All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer
By Karen Babine
Milkweed Editions, 2019
$16.00, 184 Pages
Review by Donna Steiner
I’ve been reading Karen Babine’s All the Wild Hungers (Milkweed Editions, 2019) only during breakfast, which I usually eat alone, a ritual done in the most peaceful part of my day. Fruit, some simple cereal. Tea one in a white porcelain mug, for enjoyment; tea two purely for the caffeine, to get me ready for the day. The morning is mine; I can relax for just a bit before preparing for the parts of life that involve other people, noise, demands. All the Wild Hungers effortlessly lent itself to this ritual.
I began marking sections I wanted to return to, and it quickly became clear that I’d be marking the whole book. The sections, each of just a few pages, are poetic micro-narratives. Let’s call them chapters. Or let’s call them essays, or call them essays that align: brief, meditative, radiant passages that add up into a version of memoir.
All the Wild Hungers is about the writer’s devotion to cooking for her family, particularly after her mother is diagnosed with a rare cancer. But it’s also about knowing things before you really know them, about doing all you can to resist knowledge that builds at the periphery or in the distance, storm clouds you hope the wind will push away rather than toward you. Babine’s mother is told she is “cancer free” after surgery. This is, of course, good news. But Babine recognizes:
“…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 bright shining epiphany, but we don’t get it. I don’t know why we expect it, but we do. Anything that hurts this much, we think, should come with some sort of insight as a reward from the universe. So we keep waiting.”
As Babine waits for her mother to recover, she collects colorful, secondhand cookware upon which she bestows charming names (Estelle, Agnes, so on) and uses to make meals for the family, although her mother rarely has an appetite. “It is December,” she writes, “my mother is three weeks into chemotherapy and I am still learning what it means to be a vegetarian cooking for carnivores.” Babine’s vegetarianism rises from a deep concern with water pollution caused by farms, but her love for her family is fierce, and fierce love is clarifying. When her mother is finally ready for real food, Babine tells the story of preparing a roast. In the telling we encounter a Food Network reference, a brief history of Minnesota waters and farming, the author’s use of a freezer – her first purchase after securing her first good job – and a discussion of the complexities of taking a true ethical stance. This is covered in three pages, but the writing is not dense, the stance is not didactic. Individual essays are focused, but many have this range.
Babine has a deft touch with language and the ability to convey complex feelings with clarity. She evokes depth of feeling without being dramatic. I wanted to read parts of the book to a loved one the way a kid wants to show a friend her skinned knee. Don’t touch where it hurts/but this is where it hurts. She is fully living her story, but also studying and analyzing it – recognizing its value, placing it in context. The writing combines Lia Purpura’s lyrical precision and the clear-eyed directness of Roxane Gay.
I admired the anti-velocity of the narrative, its attention to the small moment, its recognition that small moments are often big moments. My parents, both of them, died not too long ago, and they did it in a one-two punch – 7 weeks apart – that left me reeling. Babine’s story is not my story, but the pleasure (that is not the right word, but it will do) is her lucidity in the face of confusion and love in the face of fear. Her vast curiosity and intelligence have yielded a book of struggle, engagement and comfort.
“Comfort is external,” she claims. “Comfort is a full-body experience, the emotional need being taken care of through the physical.”
Much of this book is about beauty and comfort, much of it is about the things that lend order, that anchor a life in the face of uncertainty (I offer a nod to Milkweed Editions and art director Mary Austin Speaker, who produced a beautiful book that is a pleasure to look at and to hold). Just as Babine uses her beloved cookware, the book itself grounds, as an artful object both within and on its surface.
All the Wild Hungers is an exhilarating comfort, in recognizing Babine’s engagement with the surreal time between diagnosis and what comes after diagnosis, and in savoring (that is the right word) the eloquence and care that has gone into sharing her story.