All the Wild Hungers by Karen Babine

Dear Karen Babine

As someone who also uses making food – “a mode of self-sufficiency”, a way of wrapping my head and hands around care I can give to others – to cope, I was drawn to how you shaped your hands around the mass of confusion and chaos in this book, All the Wild Hungers, which became yours as your mother resigned herself to chemotherapy, and what questions you let rise.  “What is inside us that never goes away”?  You ask us as you ask yourself. Possible answers eke themselves out as you buy a Le Creuset pan for $7.99 at the thrift shop and learn, from Google, to season her, as you watch your nephew “dump… an entire bottle of green sprinkles on a single cookie,”  as your mother has the “rare strength… to sit at the table” for the first time in days after her treatment…  All the Wild Hungers unfolds expansively in small gestures.  “There is chemistry here, even if I don’t understand it completely”. It is created like the “courses” of a meal, taken separately but appreciated together, leaving any reader feeling full.  

I’m led into this memoir in bursts, from different angles, in seemingly disjointed segments.  This book is full of moments asking exactly “where one thing becomes something else” – where the “insidious mess of cancer” becomes discomfort, where it is lodged, or may be “recast” in processes of cooking, of creation, of shared moments between siblings over a “balsamic-Dijon-lemon concoction”…  This book as inquiry “creat[es] a history” that we as readers can walk into about illness, about healing, about family, the very things that operate “beyond our logic and understanding”, and ask for our belief.   

Gently and painstakingly, the shared origins of remedy manifest through stories about Saint Urho, imagined grasshopper saint of the Midwest, fevered oncologist visits, and the process of making pastry that cradles as it nourishes the family that consumes it.  These broader narrative strokes remind that there’s something alienating, terrifying and also “wholesome” about bones that don’t always hold us up.  This is how the bones of a mother carry the cancer of a child, this is how bones can be cooked down into a hearty broth “cure for everything”. 

The same simultaneous hope and despair rippled by cancer through a family, through food, that “we still cannot… articulate the ways our bodies navigate the world” and its trauma, is tangibly expressed in these often-nonlinear, short-lengthed chapters with wide spacing.  Pay attention, they say.  Take it slow, and be nourished.  How like cooking, and how like lived experience – this book’s delineations renegotiate the boundaries, the limits of moments from “today” to “the next minute” that pass while the “food history of [a] family” works a time of cancer into stews, into perfect russet “golden roasties”.

With beauty, grace, and admirable humanity, this narrative marries human distraction, musings on the gloriously abstract, moments of panic…   An Alfred Andresen plättpanna (pancake) pan is broken before understanding of it is complete.  A mother is weak and suffering.  And yet the season of cancer passes and a mother “com[es] back to herself”, as a nephew with a growth hormone deficiency responds to treatment and begins to grow.  

There is a grounding focus here, a clear gaze in times of loss and uncertainty that fixes objects we can touch (Penelope Pumpkin “on the stove”) in time.  These creations mark history, and spur other things we can create to place time in a world whorled with creation, spinning ever faster than we have the words for.

This book masterfully navigates the “fundamental disharmony in the world”, so it is felt “between [the] bubbles bursting on the surface of a rolling boil” and the “dead belly” of a mother that cannot eat in the wake of a chemo treatment.  I so enjoyed watching the metaphors in the “space of uncertainty” become complex flavors – “old laughter”, “bright pride”, aebelskiver, and “birthday bourguignon” through which the “crack[s]” and “shard[s]” of cancer are folded into things that can fill us.

Thank you so much for writing this beautiful book!

Your Fan,

Migien Mocke