When Karen Babine’s mother was diagnosed with a form of cancer that usually strikes children under the age of ten, her doctors surgically removed a tumor the size of a cabbage from her abdomen and recommended a regimen of chemotherapy to guard against a recurrence. Karen moved in with her collection of vintage cast iron skillets, a rainbow collection of Le Creuset, gathered from thrift stores, restored, and lovingly named as if each was a precious child to cook her mother back to wellness. In each of the vignettes in this collection, All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer, the most important ingredient is love.
Karen’s family gathers together to support her mother and share a dinners of homemade chicken soup, boeuf bourguignon, and their favorite, breakfast for dinner. They gather to celebrate birthdays with aebleskiver, a buttery and golden-brown perfection achieved eventually through the family’s encouragement to “keep practicing.”
“’Keep practicing,’ we’d say with our mouths full, because in our house, Keep Practicing is the best compliment a cook can receive; even if the cake or the pot roast or the tomato soup is the best you’ve ever eaten, you always tell the cook to Keep Practicing, so they’ll keep making it. Keep Practicing, because once perfection is achieved, there is no point in repeating it. We make our own philosophy. Every family does.”
During the season of her mother’s illness, Karen and her family learn to slow down. She cooks stock from scratch. She cooks for her family of carnivores, though she herself is a vegetarian. She learns to make the protein-rich broth that helps strengthen and restore her mother after sessions of chemotherapy. She entices her with comfort foods when she experiences the “dead belly” of chemotherapy’s after effects.
Babine is a poet and a scholar, and her essays are laced with lyricism, as well as scientific facts. When her mother experiences neuropathy from the chemo she writes: “A lack of B12 can damage the nervous system as well as affect the brain functions.” Returning home after a doctor visit, she puts her pot named Phyllis on the stove to simmer soup for dinner, “that gorgeous cheerful shade of cobalt blue – Co – and I think about how cobalt is part of B12. I wonder if I could form an entire alphabet of neuropathy if I tried, if this is a new language I can create and put on the table.”
Babine comes from a family of cooks. Her grandmother’s rice pudding was the highlight of many potluck Sundays at Bethany Lutheran Church in Nevis, and woe to the poor soul at the back of the line who would miss out. Her grandmother would share her recipe as well as her advice: “Don’t rush it and don’t try to substitute ingredients.” Babine learned well.
I recommend All the Wild Hungers for fans of Water and What We Know, Girl with a Knife, and In Winter’s Kitchen.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.