Review of All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer by Karen Babine (Milkweed Editions, Jan. 2019)
Six Things This Book is About and What Happened When I Read It
- Cancer: Karen’s mother is undergoing cancer treatment. Karen and her sisters are looking after her. We hear about chemo and hospitalizations, but not in too much detail. Karen talks about her mother’s cancer as it appears in her own narrative. What it’s like to have her mother lying in bed, losing her hair, unable to eat. “There’s so much I want to know, to understand about what is happening to my mother,” she tells us.
- Cookware: Karen collects and names her cookware. She has a thing for cast iron skillets like her red Le Creuset she calls Poppy, and Minnie, an oval flame Descoware Dutch oven. The colors of the pans are described in detail and somehow it’s not boring. We understand that the heft and the history of each is so important to Karen.
- Family and Pancakes: These parents and sisters have a close bond and all live near each other. They like eating pancakes and other breakfast foods. There is one scene where they leave their mother in the hospital on Christmas Eve and go to the IHOP, because they can’t bear to eat anything other than pancakes and waffles as they normally would if she wasn’t sick. Later, Karen cooks aebleskiver pancakes on dedicated Nordic Ware and thinks about learning to make lemon curd filling, her niece’s favorite.
- Niblings: Niblings is – new vocabulary word – gender-neutral for nieces and nephews. Karen bakes with them, picks them up at the bus stop after school and genuinely enjoys hanging out with them.
- Minnesota: “January in Minnesota is color stretched thin, pulled until you can see through it, even the delicate aquamarine too cold to hold clouds,” Karen tells us. Minnesota landscape, lakes and gardens are all present in various essays. We learn that Karen and her family feel very much tied to the land and its traditions. They come from farmers and planters and much of this is passed on to Karen and her sisters, and now to the niblings.
- Motherhood, Sisterhood: Relationships float through the book and we understand that Karen’s family is absolutely at the center of her life. Her fear of losing her mother and her dedication to keeping her parents and her sister well fed are best illustrated by her intense pursuit of bone broth, even though she’s a vegetarian.
What Happened When I Read It
Karen writes with a calm pacing that allows her stories to unfold slowly on the page. As I walked slowly through the Minnesota cold with Karen, I thought about the illness and death of my own mother, my close relationship with my sister and niblings, and the fragility of life. I also thought about things that have been on my dream list for years and that I’ve never done. And so, before the book was over, I had registered for AWP19 and booked my trip to Portland. Thank you Karen.