It was a Friday, and I was procrastinating. I had been working long hours for a couple weeks, but I was finally working from home, so my to-do list was shorter than it had been in months.
I woke up naturally, took the dog for an extra-long walk, and cooked myself a leisurely breakfast. I even called a friend and played catch-up, gabbing for long enough that I finally had to force myself to hang up, telling her: "I really need to do some work."
I sat down at my computer, took a sip of my second cup of coffee, and started to type. I'd barely finished a sentence when my phone rang again. The voice on the other end was an old friend, and I knew immediately something was wrong — his voice shook. It was a moment I'd never experienced up to this point in my life: I was receiving news that someone close to me had passed away unexpectedly.
I'd experienced loss, but never out of the blue like this, never without a source or illness I was aware of, never without having a chance to say some sort of goodbye.
Andrew was one of my oldest friends. We met when I was 14 at a summer theater camp and eventually ended up at the same high school in the same group of friends. We stayed close when I moved away for culinary school, because he became increasingly interested in the food world, specifically studying beer and wine in his spare time. We shared goals, and spoke a similar language, as we each delved further into all things gastronomic.
I'd send him my writing, and he'd give me notes and encouragement. I'd mail him discounted beverage books I found on sale in the campus bookstore. He ultimately became a successful sommelier in Chicago. He had that natural flair for hospitality — I'd once heard someone describe him as "everyone's best friend" — because he was among many things, a fabulous listener.
As a diner, he'd make you feel like the most special guest in the restaurant. As a friend, he'd make you feel important, and undeniably cared for. He was smart, and so funny. I always told people I felt lucky to know him. Inside, I felt even luckier to have known him for so long: to have watched his journey from gawky teenage theater nerd, to high schooler with a garage band, to college student with a burgeoning wine collection, to well-coiffed man behind an impressive wooden bar, expertly reciting the recent additions to his menu.
It's been a few months since I received that phone call. The grieving process has been decidedly different than I expected. I feel like I'm asking lots of questions, as if getting tiny details relayed to me will give me some sort of bigger answers.
Sometimes, I find myself tracking time. The numerical day he passed brings a painful twinge each month, as I mentally add another tick to the amount of time he's been gone. The weeks leading up to his February birthday felt particularly uneasy. Even when I'm not able to be with people on their special days, I've always felt like I should make something for them. I'll make people's favorites from across the country to celebrate them, in my mind, even from afar.
I still make birthday cakes each year for my grandma, who passed more than six years ago. It's been sort of my own version of the offerings on the altar for those who celebrate the Day of the Dead. The thought is that, if I bake something with a person in mind, then maybe I can reach them in some way. I don't know if it ever really works, but it always makes me feel a little better.
I ate lots of meals with Andrew — everything from tasting menus in Manhattan to fried food at dives in Chicago to 1 p.m. "breakfasts" on my kitchen floor. During a stint when I was working in a bread bakery, he once asked me my favorite bread to make or to eat. I told him, "Whichever one is still warm — slathered with salted butter."
The memory of the crooked side smile he cracked upon hearing my response was what ultimately inspired a new recipe of mine. Salted butter, eggs, milk, and a little sugar enrich this soft brioche loaf, which I bake until it's deeply brown (the kind of deep color from baking he'd once told me "everyone but the French were afraid of").
That was the recipe I baked for his birthday this year — the year he would have been 33. I ate the loaf warm, with plenty of butter, on my kitchen floor. I'm not sure if he got the message, but I like to think he was leaning on the still-warm oven door listening to me ramble about what a difference the salted butter makes ... making me feel, among many things, undeniably cared for.