All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer is a collection of essays by Karen Babine about feeding her family while her mother dies of cancer. The book covers the dark winter months in Minnesota, from the moment her mother is diagnosed in October to the appearance of the first wild strawberries at her grandparents’ cabin on Third Crow Wing Lake in June. Sixty-four interrelated essays explore ways that eating and cooking can provide both physical nourishment and connectedness. While Babine prepares broccoli cobblers and pickled figs, she also meditates on how “we exist within systems, networks, the matrix of family and friends, patterns.” The food both strengthens and shapes those familial systems.
The knife edge between destruction and creation forms the core of All the Wild Hungers. The book starts by tracking the similarities between Babine’s sister’s pregnancy and their mother’s uterine tumor: “My sister is pregnant with a Lemon this week, Week 14, and this is amusing. My mother’s uterine tumor, the size of a cabbage, is Week 30, and this is terrifying.” Cooking and food ground Babine and her family in sensory pleasures and palliating sustenance. This underlying commitment to caregiving helps the family endure, even as they’re distraught about the chaos and unpredictability of their daily lives.
Another stabilizing thing for Babine is the collection of vintage cast-iron pots and skillets she finds in thrift stores and then restores for use. By assigning names to the cookware, Babine plays with the power of language to create a sense of meaning and community. For instance, her orange Le Creuset skillet, size 23, transcends its mere physical reality as a tool and becomes, instead, Agnes. This named vintage cookware creates a bedrock for her daily practice, teaching her how to prepare food, adjust temperatures, play with ingredients, and, ultimately, survive her grief. As she says, “Agnes is the color of risk, the risk of taking a chance on a thrift store skillet and entering a new world of wonder.”
This world of wonder is marked by a kind of magical realism, where skillets become family members and food becomes a language for navigating an unknown land. Babine herself links her quest to fairy-tale-like equivalencies: as she says about a recipe she perfects in a four-quart Dutch oven she names Estelle, “My pursuit of bone broth became the literal one-to-one equivalency of If my mother eats bones, her bones will be strong.” With her stories and cookware and names, Babine somehow transcends the brute and ugly reality of cancer with a cosmology of hope.
The essays offer detailed descriptions of pot roasts and broths, steaks and pies. They tell how to make some of the dishes, even though the book doesn’t include traditionally formatted recipes. Babine herself is a vegetarian, but she cooks meat for her carnivorous parents, and she does it with a gusto that can only come from deep love and care. She understands that in order to give her mother what she wants, she’ll at least occasionally have to make pot roasts: “Sometimes I braise the roast with leftover red wine, sometimes with broth, sometimes with water, sometimes with a generous dusting of my favorite spice blends.” Meat, after all, is part of the language her family understands.
Underlying this book’s personal story is a cultural history describing the fare of Swedish settlers in Minnesota—from Swedish pancakes at lake cabins to hotdishes in church basements. Babine often focuses on food and cooking’s spiritual significance, comparing the acts at various times to yoga, Lutheranism, science, and philosophy. Meaning, she finds, comes from turning the raw ingredients of a stew or soup into something new. The cook is a creator working in the face of many destructive forces, including cancer. At one point, Babine designs her own First Annual Holy Week
of the Kitchen, beginning with March 14, Pi Day, which is devoted to pies. Like a liturgy, this kitchen mass has its own genesis: “There was morning and there was evening and there was pie, the first day. And I looked around the kitchen at what I had created, and even though it wasn’t perfect, I saw that it was very good.”
When prepared with mindfulness, food becomes almost magical in All the Wild Hungers. It doesn’t keep her mother from declining, as she inches toward death over the course of the book’s narrative, but it does give a sense of shared purpose to the daily gatherings and rituals of a family trying to make the best of things in the midst of despair.
This book, Babine’s second essay collection, has faith that making something, and then making something else after that, will help stave off hungers of all kinds—physical, emotional, and spiritual. Cancer might sometimes seem to win, but food, love, and human connection will remain.
All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer. By Karen Babine. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2019. 184 pp. $16.00, paper.