Reviewer Katie Asher Talks Sorrow and Scalded Rye Bread with Karen Babine, Author of All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer
Have you felt it yet—the urge to know more about your parents and their parents and your family’s ancestry on down the line? Perhaps, you want to know where your green eyes and freckles came from, or maybe a death in the family caught you off guard and, misty-eyed, prompted questions about where you came from, who you are. The fact is, as humans, we’re wired this way. The genius of evolution assures us a primal sense of family attachment.
Karen Babine, author of All the Wild Hungers, has been the family historian since her teen years, but with her grandparents long deceased, and her mother laid low by cancer and dreaded chemotherapy, she suddenly felt the call of kinship at a much deeper level. To cope with the grief and stress—and to prepare some Minnesota comfort food to kickstart her mom’s appetite—she found a place of refuge in the kitchen. She calls herself a “stress baker,” and in the interview below, points to a newly emerging body of research on brain chemistry and cooking, proving “that there’s literal science behind my stress baking and why I feel so good when I do it.”
Katie Asher raved about All the Wild Hungers in her review for the January/February issue of Foreword Reviews. While we don’t often feature memoirists in these Face Off interviews, Karen’s writing is so special, we couldn’t help ourselves.
In a portion of All the Wild Hungers, you write about your family history, where certain traditions and recipes come from. Did you know this familial history before you started writing, or was there a lot of research involved? Who was the family member who taught you the most about your family history, the one you went to the most with questions while you wrote?
I’ve always been interested in family history—and history in general—and I became the unofficial family historian for both sides when I was about seventeen. I’ve become the person that people ask when they have questions, and then I’ll say things like “It was a Tuesday,” which results in a lot of “How can you possibly remember that?” Gram was a history and English teacher and because my mom’s an only child, we spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents when I was growing up. Gram had great stories that weren’t exactly stories, comments like drawing lines on the back of her legs during the war because they couldn’t get pantyhose or starting at St. Cloud Teacher’s College in 1940 and the Dean of Women telling them not to wear red because it inflames the men’s passions.
I love digging into census records and other archival records, because history is only boring when you forget it’s about real people. History is context. What’s kind of funny is that all my dad’s stories from when he was on active duty for the Air Force flying C-130s are all food stories. Steak in Uruguay, paella in Spain. Food memories are his trigger for the larger story. Even the stories of my parents’ courtship are food stories, like the time dad crashed mom’s family Thanksgiving with the German side of the family.
I love research because it’s the pursuit of a curiosity. I always want to know the whys and the hows. My family’s traditional Christmas dessert is risgrynsgröt—rice pudding—and my grandma would tell stories of her mother having the pot on the back of the stove to cook slowly during the day. In my family research, I knew that our family had gone back and forth from Minnesota to Nebraska after they immigrated in the 1860s, and so when I lived in Nebraska, I went hunting through thrift stores for old church cookbooks to see what I could find and I learned that the Nebraska Swedes were more likely to make risgrynskaka—rice-grain-cake—and it was baked, but everything else was the same, down to the dried bean, and whoever found the bean would be the next to be married (or, in our family, got to make a wish).
I started to wonder about food culture and place at that point, how a common recipe needed to be adapted to the fuel of eastern Minnesota and the fuel of the Nebraska prairies they would have used to heat those ovens and stoves. I’m really loving old church cookbooks these days—which is a thing I often forget is still research—and I have the 1949 cookbook from Faith Lutheran Church in Forest Lake, MN, where my grandmother grew up, and it’s like a time capsule of what people were eating, what ingredients were available in the years after the war, and what they assumed those who read it would know. The Dust Bowl and the Depression were still fresh in their minds. My great-grandmother’s recipe for Scalded Rye Bread is in there and it’s so sparse on details that I can’t figure it out. It’s like a technical challenge from the Great British Baking Show: “Make the bread. Good luck.”
By the time I started writing this book, all four of my grandparents and paternal great-aunt (who was the historian on that side) had passed away. My mom was the only one left to ask when I had questions, but when I did, it was mostly to hear her voice. A month before she died, my niece and I were making apple pie to freeze ahead of time for Thanksgiving and I kept asking questions I already knew the answer to—how thin the pastry? How hot the oven? How cold the shortening?—because I couldn’t not ask. She was stable at that point and still pretty functional, but the doctors had stopped talking about a cure months before and we were just wondering how long we’d have with her.
