Steve Heronemus

Eating, First With My Eyes

Chefs often say we eat first with our eyes, meaning that how a dish looks influences our enjoyment of it. I am redefining that phrase.
I used to do most of the cooking for my family when I wasn’t traveling for work. It was a joy for me, a creative outlet and, most importantly, a way for me to be an active contributor to the daily life of our family. I also wanted to be a daily example to our children that we didn’t believe in traditional gender roles.
As my strength declined, we got lighter-weight cookware and knives to prolong my participation in preparing family meals. At some point though, using knives turned into auditions for the next Nightmare On Elm Street film and I was dropping everything. The last straw was not being able to turn the gas range off. 
Exercising a rare moment of mature judgment by figuring it was time to bow out rather than burn the house down or serve finger stew, my figurative chef’s hat was retired about 8 years ago. My ability to play instruments was already gone and now my other major creative outlet was gone.
I missed cooking. My family missed (some of) my cooking. I tried writing down my “recipes”, which were more like rough concepts, with little success. Recipes are lists after all, and I just don’t do lists. My inability to recreate a dish the same way twice in a row changed from a topic of bemused conversation to a real source of frustration as Suzanne and the kids tried to make some of their favorites.
Yesterday I smoked some baby back ribs for Suzanne and Matthew. “Whaaat?”, you may well ask, along with “Isn’t playing with fire part of the reason you stopped cooking?” Yes, but technology and community are beautiful things. 
A company called Green Mountain Grills offers a line of wood pellet-fueled smokers that can be controlled by a smartphone app over the home wifi network. Pellet smokers are essentially convection ovens that control temperature by feeding compressed sawdust pellets into a firebox, generating heat and wood smoke. They can bake, grill, smoke, and roast. The Green Mountain Grill app lets me – from the air-conditioned comfort of my wheelchair in the family room – start the smoker, set cook temperature and time (in multiple stages even!), and shut down when a food probe reaches a specific temperature. The app also pushes notifications of grill and food probe temperatures.
“But wait,” you say, “you can’t use a smartphone, so how can you do this from your Windows speech tablet?” After much searching and trial, I found an Android emulator called Bluestacks (freeware!) that creates a space within Windows that looks just like a smartphone. From within Bluestacks, I downloaded the (free) Green Mountain Grill app from the Google Store. Everything worked perfectly!
The community part of this story is even more compelling. A person Suzanne knows from work, also a sailor, heard her talking about this grill. After a few questions and a couple of days, he handed Suzanne a card. Inside was the cash for the grill. “I don’t want to talk about it”, he said. Mind you, this man has never met me, he just appreciates Suzanne (who doesn’t, really) and has a kind and generous heart. I am SO grill grate-ful (ok, that was bad).
So now I can cook, feeding others, with my eyegaze tablet. People can enjoy a meal partially prepared by me using only my eyes.
​Of course I can’t put the food on the grill or put a meal together, but Matthew acted as my hands. He is, by the way, more than kitchen-capable in his own right. I think we had fun cooking together. 
And being together, working together to prepare food for a family meal, is really the headline of this story. ALS is such an isolating disease, even within the family. Participating in, contributing to, the life of the family is life-affirming to me. I feel less like a piece of furniture and more a part of the family. Smoking a rack of ribs may seem a little thing, but for me it was huge.
Stay tuned for more food news!