A Midwestern writer finds what comfort she can in food and family as her mother suffers through chemotherapy.
How do you hold it together when things are falling apart? As Babine (Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life, 2015) suggests in these short, often impressionistic chapters, through the familiar, through ritual, and through tradition. The author addresses cooking, the weather, and the state of modern medicine, among numerous other topics, but always with the thematic undercurrent of her mother’s health and mortality in general. Her mother had suffered through a cancer that typically occurs in children, and though her doctors considered her cancer-free, they strongly recommended chemotherapy to keep her that way. “We are reminded, many times,” writes the author, “that if she does not do chemo, there is a 70 percent chance of recurrence and a 40 percent chance of survival; with chemotherapy, she has a 90 percent chance of survival if it returns.” So her mother submitted to chemo, and life went on. The author also chronicles her sister’s pregnancy, the death of a friend’s spouse from cancer, and her father’s sickness. Through everything, Babine cooked, sometimes for her mother and for others in her family, always to have some sense of order and control, a recipe with ingredients and instructions, in a world gone haywire. It’s clear that for the author, food sustains like a lifeline or even a bloodline; there are traditions among the Swedish in Minnesota, wisdom passed down through generations. Babine found Le Creuset cookery in secondhand stores that she never could have afforded new, and she gave each of her new pots and pans a name. She also discovered “the kind of pastry I want to build my life with.” She continues to navigate her way through extraordinary challenges with ordinary comforts, finding poetry in the everyday.
Reading this quiet book should provide the sort of balm for those in similar circumstances that writing it must have for the author.