The Doc Project

A recipe for grieving: how cooking her late mother's recipes helped Toula Nikas heal

Toula Nikas's mother, Maria, held the family together through her cooking. As she was dying, the family drifted apart — until Toula, at age 18, learned to turn on the stove.
The Nikas family. (Toula Nikas)

By Jess Shane and Sara Peters

Toula Nikas grew up in a rambunctious Greek family with four siblings, which meant that home life could get a little unruly at times. 

Yet, in every storm there is an eye. For Toula, who's now 25, it was dinnertime.

"My family was chaotic," Toula said. "A little dysfunctional." But Toula could count on one constant. Every evening, her mom's voice barrelled through the house: Dinner's ready! Dinners were a time when Toula, her four rambunctious siblings, and their mom and dad could sit down together to eat.

Every evening, her mom's voice barrelled through the house: Dinner's ready! 
Toula and her mother, Maria. (Toula Nikas)

Maria, Toula's mom, was a talented and passionate cook. It wasn't unusual for her to spend long stretches of the afternoon in the kitchen, preparing dinner for her family.

"Cooking was time she could spend with herself," Toula said. "I think my siblings and I really took this for granted."

Maria's cookbook. (Toula Nikas)

It was 6 o'clock on a weekday morning. Maria was driving Toula to band practice. "We were driving east so the sun was rising in front of us. I'll never forget," Toula said.

As Toula recalls this story – mom, van, band practice, gentle hum of the radio – it becomes clear that this memory has resurfaced a lot over the years.

"I asked her what her plans were for that day and she said, 'I have an appointment. They think there are some growths in my uterus and they're going to check them out.' Something in my heart sank and I thought, My mom has cancer and I know it."

Toula and mother Maria, both at age 23

Maria Nikas was admitted to the hospital that week. She died on February 21, 2011. In the months following, Toula determined to bring something important back to her family, something that they lost in the wake of Maria's death – dinner together.

"I started cooking after my mom got sick," Toula said. "I think that was really just what I wanted to do at the end of the day was just get everyone around that table and have some some semblance of normalcy."

Toula  was determined to bring something important back to her family, something that they had lost in the wake of Maria's death – eating dinner as a family.

This is the story of one woman's journey in grieving the loss of her mother. The story of a woman who decides to cook — for her mother, her family, herself. It wasn't a straightforward process, but it was the way forward.

Listen to the documentary, "Recipe for Grieving," by clicking the Listen link at the top of the page.

Toula, mother Maria, and sister Katerina. (Toula Nikas)
Sara Peters

Musical recognition to Gypsy Kings and Elektra/Musician Records. 

About the producers: 

Jess Shane
Sara Peters is a writer who lives and works in Toronto. Most recently, she worked in the writers' rooms for Degrassi and Schitt's Creek. This is her first radio documentary. She doesn't use Twitter much, but you can find her here
Jess Shane is a radio producer and multimedia artist. She loves telling sound-rich stories that leave listeners space for thinking and imagining. Her radio docs have aired on CBC's The Doc Project and Love Me. She also curates Constellations, an experimental radio and sound art project. Recently, she's worked with CBC Original Podcasts as an associate producer on Personal Best, airing in early 2018. When she's not hunched over her laptop with headphones on, you'll probably find her singing while biking or chatting up a stranger. Twitter @iamjessshane.