People find a passion for cooking in many ways. A cancer diagnosis usually isn’t one of them.
But for Minneapolis author Karen Babine, a love of food grew out of a cabbage-sized tumor discovered in her mother’s uterus. In her new memoir, All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer, Babine takes on the challenge of appeasing her mother's changing tastes during and after surgery, chemotherapy, and hospitalizations.
“Feed a fever, starve a cold," she writes, "but what do we do for cancer?”
Growing up in rural northern Minnesota, food and cooking were “pretty utilitarian” for Babine’s family. Though her mother made bread weekly, access to fresh produce was scarce. Among the memorable dinners of Babine’s youth? Walter Mondale Hotdish (elbow macaroni, ground beef, and tomatoes).
“My mother… raising children in rural Minnesota in the 1980s, could not afford to be a bad cook. To be a bad cook was to waste food and that waste was unacceptable,” she writes.
After the diagnosis, food became a way for Babine to care for her mother. But because of dysgeusia (a condition that alters one’s sense of taste), mouth sores, and a feeling her mother called “dead belly,” Babine had to be creative with her cooking. Sometimes, that meant making food her mother could drink out of a mug, like soup or bone broth. Soft foods like mashed potatoes and comfort foods like pot roast were also well-received.
Babine went vegetarian after hearing a lecture on water and global security in which she learned that “the Great Plains is pumping out the Ogallala Aquifer at five times its replenishment rate.” But she didn’t shy away from cooking meat for her mother, either. In the book, she describes her experiences as a vegetarian in a butcher shop, which she approaches with curiosity and even wonder rather than disdain. “I didn’t have any ethical problems with meat so I have no problems cooking it,” she says.
Cooking also became a kind of meditation for Babine during her mother’s cancer treatments. “Days like these, I need to slow down, to take the hours required to make broth and stock, simmering mushrooms, Parmesan rinds, beef bones into something wonderful and useful,” she writes. She found food to be a form of community-building as well. “Food is meant to be shared,” she says. Neighbors brought meals once a week, and family gatherings during this difficult time continued to revolve around food.
Babine experienced the healing properties of homemade food, both for herself as the cook and for her ailing mother—though occasionally, she fell prey to the kind of magical thinking common when a loved one is ill. “I got kind of wrapped up in that one-to-one equivalency of ‘If I feed my mother bone things, her bones will stop malfunctioning.’ Obviously, it didn’t work like that,” she says.
There was some levity in the cooking and cancer treatment journey. Babine became obsessed with cast iron, that old-fashioned cookware that can go from oven to stovetop and vice-versa. She amassed a thrifted collection of skillets and Dutch ovens she loved so much she gave some of them names. She delighted in foods like aebleskiver (Danish pancake balls), risgrynsgröt (Swedish rice pudding), and rhubarb Bundt cake. Throughout, Babine was surrounded by a comforting cast of family members.
But while the book culminates on a cautiously optimistic note, the real-life story ended sadly. After almost a year and a half of remission, her mother’s cancer returned. She underwent radiation and surgery, but a tumor was found at her three-month check-up. She passed away on November 1, and missed seeing the completed version of All the Wild Hungers, published by Milkweed Editions this month.
Babine, who launches the book on Thursday at the Lynhall, hopes her painfully personal story will resonate with readers.
“There is great joy in food, but there are also some really interesting things to think about, even if cancer is not a part of your history or your present,” she says. “I’m hoping that the book is universal enough—between the food and the family and cooking with kids—that there are multiple ways for many different people to find themselves in it.”
All the Wild Hungers by Karen Babine
In Conversation With Beth Dooley
Where: The Lynhall
When: 7 to 9 p.m., Thursday January 17
Tickets: Free, but RSVP required