“Cooking is just one more way to counter the unknowing in the world.”
All the Wild Hungers: Season of Cooking and Cancer (Milkweed Editions, 2019)
First of all, I read in your interview with Erica Rivera for City Pages that you hoped that the book was universal enough that people could read themselves in it, whether they were familiar with cancer or not. I think All the Wild Hungers does this so amazingly well. As someone who personally saw a complicated dynamic between food and cancer in my grandmother’s life, I haven’t found any other writing to portray this so accurately and earnestly. How did the food metaphors and representation of life through food, both pain and celebration, come to you? You said early on that you began seeing food everywhere. What made you see food everywhere?
The book really started when my mom’s doctors started talking in food metaphors—her cabbage sized tumor, the chemotherapy infusions, the drug cocktails. At the same time, my middle sister was pregnant and we were all following Baby Center for how big the baby was each week, and it was always a fruit or a vegetable. Because my mom’s was a uterine tumor, and my sister was pregnant, and both were described in food terms—that’s the friction that really started the book. I’m always looking for where ideas rub against each other to create heat, which is a different thing than tension or conflict. Here were several things that shouldn’t coexist in this way, and yet they were. After my mom recovered from the hysterectomy that removed the tumor and she started chemo, my goal, as someone who likes to cook, was to feed her anything she’d eat—and my stress relief of choice was thrifting, where I started to find all kinds of expensive Le Creuset and Descoware cast iron for really cheap. It started with a skillet, whose name is Agnes, and exploded from there. I’ve recently moved to Chattanooga and getting my cast iron up on the wall was one of my first projects.
How did you decide on the overall organization and form of All the Wild Hungers? How did you make the decision that 64 short essays works best?
I always knew that the essays would be short—and I kept thinking of them as micro-essays, because I wrote each of them to stand alone—but the overall organization didn’t come till later in the process. There wasn’t a particular order how I wrote them; they usually started with ruminations over what I had cooked the night before. I was doing Morning Pages—three pages of longhand writing before I did anything else in the day—and that’s how the book got written, three pages at a time. There isn’t a significance to 64. That’s just how many there were. In terms of large-scale organization, I wanted to avoid chronological order, and so I tried all kinds of options, including organizing by color, but in the end my editor asked me to try putting it in chronological order, which I did, and of course it solved all the problems I was having with connective tissue.
Throughout the book, there are so many surprising polarities presented via food metaphors. There is the obvious and perplexing comparison of the size of your sister’s baby in terms of fruit and vegetables contrasted with the size of your mom’s tumor. There is also the sharp contrast of emotions when considering the sorrowful, vulnerable moments of your mom’s illness alongside the lighter moments about comfort food and cast iron. Why does food play such a universal and all-encompassing role in our lives? At any moment, food seems to be present and even pivotal in shaping that moment. Why do you think that is?
Food is universal—we all need sustenance to survive. And it’s good to remember that food is never neutral. We place all kinds of values—and politics—over who gets food, who does and does not deserve assistance, food deserts, food culture growing out of specific places. Food is always political, always a link to some other idea, some other person, some other group. But in my own experience, food is how we love each other. I come from rural northern Minnesota. Where two or three are gathered, there’s always something to eat. The county where my hometown is grows all the potatoes for McDonald’s French fries, but I also remember the little old ladies in our church going out and gleaning potatoes in the fall to make lefse, which is kind of a very, very thin potato flatbread, sort of. Those ladies held so much history, so much food history in their hands. This week, I flipped through the 1986 Bethany Lutheran Church cookbook that holds my favorite banana bread recipe—Helen’s Banana Blueberry Bread—and made Dorothy Johnson’s Golden Delight pancakes. I wasn’t a huge fan of them, but honestly, there are few things in the world I trust more than old church cookbooks with recipe titles like “Never Fail.”
Another interesting polarity: When thinking about your love for research and the lack of research available for your mom’s type of cancer, how did you face this opposition and the acceptance of the unknown?
That part was really hard and I think that’s why I ended up so deep in cooking—it was something I could know, something I could depend on. When I started thinking about the many ways we deal with the unknown, I came to some of the essays on mythology, philosophy, chemistry. There are a thousand ways to know something.
In both this work and Water and What We Know, readers notice the strong sense of place and your deep roots in Minnesota. I was wondering if there is connection between your family’s traditions with food and being dependent on or related to place?
