On New Year’s Eve this year, we feasted — with our neighbors — on what became “The Great Fried Chicken Smackdown” article, pitting two popular local chicken eateries against each other. I sat at the table next to my friend’s dad, Bud, who was probably the most enthusiastic member of our taste-test team despite the fact that he was dying of cancer.
Bud loved food. He’d lived all over the world during his military career and had an adventuresome palate he shared with his wife and two sons. The boys grew up not with an “Eat everything on your plate” mentality but with a “Taste everything! Why not?” philosophy that I admire.
Even though one of Bud’s granddaughter’s dabbles in vegetarianism, she’s still a broad-minded eater whose favorite visits to Cincinnati included trips to Findlay Market to see every vegetable imaginable. Her sister, Bud’s eldest granddaughter, is now studying cooking in France and hopes to be a pastry chef. His grandson lives in Japan and brings me the special rice crackers I love whenever he visits. I tell you this so that you understand this family doesn't take food lightly.
When Bud was diagnosed with brain cancer that had metastasized and started to spread to his lungs, he discussed his options with his family and together they decided against aggressive treatment.
Bud’s mobility had been hampered by a stroke in his sixties, and the cancer was something that, even though he was a veteran and a warrior in spirit, didn’t need to be fought. Instead, Bud and the people who loved him set about making his last days happy.
He developed a “bucket list,” as the saying goes now, of last places to visit and — very importantly — last meals to eat. I was honored to sit next to him at Nicola’s Ristorante in Over-the-Rhine last winter on a cold night when we shared the most wonderful wine and ooohed and ahhhed over the treasure basket of bread.
Bud shared a taste of his pasta with me and I shared a taste of my short ribs with him, and we opined freely about each. His illness had slowed his speech, but we had no reason to rush. We lingered over a beautiful meal, and I felt lucky to be a part of this family — even if just for dinner.
On the night of the Chicken Smackdown, Bud had been as serious as any of us with our scoresheets, grading the chicken on its crispness and seasoning. But we laughed, too, and joked our way through toasts to the year ahead. Would there be another holiday season together? Probably not. But that didn’t make this a sad occasion. In fact, it was anything but.
Bud took a trip to the distilleries on the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky where he ate with a family friend, a priest whose brother was a restaurateur. He’d wanted to have a steak dinner at The Waterfront so he could look across the river at the skyline of Cincinnati, the place that had become home to his family after so many years as nomads moving from base to base. But that didn’t happen — he’d taken a turn for the worse and it just would have been too complicated to manage the wheelchair and the oxygen Bud needed.
Last night, he fell and was too weak to get back into the chair. My husband and I went to help, and even though we laughed and joked a bit he looked very frail. I held a glass of iced Pellegrino so Bud could have a few sips with a straw.
“I just don’t feel like eating,” he whispered to me, and when I heard that I knew we didn’t have much more time.
This morning, he was gone. One less voice that will appear in my reviews, faithful readers. One less volunteer for my tasting panels. One less friend who is used to the way I always have to have a bite of what’s on their plate and want them to have a bite of what’s on mine.
But I’m happy to have savored some very special moments with someone who drank deeply of life and shared his love of it so freely.
I hope heaven has a bread basket just like Nicola’s — or maybe even better.
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