order to spread the tuna fish on bread. I was taught how to properly wash and peel fruits and vegetables, and even how to boil an egg in a pot of water on the stove.

Armed with this vast expanse of knowledge, I was sent home with the expectation that I would be able to feed my family and myself.

And that is exactly what I did. I fed my family tuna fish. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. Did anyone complain? I don’t know. Did Jim give the boys other stuff to eat? Did he make himself other stuff to eat? Again, I don’t know. Did I attempt to cook or prepare anything else? I seriously doubt it. I had been told that “tuna fish equals a meal, and a meal is what you eat.”

Mom and my younger brother, Mark, came to Fort Worth at one point later that summer, I guess, to see how I was getting along. I don’t know if Jim specifically asked them to come up, or if Mom just decided to come and look in on us. She says one of the first things she noticed when she walked into the house was that all the kitchen cabinets and drawers were open. And when she asked me why, I said very matter-of-factly, “So I know what's inside.” Mom says now that my response should have troubled her more than it did. But because she, more than anyone, except maybe Jim, wanted everything to just be “fine” with me, she probably tended to overlook the strange things I said, and the bizarre ways I acted, again probably just as Jim did.

Jim thinks it may have been that particular visit initially, along with other visits, that prompted us to go to my parent’s house in Houston that summer where Mom took a fair amount of time teaching me the basics about cooking, baking, and preparing meals. Who knows if she was even aware that she was educating me? And who knows if I was even aware that I was being educated? But regardless of how or why, my cooking and baking skills began to expand. I’m sure that it was a slow process at first, just like everything else was. I certainly didn’t suddenly whip up complicated eight-course meals and elaborate desserts. In fact, I still don’t do that! First of all, I still couldn’t read, except for a few simple Dr. Seuss books. So recipes, especially those written in my mom’s handwriting, would have been impossible for me to follow. And I doubt I owned very many cookbooks. Plus, the terminology of cooking would not have been something that I would have known or understood. Words like, dice, chop, sauté, braise, simmer, brown, whip, pare, and endless others meant nothing to me. Secondly, I would not have known what a lot of ingredients even were. I struggled with words and objects as well as their meanings for a very long time, and so especially things like herbs and spices, different cuts of meat, even different fruits and vegetables, would have really confused me.

There was also the not insignificant safety factor with regards to cooking that should not be overlooked. When I try to think back to that time, I am utterly amazed that I never seriously injured the boys or myself anytime I walked into the kitchen. I was forgetful, and easily distracted. I did not have a lot of feeling in my left arm and hand or in my left foot. I was not patient and was easily frustrated. Just think for a minute or two how much damage I could have caused my boys or myself with a hot stove, a sharp knife, or a heavy pot of boiling water ...

I have continued to keep the cooking and baking in my kitchen fairly simple. And even though there has never been a great variety of cuisine served in my house, there was often variation within a certain dish from one preparation to the next, depending on whether or not I could read the cooking instructions. Often, if I wasn't able to read, I would be forced to improvise as I tried to remember ingredients, plus working out or guessing amounts of those ingredients. Several family recipes have been forever altered because of my improvisations. One such example is the “Potatoes with Nuts” recipe. First of all, I should mention that there are no actual nuts in this dish. The “nuts” refer instead to the crunchy fried onions that get sprinkled on top of this potato casserole. Mom says when we were little, my brothers, sisters, and I didn’t like onions and would never have eaten anything if we thought it had onions in it. Therefore, Mom just called the crunchies on top “nuts,” and this casserole has become a particular family favorite. On Thanksgiving one year, I was tasked to bring Potatoes with Nuts to the family gathering, which was held that year in Northern Virginia at Mark and Tiffany’s townhouse. I must have been having a tough week, and I ended up having to guess the amount of sour cream to add. I guessed wrong. Instead of two cups, I added six or maybe even eight cups to the potato mixture. Surprisingly, they turned out quite tasty. Yes, they were a bit more runny and gloppy than they usually were, but in a good way. Now Dad always asks Mom if she has remembered to add the extra sour cream — “like Su does” — to the Potatoes with Nuts.