Oh, yes, without a doubt. I didn’t expect this book to be so strongly place-based, but the reality is that you can’t separate a food culture from its place. It’s dependent on how long the growing season is, what food deserts are in place, what the soil can grow, all of that. I was thinking about the food associated now with the pandemic, the various Twitter and Instagram accounts helping people cook what’s in their pantries—but a few weeks ago, as I was stocking up, I told my dad that I just needed to remember that we know how to do this. I needed to stock up like it was the early 1980s in northern Minnesota on one parental salary with the grocery store 15 miles away and a garden with a growing season of three months. I started thinking about what we ate when I was a kid. A lot of meat in the freezer, potatoes in the basement. I don’t have a garden anymore, but I do have a chest freezer (one of the first things I bought after I graduated and started my first job) and I stocked up on frozen veggies. I made my mom’s honey whole wheat bread a few days ago—I’m not a bread baker—and that’s going to take some practice, but all my classes are online now, so I have the time to let the bread rise while I do other things. The smell of it reminds me of my childhood, where my mother made that bread weekly because it was cheaper than buying it.
On the first page on All the Wild Hungers, you introduce yourself as a member of “a small, tightly knit family that likes to think in Proper Nouns, to name things.” Throughout the memoir, you bring this affinity for names to life. You affectionately refer to your niece and nephew as “the niblings,” and, as your vintage cast-iron cookware collection grows, each skillet, Dutch oven, and pot receives its own name: Agnes, Estelle, Phyllis, Poppy. By naming the niblings and the individual pieces of cast-iron cookware, you transform general into specific, abstract into concrete. By naming things, you acknowledge their importance. Does the same go for a book’s title? For you, a person with plenty of practice naming things, how does the title of All the Wild Hungers acknowledge the specific, concrete importance of the stories told within?
To be honest, I’m terrible at naming. I’m really bad at titles—All the Wild Hungers came from a dream, if you can believe it. But you’ll notice that the only people in the book who have names are those who have passed away. If they’re alive, they’re referred to by their initials. That was deliberate. I wanted the reader to start skipping over the initials, or substituting their own associations with those initials, towards that universal quality. The other part was that the only story I felt I could tell was mine. The kids couldn’t consent to being in the book, so I wanted to create some distance for that reason too. But I’ve always been a little weird in naming things. Most important objects in my life get a name.
All the Wild Hungers is subtitled “a season of cooking and cancer.” Though these topics seem unrelated at first, you tie them together by telling stories about the “food metaphors” your mother’s oncologists frequently used, such as “cabbage-sized tumor” or “drug cocktail.” These metaphors seem to trouble and fascinate you. Do remember when you first questioned a doctor’s use of a food metaphor? Could you immediately pinpoint why the metaphor troubled you?
The subtitle is a play on seasons of the year, seasoning food, and we ended up cutting out the third piece, which was cast iron, and you season your cast iron as well. It’s no secret in the book that I’m not fond of my mother’s oncologist and I’m still not. I always felt like he treated her cancer and forgot she was a person. I think I was probably predisposed to dislike anything he said.
About two-thirds of the way through All the Wild Hungers, you write: “This is the place where I fully ignore the ugly food metaphors of cancer and decide that I will create my own damn metaphors.” What new metaphors have you created since you finished writing All the Wild Hungers?
Nothing really since the book was finished, though this year was the first time in four years that I didn’t celebrate the Holy Week of the Kitchen. Social distancing and pandemic fears put the kibosh during that week and my cat died, so I didn’t really feel like cooking. But since moving to the south, I’ve been looking for the different ways food functions here and how I can be a part of it. In January, three friends and I started a cookbook club, where we choose one cookbook, the host makes the main dish, two make the sides, and the fourth makes dessert (obviously there can be more involved…we only had tables big enough for four). The first one was Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s The Splendid Table and I hosted. It was so much fun. February was Beth Dooley and Lucia Watson’s Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland at H’s house. March was supposed to be at A’s house, but we canceled because of the pandemic and had a virtual happy hour instead.
Throughout All the Wild Hungers, cooking seems to become a sacred ritual. At one point, you write, “I place my faith in old church cookbook recipes titled ‘Never Fail,’ today of all days, when we hold tight to the vehemence of I love you and that what remains are these: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.” If we’re defining religion in the broadest sense of the term, does it seem accurate to interpret cooking as a type of religion? Were you thinking about faith as you were writing All the Wild Hungers?
