- A Season of Cooking and Cancer
My sister is pregnant with a lemon this week, Week 14, and this is amusing. My mother's uterine tumor, the size of a cabbage, is Week 30, and this is terrifying.
When her mother is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Karen Babine—a cook, collector of thrifted vintage cast iron, and fiercely devoted daughter, sister, and aunt—can't help but wonder, "feed a fever, starve a cold, but what do we do for cancer?" And so, she commits herself to preparing her mother anything she will eat, a vegetarian diving headfirst into the unfamiliar world of bone broth and pot roast.
Julija Šukys, who is the author of three books of nonfiction that explore history, research, family, and self, met with Babine to discuss food, family, illness, writing, and love. The two of them collaborate on Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, which Babine founded and edits.
Karen, congratulations on your new book. It's a gorgeous, quiet, and moving read. With its subtitle "A Season of Cooking and Cancer," it tells the story of your mother's illness, her treatment, and the complex and beautiful web that makes up your family. But the organizing metaphor here [End Page 177] is nourishment. You once described All the Wild Hungers to me as "a book about the food metaphors of cancer." Can you talk a little bit about how you landed at this nexus, which, on first hearing, seems unlikely? And yet it works so well here.
Thank you! This book started when my mom was first diagnosed with a very rare cancer, which just happened to grow in her uterus, and her doctors started talking to us in food metaphors. It was a cabbage-sized tumor, they were working on her chemotherapy recipe, for which she would get an infusion. I knew my Sontag, so I knew the war metaphors of cancer, but the food metaphors were new to me—and as a cook, I didn't like something so terrible being described in food terms. As I started to write the book, other threads began to weave themselves in: my sister announced she was pregnant with her third child, and like many families, we tracked the baby's growth by what size fruit or vegetable it resembled each week. As my mother went through chemotherapy, and she became neutropenic, my three-year-old nephew was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency. At the same time, I kept finding all this very expensive vintage Le Creuset and Descoware cast iron at my local thrift stores, cookware I could never afford new. I'd never cooked with cast iron before, but it became a joy and gave me a purpose as I tried to make things my mom could eat. My sisters and I are vegetarian, everybody else in our family is a carnivore, and my nephew is also allergic to dairy, eggs, and peanuts—and so the food itself was not as simple as putting it on the table.
There was such unknowing around me and I started to cook against it, to find an entry point to knowing anything. I had to learn how to cook (basically) vegan for my nephew; I had to relearn how to cook meat for my parents. We live in Minnesota, so I also had to wrestle with what it meant to be part of a food culture in a cold climate, how my ethics were complicated by our need to import food in the winter, food deserts, and such. Food is never neutral. Food is political. It is the product of history, culture, and place.
This is a book comprised of 64 flash essays. Can you talk about how the form came to be? Did you plan it this way or did its fragmented form evolve as you worked? Did you experience any anxiety about the radical brevity of each piece? [End Page 178]
This book is a good example of the conversation between...