ginger and salt

in remembrance: my great aunt marilyn.

im1.shutterfly

{Beautiful Marilyn.}

“Feeding people graciously and lovingly is one of life’s simplest pleasures, a most basic way of making life better for someone, at least for awhile.” – Anna Thomas

A little over a week ago my vivacious, wise Great Aunt Marilyn left this world after 84 years of living, learning, cooking, and eating with her whole heart.  She was a diligent reader of Ginger and Salt and whenever she emailed me with a compliment about a particular post, I always saved the email in a special folder, as her writing praise was of the highest form. Not to mention, this was a woman who knew food.

She and I had been emailing for months trying to set a date for an afternoon where we could cook together, as I wanted to share her amazing wit and spirit with all of you. However, I have never known an 84-year-old who was in more demand than Aunt Marilyn, and for good reason. She was a wonderful mother to her five daughters and their families and was very active with her church community, constantly cooking and hosting various events. Since she won’t be able to make our lunch date this fall, I wanted to cook a meal in her honor and share a bit about this special person for those of you who never met her.

dad's_funeral

{Marilyn and her five girls.}

Marilyn, or Birdie as she was affectionately called by family members, had the most stunning, deep-set eyelids.  (Even Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient would have been jealous.)  Everything she said and wrote bore weight.  She managed to whip out three-sentence emails that were so poignant and quick-witted they would’ve taken me days to write. Even down to the last days in the hospital, she was making jokes about the dismal food.  When one of her daughters said, ‘Mom, you have to eat this,’ she replied, ‘NOBODY should have to eat this.’

For us, Marilyn was such a special connection to the past.  The sister of the grandfather that I never knew, keeper of the stories and the treasured memories. She was an incredible writer and acted as an enormous catalyst for my own writing. For my 15th birthday, Aunt Marilyn gave me ‘Bird by Bird‘ by Anne Lamott and encouraged me to write whenever possible. I may have read a few chapters at the time, but my distracted, adolescent self let it collect dust on my nightstand.  I was recently gifted the same book this year on my birthday by another friend and buzzed through it in a matter of days.  Anne Lamott’s writing about writing is completely brilliant and timeless, and I couldn’t help but hear Marilyn’s voice as I laughed and cried my way through each page.

Belvedere 1974_ Dad's bday hosted by Marilyn

{Marilyn knew how to make people feel loved. Here she is hosting a birthday dinner for my dad in the 1970’s.}

Our family is lucky to have Marilyn’s memoir which reminds me of some of my favorite books such as Blood, Bones, and Butter and Comfort Me WIth Apples. It talks about her childhood, her time working at The New Yorker and scraping by in Manhattan, and of living in California with her family.  In revisiting it this past week, I’m amazed at some of the same life experiences Marilyn and I have shared.  When I studied abroad during my junior year in college, my friends and I literally could not stop eating.  The ‘When in Rome!’ line seemed to apply to wherever we found ourselves that fall and we joked about how ‘healthy’ we looked by Christmas.  Similarly, Marilyn spent her senior year at Smith College studying in Italy.  I laughed out loud when I read what she wrote about a hotel they stayed in during a school break:

The food at La Rosetta was delicious, especially the pasta and risotto, big bowls of which were served as the first course at lunch, and we were all given wine with the huge noon meals.  And then we napped.  Our rooms were situated directly over the Perugina chocolate factory, where we dropped by between meals.  The photographs of us after the next weeks documented the results of this routine. 

It’s nice to know that some things never change.

marilyn3_180{I adore this one of Marilyn with my parents at their tiny wedding in San Francisco.}

Marilyn delighted in the cuisines of just about every culture, but in her memoir she wrote about her tradition of going out for Moroccan food with my parents when they were living in San Francisco and so I felt inspired by this.  She also said that her favorite meal was ‘a bird and a bottle’ and you know, I have to agree.  I know Aunt Marilyn would’ve loved this Moroccan Chicken recipe.  Hearty and comforting, but not too rich, it’s the perfect dish to enjoy with family and friends.  If your group is as comfortable as ours is, you may even find yourself eating straight out of the Dutch Oven at the end of the meal, searching for any hidden apricots.

I’d like to think Aunt Marilyn is currently sipping a nice red wine, cutting into a piping hot roasted chicken, and watching down over the rest of us.  Bon appetit, Birdie.  We miss you terribly.

photo (49)Moroccan Chicken for Marilyn (adapted from this Food & Wine recipe)

  • 3 pounds skinless chicken thighs
  • 1 onion, cut into 1/2-inch wedges
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/3 cup chicken broth
  • One 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained
  • 1/2 cup green olives
  • 1/2 cup dried Turkish apricots
  • 1/3 cup sliced almonds
  1. In a large bowl, toss the chicken thighs with the onion, cumin, ginger, coriander, cinnamon and cayenne and season with salt and pepper. Transfer the chicken and onions to a Dutch oven (see the link above for the slow cooker version). Add the bay leaf and chicken broth, cover and cook at 350 degrees for about an hour and a half.
  2. Stir in the chickpeas, olives and apricots, cover and cook until the chicken is tender and cooked through and the apricots are plump, about 45 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and season the juices with salt and pepper.
  3. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°. Spread the almonds in a pie plate and toast for about 7 minutes, until fragrant and lightly golden.
  4. At the same time, heat 2 3/4 cups of chicken broth in a small saucepan until boiling. Add 1 1/2 cup couscous, cover and remove from heat.  Allow it to sit for about five minutes, and then fluff with a fork.
  5. Spoon the chicken and juices into bowls over the couscous, sprinkle with the toasted almonds, and enjoy with friends and family.
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11 comments

  1. Letty

    My mom would have loved this Taylor. She told me about wanting to have cooking time with you. But I can tell from what you write here, that you know my mom and understood her essence. That’s wonderful! Thank you for this sweet tribute.

  2. Tina Mills

    Taylor! I can’t tell you what a deep pleasure it was for me to read this incredibly well-written and insightful tribute to my dear Mama. I didn’t even mind it when I burst into tears after I finished the last word. You really captured her love of preparing and sharing food and we know it was in essence her favorite way of “nurturing” others. She loved your food writing and mentioned your site to me often. She was not only very proud of you, she was truly impressed! We love you very much. I can’t wait to hug you and thank you in person soon.

    • Tina, thank you for reading and for your incredibly kind words. It means so much to me. She was so special. I love you, too and look forward to seeing you in a couple of weeks. Thinking of you and the rest of the Mills clan. xoxo

  3. Cezanne

    Dear Taylor. What a loving memory of your aunt and her zest for living. What she shares and teaches all of us to keep true to the importance of connection and showing your love for others comes through in your tribute. I will make Moroccan chicken next week and with wine glass in hand, drink a toast and send her laughter. Love, Cezanne

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