When my mother-in-law was dying, I cooked. We brought her home from the hospital, the doctors having said there was nothing more they could do, and set her in her chair by the fire. Her husband of 45 years drifted through the house, his too-large belt cinched tight; her daughters seemed to fade into faint sketches of themselves; my husband, reading to his mother, looked drawn and grey. It took a few days, perhaps a week, for it to finally dawn on me why everyone was disappearing and there was no food in the house: only my mother-in-law knew how to cook.
So I cooked. I cooked everything I could think of, look up, or invent. I cooked against cancer, I cooked to ease grief, I cooked to keep myself busy and out of the way. I cooked for my increasingly fragile in-laws as if their lives, too, were at risk of being blown out by a sudden gust of wind.
Karen Babine writes the way she cooks: with a fierce and stubborn tenderness, with passion and precision, savoring each nuance and detail. She cooks, and writes, with the steadiness and strength of someone in full command of both her kitchen and her craft. In All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer, Babine’s second book, she has woven these threads together so deftly that it becomes difficult, and perhaps unnecessary, to tease them apart. Part meditation, part memoir, part philosophical assay, this collection explores the ways in which we try to nourish, heal, and keep each other whole.
When the book opens, the author has just started to amass a smattering of rare vintage cookware, often finding pieces hidden away on high thrift store shelves. But when her mother is diagnosed with a rare form of uterine cancer, Babine’s search changes tone. The world as she knew it falls away sharply as this season of cooking and cancer begins. “Halloween came a week after my mother was diagnosed, two days before she was scheduled for surgery because nobody wanted to wait…before I lost myself in the food metaphors of cancer, before I started hunting all that bright, expensive cookware in my local thrift stores, before the quest for cast iron became an obsession to keep me grounded, before my orange Le Creuset skillet became an explosion of color and delight that gave me a dedicated purpose, before I began cooking for my mother against the feeling that food had become something to be feared.”
Babine uses cooking, and cookware, as both metaphor and springboard, leaping from the material to the spiritual and back again with remarkable ease. “Is it too much to say that I love this pot, the kind of visceral happiness that should be reserved for people, not inanimate objects? And yet: I love this pot. We tend to disparage the pleasure of things, the joy we gain from objects, but in their best sense, things are icons…windows between ourselves and God.”
The seasons turn from autumn to winter, and the reader becomes sharply aware that the seasons of life turn as well. As Babine’s mother undergoes surgery and then chemotherapy, this close-knit family undergoes a transformative process along with her, one that is painful, frustrating, and exhausting for them all. “On days like this,” Babine writes, “I need the physicality of cooking: I need the tension of a spatula through a cake batter, I need the action on the surface of a simmer, I need the chop.”
This is a far-ranging and thoughtful collection in which the author touch on topics as seemingly disparate as wild rice and the health of the environment, politics and the malleability of certain types of dough, somehow finding the thread that connects the literal to the abstract, the small to the mighty, the microcosm of her kitchen to the larger world. “While the idea of broccoli cobbler might be suspicious,” she points out, “it is not actually absurd: the idea of the absurd, to philosophers, is about the fundamental disharmony in the world and the human response to it….On its face, then, my collection of thrifted Le Creuset and Descoware and Cousances and Copco cast-iron pots and pans is not absurd. It is, perhaps, ridiculous, but it is not absurd.”
This slender, densely packed collection is haunted, but never overpowered, by an acute anticipatory grief. “Then came the day when I learned that cast iron is not indestructible, the day I turned the heat too high, too fast, under my very old Alfred Andresen plattpanna pancake pan. The crack sounded like an explosion in the kitchen, loud, sharp, shards of sound making dents in the walls….I had just started to understand this pan. And then it was gone.”
The urgency of illness and the possibility of loss cast our ordinary days into stark relief, distilling life to its essence. Our focus shifts to what is immediate, palpably present, here and now: the needs of the body, the needs of the children, the ill and infirm. And sometimes the most we can offer in the way of comfort is an old family recipe, or a nutritive broth made from bones.
And sometimes that is enough. In one of her characteristically lovely, observant passages, Babine writes, “Before long, the house takes on the most spectacular scent, a rich kind of sharpness, what the most potent love must taste like in those moments where we are most helpless, deep in sleep or fear. Eating our feelings is pejorative, something shameful in this desire to find comfort in food, but I find delight in the fat from the melting cheese having woven itself into lacelike bubbles on the surface, slightly darker than the golden broth, and eating my feelings seems healthy and desirable, the movement back into murmurs of pumpkin and honey as my small nephew fights against sleep in my arms.”
Marya Hornbacher is an award-winning essayist, journalist, novelist, poet, and the New York Times bestselling author of five books. She is the recipient of the Annie Dillard Award for Nonfiction, the Logan Nonfiction Fellowship, the Barthelme Prize for Short Prose, and other honors. She teaches in the MFA programs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Augsburg University.