I think it’s more accurate to say that cooking is just one more way to counter the unknowing in the world. My dad’s a retired pastor and I’m fascinated by theology, even as I would have trouble identifying where my faith stands these days. But in that chapter, I’d just come from my friend’s wife’s funeral and even though I’m not Catholic, I was comforted by the rituals of the funeral.
One of my favorite moments in All the Wild Hungers was when you, a vegetarian, tried to master a recipe for bone broth. As you cooked, you thought, “If my mother eats bones, her bones will become strong.” This thought process seems similar to what Christians consider as they take communion, the idea that the body and blood of Jesus Christ give them the power to overcome their own sinful natures. Even if the religious connection wasn’t intentional on your part, does food, both the cooking and the eating of it, contain a healing component for you?
Oh, definitely—there’s a chapter in there about eucharist, and the idea of consuming the thing you want to become is a very old idea. Like I said, my dad’s a pastor and I grew up in a rural community in which food was a part of everything: coffee hour after church, soup suppers on Wednesday nights during Lent, lunches after funerals. The culture I grew up in believed in food as a way to love each other, a way to be together.
In an interview with Julija Šukys, you said, “Food is never neutral. Food is political. It is the product of history, culture, and place.” You allude to the relationship between social class identity and food when speaking about growing up in a household that is very conscious of waste, stating, “To be a bad cook was to waste food and that waste was unacceptable”. In what other ways do you see American identities connected and intertwined with food?
You can’t separate food from its place. We often think of corned beef and cabbage as quintessentially Irish, but corned beef was the cheapest cut of meat Irish Americans could get. The Irish in Ireland will have rashers of bacon—closer to ham than our bacon—with their cabbage. There’s a part in the book where I found a Swedish rice pudding recipe in an old Nebraska cookbook which resembled my own family’s recipe, except it was baked, not simmered. That probably reflected the fuel available in both places.
In the same interview, you talked about the role of research in your writing and how it is often your favorite part of the process, particularly for your nonfiction work. You said, “Most of the research I did was serendipitous, and it appeared when I needed it.” Do you find that this is often the case when writing nonfiction or was it a nice coincidence? How do you usually go about the research process while writing?
Research is my ignition point and it often comes from a place of serendipity, an article I read or a tweet, or something like that. It’s often the point that makes me want to go read more, figure out something I didn’t know before. The volcano essay from my first book, Water and What We Know, literally started by reading an article about the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption and learning that it was the largest landslide in recorded history, which caused my brain to go really? In all of recorded history, that was the largest? And that sent me on a scavenger hunt of research about volcanoes, which led to a lot of interesting places. I teach writing—and have taught first year writing for a long time—and a lot of my students consider research a dirty word. We only dislike research when it’s not something we choose. But we get lost in the links of Wikipedia all the time. One of my current favorite guilty pleasures of odd research is a blog called The Court Jeweller, which is about the jewels that various royal families are wearing. The history—and the sheer distance from my life and anything I understand—hits me in all the right places right now.
Do the process of cooking and the process of writing overlap? When reading about the way you care for the slow but rewarding process of making specific foods, I always go back to how similar and true this rings for writing. It’s often so slow and tedious but also so nourishing and healing. Do you see other similarities between the two?
I can see the similarities, for sure. Both of them often exist in their finished states in a way that makes it hard to see all the work that goes into their creation. It’s easy to forget that a piece of writing had a lot of drafts and revision under it, or that the beautiful Instagram dinner is the product of a lot of trial and error. Anything worth doing is worth learning the process of it, getting into the muscle memory of the thing. My mom made this wonderful honey whole wheat bread when I was growing up and I make it occasionally (bread isn’t my favorite baking activity), but I made some last week. The more you do it, the more you realize what the dough is supposed to feel like when you’ve kneaded it enough (I don’t think I knead mine enough), and the same is true for writing: when you know your process well enough, you recognize things about where you are in the writing that you can’t see otherwise.
Here’s a passage I love: “But this is the way we think about illness, about suffering, about crucibles, the goal of which is to come out on the other side with some sort of transcendent knowledge, a revelation, an epiphany, an arc toward recognizing how different we are now from who we were before cancer. But that’s ridiculous. We want that shining epiphany, but we don’t get it. I don’t know why we expect is, but we do.” Do you see this relating to writing at all– that either as writer or reader we expect to have those types of experiences? How do we deal with times, especially as writers, when that is not the case, when we expect the “shining epiphany, but we don’t get it”?
