Tracy Jones, executive director of the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland.
Photos by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

October 14, 2012, Cleveland Heights—I’ve just walked home from a brunch held by a neighbor, and now friend, Susan Zull, to benefit the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland.

In 2000, I lost one of my closest friends, Rusty King, who was my news-writing mentor and advocate when he was a copy editor on the National desk at the New York Times and I was a little scut copyboy most editors didn’t see unless they shouted “COPY!” (Rusty’s fellow copy editors, @FromCarl and @EricAsimov, were also there and were wonderful to us urchins as well—thank you, guys! And where is Jeanne Pinder, who was on Foreign, and on whom I had a crush?)

So that’s why I was in a stranger’s living room for brunch: Rusty. But since he died, AIDS has become a completely different disease, which is why we need to think about it differently. AIDS has gone from a killing disease to a chronic illness. We can manage it, but a 22-year-old who picks up HIV faces a lifetime of stigma and pills and family issues and sexual concerns and ultimately organ damage from the drugs, including that semi-important organ called the brain.

Tracy Jones, executive director of the task force, spoke movingly about it—and personally, about how the AIDS issue was for her, as an African American woman, the convergence of the issues of race, poverty, illness, and social justice to which she would commit her working life (she sure didn’t set out to do this work—#accidentalangel). But it was what she said to me before she addressed the group, over excellent sausage-leek casserole (recipe below), roasted red potatoes, roasted asparagus, and Bloody Marys, that resonated the most: Of the kids who contract HIV, those who fare best are the ones who have the most support from family and friends. All chronic illnesses require daily maintenance, and something so difficult requires a lot of people.

And we were there, 25 of us, brought together around food to talk about this issue, to give money, and to increase awareness of one of a million problems we face. But we face it best together.

So this is why I am writing about AIDS on a food blog. To underscore the fundamental importance of community, and the power of food to bring us together.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’m with Richard Wrangham: cooking very likely made us human. Once we started cooking food, we could consume extraordinary quantities of calories in a short time (as opposed to sitting alone chewing raw veg for 6 hours). These daily calorie bombs made us really healthy, and we spread our genes with abandon (sex and cooking are good for us!). Cooked food fed our calorie-devouring brains and we got smarter.

In order to take advantage of these pleasure- and health-giving calorie bombs, we had to work together. Food gathering, cooking, and preserving took a lot of work, thus forcing us to form communities, to cooperate with one another. The French have a saying, “Tu seul, tu mort.” Alone, you die.

Food is, or should be, the center of our daily gatherings; food is a magnet that draws us together as families, as communities. Tu seul, tu mort. And the opposite: Together we live.

Thank you, Tracy. And thank you, Susan (your food was awesome). And thank you, Rusty, for helping me when I didn’t have a clue. I’m able to write this, in no small measure, because of you. God, I miss you.

Susan Zull’s take on Sausage and Leek Casserole

6–8 servings

  • Oil
  • 2 cups leeks, cut in rings, rinsed thoroughly (I use more leeks.)
  • salt and black pepper
  • ⅛  teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 pound ground pork sausage (I use turkey sausage.)
  • 6 large eggs
  • ½ cup whole milk
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • ½ loaf French baguette
  • 1 cup grated Cheddar cheese
  • 1 cup grated pepper jack cheese
  1. Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet on medium-high. Sauté the leeks with a pinch of salt and black pepper, the red pepper flakes, and ⅛ teaspoon of the cayenne. When the leeks are translucent, raise the heat to high and add the sausage; cook for 8 minutes or until browned. Remove from the heat and allow the mixture to cool.
  2. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs together with the milk, cream, remaining ⅛ teaspoon cayenne, and a pinch of salt and black pepper.
  3. Cut the baguette into cubes and put in the bottom of a 9″ x 9″ glass casserole dish. Sprinkle the bread with the Cheddar cheese. Pour the sausage and leek mixture over, and then the egg mixture on top. Top with the pepper jack cheese. Cover tightly and refrigerate overnight.
  4. Remove the casserole from the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 375°F/190°C. Put the casserole in the middle of the oven and bake for 45 minutes or until a knife is removed cleanly from the middle. Remove from the oven and allow to stand for 10 minutes before cutting and serving.

NOTE: I made 1 ½x this recipe, used a larger dish, and baked for an hour. I also used more of all kinds of pepper. Got this from foodnetwork.com, and it says, “Recipe courtesy The Neelys.” Thanks, Neelys!

