All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia, With Refreshments, mixes stories of nostalgia, love, and loss with standard American Ashkanazi recipes in a format designed to celebrate Alex Witchel’s mother’s life and family while documenting the mother’s slow descent into dementia. Author Alex Witchel ends each of the eight chapters with recipes from her mother’s kitchen, liberally sprinkled with ketchup, breadcrumbs, and canned vegetables: meatloaf, latkes, tuna casserole, sweet and sour meatballs, garlic chicken, kreplach, hotdog goulash, and more.
Witchel’s mother, Barbara Goldstein, raised and sustained her nuclear family in New Jersey, breaking 1960s stereotypes and surpassing expectations for women by earning her Ed.D, teaching in a college, taking local political action, gardening, raising children, running the family, and cooking each day in a rhythm of sustenance that anchored the author’s upbringing. Cooking is how Witchel shares memories of her super-achieving mother’s life. Witchel writes, “I could overcook or undercook the meatloaf and it still tasted the same….It was my remnant of home and I conjured it, reaching back, always back. Each time I made it, it was absolutely perfect. And each time I made it, I felt more and more afraid.”
All Gone shares the delicate, inexorably painful process of watching the person who has been your personal rock disappear before your eyes, becoming someone to be tactfully cared for while you manage your own family’s health challenges, relationships, and career demands. Throughout the book, threads of food and recipes weave in and out of her mother’s many accomplishments; holding the past fast with kinesthetically evoked memory; moving into the future with savory plates, smells and meals as a loving tribute to Witchel’s mother and the process of responding to her illness and passing.