Teaching Widowers to Cook: Meet Marilyn
During the 69 years that my Grandma Honey and Grandpa Julius were married, Grandpa did approximately zero percent of the cooking.
They both died at 93 — Grandpa outlived Grandma by a few months — and at the time were living in a retirement community where all meals (and darned good ones) were provided. But I know this: If Grandma had died earlier and Grandpa had been forced to live alone, the man would not have known how to pour himself a glass of orange juice, let alone fix himself a pot roast.
In that generation, of course, men made the money and women made dinner.
My grandpa lucked out, but many men who are widowed find themselves eating cereal for dinner because that’s the extent of their culinary repertoire.
It’s Marilyn Lebowitz’s mission to get these men up to speed in the kitchen. Marilyn, an amazing self-taught cook who lives in my town, Bend, Oregon, teaches a course for widowers through our local hospice, Partners in Care. The four-week class is called Cooking for One, but, says Marilyn, “It’s really cooking for four and storing or freezing what you don’t eat.”
Moroccan Tagine and Greek Orzo Pasta are a couple of the easy, fabulous dishes Marilyn teaches her students to make. They’re ideal meal-train dishes and we’ll be featuring the recipes later in the week.
Most of Marilyn’s students are in their seventies and eighties, and one man was 91. “If their wives were sick at the end, they are more competent in the kitchen, but most of them haven’t done much cooking. For men who are widowed, the first year is really tough. They would go out to dinner a lot or open a can of soup and sit down in front of the TV.”
Learning some cooking basics tends to give her students a new appreciation for the job their wives did all those years. One man told Marilyn, “I never thought of my wife as being a terribly good cook, but I didn’t give her the credit she deserved.”
In her class, Marilyn teaches men to make multiple dishes from the same ingredients. For example, they’ll use ground beef to make meatloaf, stuffed peppers and meatballs. Or, leftover roasted root vegetables from one night can be used to make a chicken potpie the next.
Marilyn scours cookbooks and websites for simple, practical recipes (Cook’s Illustrated is a favorite) and teaches her students the art of coordinating a meal, so all the dishes are ready at the same time, not a half hour apart.
She demonstrates prep skills, like cutting vegetables and taking the fat off pork tenderloin, and brings in her favorite utensils and gadgets. “I showed them a rice cooker, and I think almost everyone of them went out and bought one,” Marilyn says. “And I showed them a chopper they can use to chop an onion without their hands getting in the way of a knife. That’s helpful when you’re 91.”
Each class consists of a cooking demonstration followed by a sit-down dinner. “Men are a little slow to warm up to each other, but they’re all such good sports and really enjoy the social experience,” Marilyn says.
Marilyn’s students not only gain essential skills but also confidence. One of the men made his family one of the dishes he’d learned in class and reported to Marilyn, “My grandson had three helpings!”
When she’s not cooking for her husband (who actually does know his way around a kitchen) or teaching Cooking for One, Marilyn is often cooking for 75. Once or twice a month she prepares full meals — baked ziti, barbecue beef on buns, ham with scalloped potatoes — for residents of the Bethlehem Inn, a homeless shelter in Bend. She also cooks meals for the all-volunteer Central Oregon Symphony.