“Elizabeth (Betty) Davis, 77, of West Newfield, passed suddenly of a heart attack on Saturday morning, May 30, 2015, while preparing deviled eggs for a family get-together.” So began an obituary published in this paper last spring.

Elizabeth "Betty" Davis (Contributed photo)

Elizabeth “Betty” Davis (Contributed photo)

I used to think that when my time comes, I’d like to go the way my grandmother did – age 91, in good health and good spirits until the end, surrounded by family.

Now I’m not so sure. I think I may prefer Betty’s exit. In the kitchen, at the stove, with a party looming. (And those eggs strike me as especially apt – ashes to ashes, dust to dust, egg to egg. Incidentally, Abby, a friend to whom I told this story, asked, “So did the family eat those eggs?” I hope so.)

I like to read obituaries. I like to read them for just this sort of everyday detail, and you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to notice how often – at least with women – such details embrace, snuggle up to, really, the realm of home cooking.

June Louise Paulsen, 89, of Westbrook “was a loving wife and mother. Her kitchen was full of the aromas of delectable foods. After the passing of Everett (her husband of nearly 61 years), June lived with her daughter, Beth, where she

June Paulsen, seen with daughter Beth and son David, made this cake in 1954 for her little girl’s first birthday.

June Paulsen, seen with daughter Beth and son David, made this cake in 1954 for her little girl’s first birthday.

continued to amaze her loved ones with chicken & gravy, turkey & dumpling soup, bread pudding, apple pie, and heritage foods such as stuffed cabbage head and abelskiver (Danish pancakes).”

A while back – does anyone else remember this? – the self-actualization trend of the minute was for perfectly healthy people to write their own obituaries. These weren’t intended to actually appear in the paper. The idea was you’d look at a summation of your life in stark black and white and realize you’d never actually taken that long-dreamed of trip to Budapest, nor read William Faulkner, drifted above Maine on a cloudless summer’s day in a hot air balloon, mastered perfect (or even imperfect) French. You were supposed to reflect on what you’d like to see in your obituary one (preferably faraway) day and make changes in your life accordingly.

But I’d be OK if on that day, my family recollects that my kitchen always smelled delectable and that up to the end I’d continued to amaze them with my marzipan cake, blueberry pancakes, butter-braised caraway cabbage and variations on dal. Who am I kidding? More likely, my sisters will gather and say something along these lines: Yeah, she was a good cook, but did she always have to be so controlling in the kitchen?

I could be controlling to the very end and write my obituary myself for real, not as an exercise. Some people do, according to that same Abby, who has worked with hospice for many years. In that case, my obituary could truthfully state that I never cooked even one one-hundredth of the dishes I wanted to. I’ll leave behind hundreds of cookbooks with hundreds of slips of

 June Paulsen makes what she called "pie crust cookies" in this family photo.

June Paulsen makes what she called “pie crust cookies” in this family photo.

papers indicating hundreds of recipes I intended to cook. “Margaret ‘Peggy’ Grodinsky, 103, died yesterday while baking carrot-parsnip cake for a planned afternoon tea with friends. She ran out of time.”

If my family, or “loved ones,” as obituary language usually phrases it, write my obituary, they may be given a list of standard questions to help jump-start their prose. What did I do for a living? What organizations did I belong to? Where did I go to college? Where did I travel? Newspapers also often provide grieving families with an obituary template. (The Press Herald doesn’t.)

But as far as I can tell, that hasn’t stopped families from fondly remembering and recording love, loss and what they ate.

“You were lucky if” Joan Varney Caron, 85, of Westbrook “cooked for you! She had a knack for cooking and baking and was truly great at it. Let’s just say people have been known to fight over a whoopie pie or two! Her ‘toot kay,’ as it was known in our family, was second to none! She always wanted to feed you!”

I’ve been writing about food for 20 years, and I haven’t the faintest idea what toot kay is. Still, I wish I’d been invited for dinner at Mrs. Caron’s home in order to try it.

Whoopie pies abound in obituaries, at least those that run in the Press Herald. Actual pies abound, too. (And fudge isn’t far behind. Then there are the blue ribbons for assorted goodies at the Topsham Fair, the Cumberland Fair, any number of fairs.)

