Cancer divides – as its very premise, its cells divide, maniacally, so that one rogue cell becomes two becomes a three-pound cabbage-sized tumor. Yet the same is happening inside my sister in a different way, as her child who was once one cell became two cells is becoming a brand new human being we cannot wait to meet.
Feed a fever, starve a cold, but what do we do for cancer?
Karen Babine’s family members find themselves asking this in the surreal, world-altering aftermath of learning her mother was diagnosed with a uterine tumor. This unusual diagnosis (apparently one usually made in children rather than adults) came around the same time that Babine’s sister learned she was pregnant with her third child.
The emotional upheaval, as their mother begins the invasive, exhaustive procedure of cancer treatment, with the lingering fear inherent in this, all while her sister grows new life, causes Babine to consider together these changes to the body and what they mean for a family. Mortality juxtaposed with new life is a difficult emotional area to navigate. It necessitates comfort and reassurance, and as a chef, Babine can provide that.
The lines that tie us together are written into our skin, into our cells, the potential destruction of a family present in its creation.
She looks at all of this – the preciousness of life, the potential fleetingness of the bonds and connections we hold, the way new life keeps coming into the world even as another begins winding to a close – through the lens of cooking and nourishment. She has the opportunity to cook for her mother during her cancer treatments and recuperation, and she tries to prepare food that will appeal to her despite the “lead belly” side effect of her chemo.
Cooking offers familiarity and confidence in a time when she and her family are at the mercy of so many uncontrollable factors – a malignant illness, the world of medicine, blind reliance on doctors’ advice. There’s solace in carefully following a recipe and knowing what you’ll get, that if you take every step it’ll turn out fine. It’s clear that the comfort she finds in cooking for herself and to nourish her family was a major factor in getting through this emotionally precarious time.
When they talk about the cumulative effect of chemotherapy and radiation, they don’t talk about the cumulative effect on the family: each stage takes longer for us to recover from too.
Season by season, these brief essays move through the family’s Minnesota world, showing how Babine and her relatives adjust to the presence of illness and try to soothe their matriarch. Her mother’s responses go through phases too, depending on her treatment, sending Babine back to her cookbooks, looking for a solution. The writing is impressionistic, which feels appropriate. The time after a diagnosis of serious illness in a loved one is surreal, and often it’s as if thoughts or perceptions appear out of the ether, dreamlike or nightmarish, depending on the moment. Babine’s near-dreamy musings at times capture that feeling well. She describes moments in the family’s days and intersperses these with her own musings and philosophies on what’s taking place.
I like the idea of miracles even as I am skeptical about the larger concept of who gets the miracles and who does not.
There’s a certain repetition of stories and topics, feeling disconnected rather than thematic. Sometimes this repeated information included the habit of naming secondhand Le Creuset cookware, an initially cute point for the author’s treasured collection that ended up mentioned too often in a short book. It can also be difficult at times to keep up with who’s who among family members due to identifying them with initials instead of names. I eventually gave up on trying to decipher who was in a given story and connect them to their previous appearances and only focused on what kind of role they had – child, adult, etc.
This book reads like the voice of someone softly, gently telling you their story of the time they spent in that unfortunate club a family immediately belongs to after a member is diagnosed with cancer. It has many soothing, relatable, and hopeful moments for those who have experienced similar. And especially for anyone who views food and cooking as cornerstones of family life, as a kind of constant even when everything has changed irreparably, even when our bodies betray or amaze us. It’s a quiet urging to take solace in the familiar and the sure things, in the simple process of following a recipe to its assured outcome when nothing else feels as certain.
I keep thinking about what is inside us that never goes away, love and fear, scars that are emotional and physical.
We can’t go back to the way we were. This time will always be the burn scars on my hands, the white slices of knife slips. It may not hurt anymore, but we are marked.
All the Wild Hungers:
A Season of Cooking and Cancer
by Karen Babine
published January 8, 2019 by Milkweed Editions
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.