Are you a synesthete? I ask because I am, I connect colors to letters and numbers in my brain, and while reading your essays, I noticed you connect colors and emotions quite often. Oranges, whites, and yellows become different feelings and memories. Has this always been noticeable in your life, this connection with color? Was the connection forged, or have you always had a relationship with emotional color connections?
I don’t think I am actually synesthetic, though I really would like to be—I’ve been enthralled with the idea since I first read Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses. I would love to hear color and taste music—and I was thinking about this the other day because my niece got a set of Mr. Sketch markers from Santa and my internal third grader was instantly jealous. The scents of those colors were truly perfect, the blueberry and the cherry and the lemon yellow. I think my sensory combination are more association than synesthesia, the result of the way that phrases ping around in my brain.
It’s only in recent years that I started paying attention to the color on a plate, memories of monochromatic chicken and potatoes that never bothered me at the time, and then I started wondering how the stereotypical Minnesota Scandinavian food was more complicated than my Swedish grandmother refusing to do more than salt and pepper her food. How was my own culinary heritage more than a punchline? It’s true that Minnesota has a vibrant food culture, especially in the Twin Cities, with incredibly diverse food from our large populations of Hmong, Somali, Liberian immigrants and refugees, and others who make this place so incredible. But the diversity of Minnesota food goes beyond the metro area—when I think about how food is influenced by the different bioregions within Minnesota, it’s fun to realize that the food of the Iron Range is so different than the food from the southwestern prairie where my German grandfather came from and that’s different from the north-central Lakes Country I come from. I’ve discovered in the last few months that I’m very sensitive about the mocking of hotdish, because the easy joke doesn’t take into account the influence of place on food culture, the fact of food deserts in rural Minnesota, the need for shelf stable pantry food, as well as realities of economics and a place that has a very short growing season. I didn’t realize how tall my soapbox on this subject was until very recently.
Most of the Swedish food traditions in my family are desserts—and those are incredibly white, very monochromatic. The Swedes are very good at dairy, especially at Christmas, and I’ve been thinking about this lately as I didn’t get to bake Christmas cookies this year (partially due to mom’s death) and the lack of them was upsetting to me, but I had to let it go. Our tradition when I was a kid was to go get the Christmas tree on the Friday after Thanksgiving, because my dad was a pastor and the house had to be decorated for the annual Parsonage Open House they hosted on the 2nd Sunday in Advent. This meant that my mom and grandmother baked a metric ton of cookies in a short period of time—spritz, krokonner, sandbakkels, wonder cookies—to serve to all those people, along with coffee and mom’s amazing spiced cider. We have a cherry cookie recipe that came from dad’s side of the family and that’s about the only colored cookie we make. The color came from the people, the conversation and laughter, the lights and decorations.
We all cope with tragedy and stress in different ways. Did you know when you were cooking, and writing, that that was what you were doing? Did it help? What did your family think of your ways of dealing with your mother’s cancer?
There’s two parts here: the first is when all this cast iron started showing up on the thrift store shelves and I kept bringing it home. I love thrift stores. Dad started joking about reinforcing the floor and “how many do you need?” became common reactions, especially when I started bringing home duplicates of Nordicware pans. I liked the idea of cast iron as indestructible (though I learned otherwise when I cracked my plattpanna one day), and it was access into a food history that was not mine, but I wanted to know anyway. As a vegetarian, I’d gotten out of the habit of cooking meat, but I kind of missed it, so having the dutch oven that could go from stovetop to oven when making a pot roast was really handy. And then I tapped into other memories, like the chicken rice bake my mom would make before church when I was a kid and the crunchy rice around the edges was just like the tahdig that I was learning how to make now in my favorite skillet. It was the best kind of cultural overlap I could imagine.
But I am a stress baker and have been for years. I’m a good friend to have during finals week. It’s something productive I can do, it’s predictable in its result (mostly), and I have to concentrate just enough that part of my brain can spin off and think through what caused the stress in the first place. It’s interesting to see the research now on brain chemistry and cooking—that there’s literal science behind my stress baking and why I feel so good when I do it.
But when mom was going through chemo, our neighborhood rallied around us and brought food every week, because I just couldn’t keep up. These days, our neighbor’s wife has quickly-progressing Alzheimer’s and I’ve been cooking a little extra to bring to them. I think this week I’m going to bring them tomato soup.