Zoe Head Swift, 90, of Falmouth was acknowledged as “an excellent baker … who crafted eight pies for every Thanksgiving dinner – for more than 50 years.”

Did she know her neighbor and fellow baker, Sally Blanchard Maynard, 86, of Cumberland Foreside? All summer long, I bicycle in Cumberland Foreside, but it was my bad fortune never to meet Maynard, a baker after my own heart. “She was an excellent cook and she did not spare the butter!” her obituary read. “Recently, she was asked, ‘Sally, how do you make such good pie crust?’ She said, ‘You have to make at least 100 pies before you begin to get it right, and even then it’s no guarantee.’ ”

Thank you, Mrs. Maynard, you’ve no idea what a comfort that is. I’m honing in on 100 pies yet am only beginning to get it right, and still only sometimes. The next time an errant crust slumps into a cranberry-apple filling, I will stop beating myself up about it. Life is too short.

In her 75 years, Patricia “Pat” L. Walton of Farmington baked 100 pies many times over. “She was well-known for her pecan pies at Christmas. She would order the pecans from her home state of Texas in plenty of time to make the pies. Most years, she would make over 200 pies to distribute to friends throughout the community.”

Two hundred pies every Christmas! Imagine.

I like to imagine all these ladies trading recipes and cooking together in a sunny, cheerful, well-stocked kitchen in heaven. The knives are always sharp. The dishes are always done. Rhubarb and peaches are always in season. Nothing ever burns. No one ever hurries, wearily, to get a weeknight supper on the table. And the smell is heavenly.

But where are the men?

Andrew Regios

Andrew Regios

For the most part, they are working – as chefs, as meat cutters, as sandwich makers. Or they are dining – on lobsters, on steaks, at restaurants. Take Andrew Minot Regios, 58, of Portland. His greatest passion “was satisfying his taste for fine cuisine. No celebrity food critic could best Andy when it came to a discriminating palate. He was well known throughout Portland’s fine dining establishments and was on a first-name basis with almost the entire staff at Whole Foods.”

Gerald Eugene “Jerry” Garman, 83, of Peaks Island was the rare deceased man I encountered in the pages of the Press Herald who was remembered for an ordinary dish. Whether he cooked it himself, I don’t know. As in many obituaries, the specifics are jumbled up with a lifetime of other telling, ordinary yet beautiful details.

“One of Jerry’s favorite places was his garden, a favorite dog was Zack, a favorite seasonal recipe was boiled

Gerald "Jerry" Garman's special-occasion dishes were Tourtiere pie for Christmas, boiled dinner for St. Patrick’s Day, creamy potato salad in the summer, and Jerry’s Famous French Toast for breakfast when family was visiting. “He had 12 recipe notebooks,” said his widow, Nelson Hill, “including one labeled ‘Jerry’s favorites.’ ” (Contributed photo)

Gerald “Jerry” Garman’s special-occasion dishes were Tourtiere pie for Christmas, boiled dinner for St. Patrick’s Day, creamy potato salad in the summer, and Jerry’s Famous French Toast for breakfast when family was visiting. “He had 12 recipe notebooks,” said his widow, Nelson Hill, “including one labeled ‘Jerry’s favorites.’ ” (Contributed photo)

cabbage, vegetables and brisket, and his favorite quote was by the great poet e.e. cummings, ‘The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.’ ”


The family of Leonice Clarke Winship, 88, of Windham also buried (pun in questionable taste intended) a reference to cooking among an accretion of other details. “She filled her days bringing up her three children, feeding baby calves, babysitting many children who called her ‘Niecee,’ and catering to her many pets. No one was ever a stranger in her kitchen. She loved the farm and all things on it. She often could be found sitting on a bale of hay humming and talking with the animals. Her last trip to the barn was four weeks ago.”

No one was ever a stranger in her kitchen. Mrs. Winship, with your permission, I may steal that for myself one day.

I told my friend Joe I was working on this story. He gave me an odd look and then wryly suggested a line for my tombstone: “Past her sell-by date.” If I behave well in this realm, perhaps I’ll get to cook with these ladies in a great big kitchen in the sky in the next, earthly cares left far behind. Still, please promise me this – there will be good food at my funeral.

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