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Food & Drink

Friendship helps 'Thyme and Place' cookbook authors get through family tragedies

| Tuesday, June 21, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Lisa Graves and Tricia Cohen
Michael King
Lisa Graves and Tricia Cohen

Just days after burying her father, Tricia Cohen collapsed onto the kitchen floor of her Green Tree home sobbing as tears fell from her cheeks onto the pile of cookbooks scattered around her.

“I just can't do this,” she told her husband.

Cohen, who had just begun working on publishing her first cookbook, continued to peruse recipes calling for poultry, fresh fruits and wine before coming to grips with the only ingredient she needed to keep going: Lisa Graves.

If anyone could relate to the pain she felt, it was her friend Lisa.

The two first met while attending high school 40 miles south of Boston, but lost contact for 20-some years. They became reconnected through the power of Facebook, and, before Graves knew it, she was knocking on the door of Cohen's summer vacation home in Cape Cod, where Cohen had invited her old friend to get together in 2010.

“We've been inseparable ever since,” Graves says.

Four years later, Graves, a history buff and professional illustrator who has authored several books concerning the medieval period, spiced things up by inviting Cohen to work on a book that would combine Graves' love of medieval history and Cohen's fondest hobby, cooking.

In January 2015, they received a publishing contract for “Thyme and Place: Medieval Feasts and Recipes for the Modern Table” (Skyhorse Publishing, $16.99), a book that would include both historical highlights and illustrations, as well as modified recipes for dishes from the period.

The two friends would quickly learn, however, that their friendship would need to measure larger than teaspoons of sage and tablespoons of saffron.

Just days after receiving the news of the contract, Graves was sobered by the news she had been fearing. Doctors told her that her father's stage IV colon cancer had worsened, leaving him only a few months to live.

“It's like someone pulled a rug out from underneath your feet,” Graves says.

It was only days later that Cohen, a director of compliance for a financial services company in New York, would share in her friend's' pain. Her father, who had been battling stage IV Hodgkin's lymphoma, was placed in hospice.

“It was really just bizarre,” Cohen says about the similarities and timing between the two fathers' ailments, which in addition to cancer, included diabetes and neuropathy.

Upon learning the news, Cohen left her home in Green Tree to live with her parents in Plainville, Mass.

“Both of us didn't sleep for months because every time the phone rang we thought they'd be dead,” Graves says, speaking for the two friends.

Forced to put their new book on hold, Cohen and Graves' watched as their fathers were treated at separate hospitals just a block apart from each other in Boston.

It was during this time Cohen and Graves experienced the power of friendship and empathy, as they reached out to each other for support daily.

“There were times you couldn't even talk, we'd just sit there and cry,” Graves says.

On April 3, 2015, Graves' father, Donald C. Graves, lost his battle with cancer at the age of 67. Just 10 days later, Cohen lost her father, Walter Sandland, to cancer at 73.

“I was super close to my father, so when he passed it was just so incredibly painful,” Cohen says.

“He was definitely my mentor, my hero, he taught me everything I knew,” Graves says of her father.

Stunned with grief, both Cohen and Graves knew they had to soon begin moving forward with the book to meet the November deadline set by their publisher.

“Both of us felt that we weren't going to get it done,” Graves says.

It didn't matter. They had each other.

Back in her Green Tree home, Cohen sat sobbing on the floor, overwhelmed by the thought of setting her grief aside to complete the book.

“The only thing that got me off that floor was knowing that I couldn't let Lisa down,” Cohen says.

For six months, they worked and mourned hand-in-hand, determined to complete the project as a tribute to their fathers, says Graves, who can still hear her dad preaching the importance of never missing deadlines.

For Cohen and Graves, the project was one last gift left for them by their fathers.

“Going through your worst time with your best friend and then your best time with your best friend, it really brings it full circle,” Graves says. “It was triumph over tragedy.”

On June 7, “Thyme and Place,” was released in bookstores across the country.

Irrespective of the book's success, the two friends take solace in the bond they carry beyond the finish line.

“The best result from this book is that I have an absolute best friend that I can't imagine a day without,” Cohen says. “I can't help but think that the dads had something to do with that.”

Matthew Zabierek is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7893 or mzabierek@tribweb.com.

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