Food for Thought on World AIDS Day

There was Michael, leading a double life in New England, afraid to come out to his family and fiancee. And there was Richard, a New York executive with everything money could buy, except a cure. His partner, Brian, was next. I knew them all in the late 1980s, before they died of AIDS.

Their deaths were both sad and haunting, but in all fairness, I knew them through their survivors and experienced the heartache of loss only vicariously. I didn't know what it was like to lose dozens of friends who were dropping like flies during that time, yet I kept hearing about this thing called an AIDS epidemic. I went to view the AIDS Quilt when it first came to Philadelphia and I wore a red ribbon on the first World AIDS Day, held 19 years ago on Dec. 1, which is tomorrow. I knew the words to "That's What Friends Are For," the charity remake performed by Dionne Warwick and friends. But that was the extent of my AIDS connection - aware but personally unscathed.

A few years later, when I lived in South Africa, AIDS was ramping up, but political violence was still rampant and people were still dying at the hands of the police. No one had time (or the interest) to discuss what would become a national scourge, with 5.5 million infected at the end of 2005 (source: UN AIDS).

It would be another five years before I came to be more familiar with the disease, and food would be the link. In order to graduate from Peter Kump's New Yorking Cooking School (now the Institute of Culinary Education), all students had to fulfill an "externship," which usually means working for free as an apprentice in a commercial kitchen. At first, I lucked out, or so I thought, with a paying externship at a then-well-known restaurant in downtown Philadelphia, but I hated the factory-like environment and quit after a miserable three weeks.

I found a new (albeit non-paying) home at MANNA, a non-profit organization that prepares and delivers meals to people homebound with AIDS, and now other chronic illnesses (much like Food and Friends in Washington or God's Love We Deliver in New York). There, as a sous chef, I learned to prepare lunch for 500, but with dietary modifications based on conditions brought on by the disease. Clients with kidney issues, for example, needed low protein and no sodium in their meals, and the challenge for chef Beth Russell was enormous, making the food interesting and tasty while taking care of people whose lives depended on the modifications. Those few months in 1997 would become one of the most profoundly moving experiences of my culinary career.

Imagine if there could be a MANNA in South Africa or Zambia, where several years later, I would meet teen-aged AIDS orphans like Miliswa or Audrey, and Esther, who watched her daughter die and now, in her 50s, must raise her orphaned granddaughter.

Imagine the healing power of food. While sick this week with a cold, I made broth, I cooked lentils, sauteed vegetables and created an elixir that would tackle my clogged sinuses. I boiled udon noodles and chopped chiles and garlic, because I knew that food would be the medicine to bring me back to health. And all I had was a simple cold. Imagine the impact for someone with a few months to live, for whom a hot meal would nourish, encourage and perhaps inspire.

Tomorrow is World AIDS Day. It is a day to remember those who have died, a day to celebrate the many advances in medicine and a day to harness the healing power of food. Go, cook and feed someone. The world needs you and your cutting board.

By Kim ODonnel |  November 30, 2007; 12:46 PM ET Kitchen Musings
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Comments

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This story is truly inspiring, to understand the food modifications that someone with this disease must go thru is another skill in it's on. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us, your loyal readers.

Posted by: Chef Jon(AZ) | November 30, 2007 7:41 PM

This was a truely moving story. I have had the displeasure of watching a close family member die of AIDS. Your story makes me cry but also makes me happy that you took this time write about World AIDS day. Happy cooking!!!

Posted by: slsde | December 3, 2007 6:48 PM

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