Redskin Potatoes with Garlic

  • Small redskin potatoes (3 or 4 per person, more to have leftovers—good with eggs for breakfast)
  • Fresh garlic cloves, sliced very thin
  • Salt, pepper
  • Butter, olive oil
  • Sour cream, sliced chives, chopped bacon for garnish
  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F/204°C.
  2. Holding it in your palm or nestled in a wooden spoon and using a paring knife, make 3 or 4 gashes nearly through each potato—don’t slice all the way through!
  3. Insert a thin slice of garlic in each “gash”—these will look like delicious potato flowers getting ready to bloom.
  4. Put the potatoes in a baking dish. Rub a little soft butter on the top of each potato, season with salt and pepper to taste, and sprinkle with olive oil. Bake for about an hour.
  5. Serve with sour cream, chives, and bacon bits.

Other links you may like:

© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

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11 Wonderful responses to “Why Is Ruhlman Writing
About AIDS on a Food Blog?”

  • Andrew

    Big cats in the wild can eat a hundred pounds of food in one sitting, without cooking. So much that they can then go days without eating. That’s a lot of calories. There are so many things that separate humans from other animals, I’m not sure cooking even makes the top ten on many of the lists out there: http://www.whatmakesushuman.info/wmuh/home.html

    But I understand your point, and I’m not here to argue, but rather to commend you for using your platform to raise awareness for a very important issue. Food blogs can be at their very nature notoriously decadent, gluttonous, and indulgent. So it’s perfectly acceptable and noble to use these outlets to promote awareness and advance worthy causes. Bravo, Michael.

    • Mantonat

      Can big cats operate a motor vehicle or teach a classroom full of kids to speak a foreign language? One of the points of Wrangham’s book is that eating cooked food spurred a massive acceleration in human evolution. Animals like big cats have to eat massive quantities of meat just to get enough nutrients to fuel brains that are about the size of a softball. They also eat nothing but meat. Feel free to disagree with Wrangham after you’ve read “Catching Fire,” but I think Ruhlman’s point is valid here: cooking is a social as well as evolutionry force that helps make us human, and helps bond us together as human beings.

      • Andrew

        I wasn’t saying that humans are no different than big cats!!! Just that being able to consume massive amounts of calories in one sitting doesn’t substantially separate us from other animals. Your examples of driving a motor vehicle and teaching a foreign language have little to do with cooking, though they do separate us from other species (but I wouldn’t say that driving a car makes us human either, as that is a minute portion of the human existence over time). This is a complicated subject, and to say that “cooking made us human” is an oversimplification. Humans were genetically, physically, intellectually, and socially (maybe in a different way) human before the advent of cooking. Humans existed for hundreds of thousands of years before they cooked food. Cooking certainly has been of critical importance in the course of history and shaping civilization and our social existence, and it has definitely changed the course of human events and behavior. But we were still human before cooking. That said, I still understand Michael’s point and you can’t argue that cooking food wasn’t a huge instrument of change in what we think of as the human existence.

        • Mantonat

          I’ll skip the debate and simply restate this: Ruhlman’s point is that cooking brings us together as human beings and that cooking and eating together allow us to experience empathy, to help us care for each other, and to …wait, wait – I’ll just use his own words: “Food gathering, cooking, and preserving took a lot of work, thus forcing us to form communities, to cooperate with one another.” You certainly don’t have to agree with that, but I just didn’t want to get sidetracked from the idea that kids (and adults) who contract difficult illnesses “fare best …who have the most support from family and friends.” Ruhlman has consistently stressed the importance of cooking as a family and community activity; even if cooking didn’t make us humans, it makes us human.

  • Kathy

    I lost one of my best friends to AIDS in 1994. It truly is a different disease now. She would have been happy to know that, but it still breaks my heart that she got it when it was a death sentence.

  • Shelley

    Beautiful, thanks. If only everyone understood the importance of community as well as you do. Your words are powerful and appreciated.

  • Anne

    It is a chronic disease only to those who can afford the drugs, who can tolerate the drugs (and side effects), who can follow the exacting regimen without missing any doses, and who have access to the drugs. That excludes many – and we cannot ignore them in our attempt to mainstream this disease as if it were diabetes. To ignore these realities is dangerous thinking. HIV/AIDS remains a deadly disease for many.

  • Dean

    Bravo! As AIDS moves from an acute deadly fact to a chronic condition that is partially manageable, it becomes easy to forget about how widespread and still dangerous it is. The politics of this disease is filled with tremendous pain. So, it’s a real mitzvah to remind people that AIDS is still a serious matter, and to pay tribute to the people in the Task Force who help those in need. Again… Bravo!

  • joellaco

    I lost my best friend in ’89 and many other good friends to AIDS when it was not manageable. Today, I contribute 1% of my salary to the local AIDS project, one of their main missions is to feed those fighting this disease and it is still a big fight. Education and awareness needs to continue.

    Thanks for bring this issue forward when many want to just forget about it. This is why I keep coming back to your blog regularly, your heart.