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What Do We Lose, And Gain, When Reducing A Life To A Recipe?

Detail of <em>The Autumn,</em> a painting of a man made of food by 16th century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
Vittorio Zunino Celotto
Getty Images
Detail of The Autumn, a painting of a man made of food by 16th century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

What is the essence of a life? Is it our career accomplishments? Our devotion to friends and family? Our secret little talents and foibles? Is it, perhaps, our killer recipe for beef stroganoff?

That question underlies a controversy burning up the Twitterverse in recent days over an obituary of Yvonne Brill published by The New York Times. Brill was a pioneering American rocket scientist in the 1940s — at a time when " leaning in" meant bending over the stove to prepare dinner for hubby. And yet, in its original form (it was later edited), the Times' obituary led off with a quite different description of Brill. It began:

"She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. 'The world's best mom,' her son Matthew said."

It's easy to see why the choice to lead off with evocations of domesticity set off accusations of sexism around the Interwebz, prompting the Times' public editor to weigh in. As Mary Elizabeth Williams succintly summarized the outrage in Salon, "If one day Stephen Hawking's obit kicks off with what a great husband he was or Leonard Susskind's leads with his amazing brownies, then sure, we'll all have a good chortle."

And yet, we here at The Salt approach every aspect of life through the lens of food — from how it affects our health to its importance now, and long ago, in culture and our environment. And so we can sort of understand what Douglas Martin, the Timesreporter who penned Brill's obituary, might have been attempting to accomplish — clumsily and ultimately, unsuccessfully — by beginning his tale of an extraordinary life with a reference to a very ordinary dish.

Kay Powell, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's retired obit writer, renowned for her ability to find the compelling details of lives lived outside the limelight, said to me, "I know what they were trying to do ... but as a woman and as a professional obit writer and reporter, I can say [the Times' obituary of Brill] did not work for me."

But perhaps it could have, with a little more thought. Not as the lead, but as part of a fuller exploration of who Brill was. As Amy Davidson noted in her New Yorkerblog, beef stroganoff can be one of the easiest dishes to make — one step up above Hamburger Helper. "It can be the ultimate working mother's preparation," Davidson writes. That Brill's children remembered her for the dish says something about the demands juggled by this brilliant scientist, whose inventions are still used in the satellites that power modern communications.

Food isn't all we are, but it's undeniably a powerful marker of identity.
Food isn't all we are, but it's undeniably a powerful marker of identity.

Because food is undeniably a powerful marker of identity — a reminder of where we came from, a key factor in where we're going in terms of personal and planetary health. What we choose to eat — vegetarian? Kosher? Locally sourced? — can be as much or more of a statement of who we are as what we do for a living.

Just this weekend, I discovered something about my own history and identity tucked inside the pages of a cookbook. I was raised in a Guatemalan-Colombian-American family, where a dash of lime was always considered the perfect condiment for everything: soups, salads, tuna fish. Even today, I'll sneak in the occasional bag of lime-topped Fritos. It never fails to conjure up memories of my late father, for whom the snack was as necessary as the TV remote when watching his beloved baseball games.

Perusing my copy of Maricel Presilla's excellent Gran Cocina Latina, I discovered the historical context of this family habit: Apparently, marinating foods in citrus was a hallmark of medieval Spanish cooking, a technique the conquistadors imparted to the Americas.

Again, I thought of my Papi. So much back story contained in a simple squeeze of lime.

Several years ago, when I was part of an NPR team that won a DuPont Award, my husband joked, "Now we know what your obituary will say." And yet, if it were also to mention, "She squeezed the juice of lime on everything," I would not object.

Just don't make it the lead.

Tell us: What would your "food" obit say?

Note: This post was updated to include a reference to Amy Davidson's New Yorker post, and a link to a Motherboard story explaining how Brill's inventions worked. Both are worth a read.

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Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
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