We did pretty well managing mom’s nausea during chemo, thanks to her amazing palliative doctor (I cannot recommend palliative enough to people who are going through things like chemo—it’s not just for end of life), but managing mom’s dysgeusia, which he told us was the technical term for “food tastes like shit,” was harder. Mom called it dead belly, the feeling like her midsection had turned to concrete, and she just didn’t want to eat. We also learned that she had about twenty four hours between chemo and when she’d crash and not be able to get out of bed for three days, so we learned she had to eat something in that time, even though she didn’t feel like it. I made mashed potatoes, chicken stock from scratch that she could sip out of a mug, wild rice hotdish. Mostly soft foods, comfort foods. This past spring though, a few months before she died (two years after the end of chemo), when the cancer came back a third time, only a month after she’d had surgery to remove a new giant tumor, she started to lose weight rapidly and not because she wasn’t eating, and so we resorted to heavy cream in her potatoes, chocolate syrup in her Ensure.
The structure of All the Wild Hungers is in essay form, and I really enjoyed the short anecdotes. Was there a reason for that type of writing structure? Was there a benefit to essays as opposed to a novel?
Kao Kalia Yang, the wonderful Hmong memoirist, said something this summer that has resonated with me, something her father said: “The human life is individual. It is not unique.” I’ve been thinking about that a lot in the context of this book. I could have written this as a memoir, but it didn’t start out as a story for me—it started by being so disturbed by the food metaphors of cancer that my mom’s doctors were using. I know my Susan Sontag, I know Illness as Metaphor. But I hadn’t encountered the food metaphors before—and as a cook, that didn’t sit well with me. The nonfiction I like best always starts in those moments of friction.
With mom and her cancer, there really wasn’t a narrative—she had cancer and the chemo was awful. A lot of people’s moms have cancer. It wasn’t a unique story. At the same time, I was doing Morning Pages, three longhand pages of writing before I did anything else in the day, and often it just started with what I’d cooked the day before and it usually ended up in a completely different mental place. As the book progressed, though, the pieces kept getting shorter and shorter, as I was really interested in playing with the line between flash nonfiction (and what I started calling micro-essay) and prose poetry. I was also influenced by a number of short-form nonfiction books, the nonfiction novella, and since I was already playing with the imprecision of language, the form itself was an interesting experiment. It was also a good exercise in finding out that each book chooses its own form, how much form is dictated by content. My first book was a collection of place essays and the next one will be the first longform narrative that I’ve ever done. This book really wanted to be short explorations of an idea and those ideas went from everything from my grandmother’s ectopic pregnancy and hysterectomy to my sister’s third pregnancy to cooking with the niblings (and finding out that the gender-neutral for nieces and nephews is nibbling) to stories of food in the family.
But it’s interesting that you asked about why I didn’t write this as a novel—as readers, we seem to be demanding that nonfiction resemble novels, especially for longform narratives like memoir. As somebody who works in and studies nonfiction, this is really interesting. But I’m finding that I can’t write about my mom’s death (she died six weeks ago) in nonfiction, so I’m writing in fragmented fiction, because I need the distance of this grief happening to a character, not to me. Many of the stories are rooted in something that happened, but fictionalized as the main character comes home to help out in her family’s antique orchard as her mother develops dementia. My grandparents managed an apple orchard in southern Minnesota in the 1960s, so apples are part of my culinary history, but a friend gave me all kinds of heirloom apples from his in-law’s orchard this fall—and that’s where the shape of the novel came from.
This fall, as mom was in and out of the hospital, and my friend brought me a different kind of apple every week, I got mildly obsessed with cidering them and doing tastings with my mom in the little cordial glasses that we never know what to do with. On the equinox, I cidered some Chestnut Crabs and she sipped it, and said, “It tastes like Jefferson Street, like the laundry room in the basement and the chest freezer filled with half gallon containers that my mother got from the local dairy, filled with all that juice from the cider squeezing party at the orchard in the fall.”
Then I cidered some Sweet 16s and we compared them. Later that day, I went to the liquor store and went through the box of shooters near the cash register for flavors that would go well with apple—roasted pecan whiskey, white rum, cinnamon whiskey, honey whiskey—and then we had a cocktail party and kept trying new combinations to find which one we liked the best. Not enough for an essay, but enough to start a short story. Genre—and form—is like something you turn over in your hands until you find what fits best on that day, for that particular moment.