Many times, however, the improvisational variations were, unfortunately, less than edible. I have mixed up spices, adding dry mustard instead of ginger to gingerbread dough. I have mistaken teaspoons of garlic with tablespoons. I have mistaken flour for powdered sugar, as well as the reverse. At least once I forgot to boil the potatoes that I made into potato salad that I took to a church potluck. I have forgotten that I have already added eggs to a cake mix, and then added more, just in case. I think we were living in Belair the time I threw corn on the cob into boiling water without shucking it first. I have obliviously left boiling pots of macaroni to cook for WAY too long, only later discovering burned mush on the stove. I have put frozen peas to cook in the microwave for 40 minutes instead of just four. I once made homemade applesauce in a Fresh Start laundry detergent bucket because I couldn’t find a big enough bowl. I have a few times started out, for some reason, doubling the first few ingredients of a particular recipe, and then randomly forgetting to double the rest of the ingredients. A few times I have thrown cherries into a fruit salad without pitting them first. Same with seeded grapes. It makes Mom crazy that I never sift flour. I have on multiple occasions grabbed something out of the oven without a hot pad or oven mitt. And I have cut myself badly enough a few times that I probably should have gone for stitches, but didn’t.

Being able to cook is not an ability I think anyone is born with. Some cooking skills take years of practice to perfect, but I wasn’t given years. I was assigned a hungry family right out of the blocks. There was no time for me to learn the proper techniques to do much of anything in the kitchen. I learned to cook “on the job” and, plenty of times, the results were not pretty. Sure, I have picked up how to prepare certain meals over the years, but it has not been an easy task. And I know I will never be great at it, a fact, which I am reminded of often. That said, I can make a mean tuna fish sandwich.

Written exclusively for BrainLine by Su Meck, author of I Forgot to Remember: A Memoir of Amnesia.

Posted on BrainLine March 24, 2014.

Comments (7)

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Thank you for this story. It reminds me of what I think my life was like right after two trucks slammed into me from behind when we were in stop and go traffic. I only lost 5 years of memories and the ability to spell in English and all of my French. I didn't bleed so I wasn't hospitalized or trained to make one dish, but I was tested constantly for my aptitude, but none of those tests were as difficult as feeding a family. I simply couldn't cook anymore. The family would wait until 11 pm for inedible meal and my husband would wonder what took me so long always blaming something else.
All of your drawers open! That image reminded me of my son asking me what I was doing when he would catch me standing, staring blankly at the kitchen as if lost in another galaxy. I would furiously open every drawer and cupboard, because I really didn't know what I was doing in that room of flush, white surfaces. I was completely lost.

Wow it's like this is about ME! Scary but at least I'm only messing it up for my Husband!
Thank you for sharing your story. I understand what you went through. It pretty much freaks me out that people didn't notice or take care of TBI patients in the "olden days". My sister is now, "older" and lived her whole life after the age of 16 creating her own compensatory strategies... I have only lived for 7 months and I've learned WAYYY more strategies because I go to classes and doctors appointments 5 days a week. YOU ARE BRAVE for sharing, Soul Kitchen. Thanks you for sharing your story.
I have to admit, this made me laugh out loud a whole lot! You are amazing. Your family sounds amazing too! It reminded me of the time my husband (after his TBI) was caught eating what he thought was chocolate pudding, but he made a sour face. It turned out he was eating congealed chicken gravy--looked a little like chocolate pudding, but Wow...his daughters never let him forget that. Kudos for you to keep trying. Great points here. I'm sending it to the OT Dept at my local college!
Thank you for sharing how a brain concussion can impact the process of cooking (due to changes in working memory, sequencing, sustained attention, etc). For me, in some ways, every routine meal means rereading written cooking instructions. Best wishes.
I can relate to this ... I don't really remember the first year after my brain injury (we probably still had money to eat out or my husband and kids found something to easy themselves), but the second year after, I know my husband came home from work everyday and put a Hungry Man TV dinner in the microwave for himself; and a rice & chicken frozen entrée in there for me. After a year of eating this way, he nearly died of potassium poisoning. I still have trouble reading, following a recipe even if I wrote it, or remembering what I'm doing or just did. I've broken dishes, ruined pots, melted utensils (that for some reason I left in the oven), caused fires, burned myself several times (and didn't even know it until the wound became infected), etc. With the help of my son and husband - we eat better now. :) *so sad she was quickly sent home like that without the knowledge and support needed.
Loved your account of being head chef w/a TBI! I couldn't do more than 3 steps into cooking something w/o a meltdown! You mentioned macaroni overcooked to moosh--done that! Stove left on, faucet left running, and where was I? I'd simply walked out and gone to bed! One night, my husband asked if the rice I'd prepared tasted "a little too salty." I heartily agreed and we laughed as he go up from the table immediately and scraped it into the wastebasket! He took over all the cooking--and it's only recently--2-1/2 years after my 3rd TBI--that I'm finally able to make one thing, while he still does the rest of the meal! ...I'm REALLY good at cleaning up the kitchen afterwards, so I guess that's SOMETHING!!!