I really wanted to resist a narrative arc in this book, because there wasn’t a moment where we could say hallelujah, she’s cured! and then get on with our lives. I very deliberately don’t write about things that hurt very often, because it often does feel like there’s pressure to figure out what it means, what the experience has to teach us, and how it makes into the person we are, and I really wanted to acknowledge the fact that no, things don’t happen for a reason. They just happen. And we have to figure out our way through the best we can.
In your interview with Julija Šukys, you discussed the micro-essay as a variation of the prose poem: “Each micro-essay is based in an idea, not just an image or a story. Each piece presents an intense moment and idea, and then it’s over, and the reader can take a breath and digest it, and move on, or move away.” This innovative form truly fits the content of All the Wild Hungers, which twists the familiar narrative of cancer and recovery into something new, begging the question—which came first, the form or the content? When you started writing All the Wild Hungers, did you intend to experiment with form, or did you simply focus on the ideas?
I didn’t expect to experiment with form. In their original form, these pieces were much longer—and I only thought I’d get one essay out of it, but that quickly turned out not to be the case. As I was trying to empty my brain onto the page, I worked hard to figure out what I needed to do to make the page relevant to readers. I avoid thinking about how readers can relate, because as I keep going back to the Hmong memoirist Kao Kalia Yang quoting her father, that “the human life is individual, it is not unique”—and even if there’s been cancer in your experience, it’s not the same as my mom’s and that’s not enough to sustain a page. I needed to figure out a way in for a reader who had no experience with cancer—and for me, that always means towards playing with the ideas that underlie an experience. Experience, or story, then, becomes the example, or the illumination, of something else.
The micro-essay seems to be a relatively new form. Since All the Wild Hungers contains 64 of them, you seem like a bit of a pioneer. Have you considered your role in shaping a larger literary movement? Do you expect the micro-essay to become an increasingly popular form?
Nah, it’s not new—Brevity has been publishing flash nonfiction for twenty years.
In that last question, I asked you to look forward to the future of the micro-essay. In this question, I’d like to ask you to look backward. Who did you draw inspiration from when writing All the Wild Hungers?
Flash nonfiction wasn’t a form I’d spent much writing in before this book, so I did a lot of reading, a lot of research into it, from going back into Brevity’s archives, rereading Dinty Moore’s awesome Rose Metal Field Guide to Flash Nonfiction, but I also spent a lot of time reading short books, to figure out what made them tick. I read Brian Doyle’s The Wet Engine, Julija Šukys’ Siberian Exile. I did a lot of reading into prose poetry, particularly looking at the poetic volta. It was a good reminder that the genres have more to learn from each other than separates us.
At times, your writing questions the idea of the individual as something that can exist apart from its place or its community. You discuss the science of cells from other people existing within our own bodies, and you mention the “generational memory” tied to some of your favorite recipes. However, in your interview in Fourth Genre, you argue that “while we may have common experiences, it’s absolutely impossible for us to relate to the experience of another.” There’s an interesting juxtaposition here. Our identities are strongly tied to things like our biology, memory, history, and community, but we still struggle to identify with each other. In All the Wild Hungers, or your writing in general, how do you deal with this juxtaposition? Do you try to craft an on-page persona that readers can relate to, or do you try to appeal to universal themes, or do you do something else entirely?
One of the most interesting conversations I’ve had with my students this semester involves talking about how the writer is the one who controls how much the reader knows and it’s the writer who controls how close the reader gets to the subject. I taught the Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy, who wrote her first book in 1964 about biking from Ireland to India alone, and she’s got a very distant narrator on the page. We never get very close to what she’s thinking or feeling—and there’s even a scene in Azerbaijan where she is almost raped, but the entire scene is only a paragraph long, and the tone doesn’t change. She could be writing about what she had for breakfast. She had to be terrified, but we don’t see that in her narrator—and then we could talk about why she made that choice, why she probably chose to include that moment in that way, and how she was a solo woman traveling when few women were writing that work. The majority of travel writers were (and still are) men. Her readers would likely be men. She likely didn’t want to give them any excuse to say well, what did you expect, traveling alone? In that interview with Julija, she commented that readers don’t get to know me very well by the end of it—and that’s deliberate. The book isn’t about me. I’m just the one taking all these pieces and trying to make sense of something that is fundamentally inexplicable.
Karen Babine is the author of All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer and Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life, winner of the 2016 Minnesota Book Award for memoir/creative nonfiction. She also edits Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. She is currently an assistant professor of English at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.