It was a regrettable day when the basket of Pink Ribbon cookies came in the office mail. Perky with sprinkles, they were, and loaded with unintended consequences.
They were meant to trumpet a product related to National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM), a campaign that has commanded attention for almost two decades of Octobers. It may be telling that I can't remember what specific item they were promoting. Baked at a size obviously meant for sharing, I'm sure they were made with care. But after a nibble I wondered: Were they in good taste?
This year's NBCAM juggernaut has extended into the kitchen like the bread that shoots out of Lucy's oven and pins her to the wall in those "I Love Lucy" reruns. For a breast cancer survivor like me, it's just as much of an intrusion -- not into the pleasure of eating, but into everything that's appetizing about food preparation, packaging and presentation.
Of course I support the efforts of sponsors and patrons who have generated big, big bucks for breast cancer research, education and treatment. I admire the new limited-edition Ford/Lilly Pulitzer Breast Cancer Awareness Scarf, modeled by the dazzling Demi Moore. I appreciate the Birdies for Breast Cancer being tallied by players on the LPGA tour. I certainly don't mind that the color pink gets co-opted once a year.
But someone's in the kitchen with cancer! With that, I have a serious beef.
Make no mistake: Strategic forces in the culinary world have been summoned to the cause. Bon Appetit magazine and kitchenware retailer Sur La Table are sponsoring in-store food tastings and face time with food celebrities. Gourmet magazine and KitchenAid have teamed up to present the likes of Le Bernardin chef Eric Ripert and Washington's own Jose Andres (Jaleo, Cafe Atlantico) to Cook for the Cure at dinners in cities across the country; the appliance manufacturer has also rolled out the latest versions of its famous stand mixer and matching gear (spatulas: Flip for the Cure?), all accented in pink.
Those who like to cook, entertain and fundraise among friends can send for a free Home Dinner Party Kit "complete with invitations, templates, menu suggestions, recipe and entertaining tips, plus an envelope and instructions for sending proceeds from parties directly to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation," according to an ad currently appearing in many women's magazines.
Did you know that you can also Snack for the Cure and Sip for the Cure, with specially marked bags of pink and white M&Ms and four new pink varieties from the Republic of Tea? Perhaps a true test of your sweet tooth would be digesting the Tickled Pink, "a raspberry cupcake with pink mascarpone frosting accompanied by a strawberry ice cream truffle and Pink Ribbon cookie." It's one of the featured Athena Desserts for a Cure (from the Web site: "You can help save lives by eating dessert") reported recently in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. That cookie, by the way, can be made with a Pink Ribbon cookie cutter available through a company in Vermont among others.
Maybe that cupcake sums up how I feel about this tactic in the fight against breast cancer: Good things can come together in a way that smacks of excess. How I wish the major domos of marketing had thought this one through before piling it on.
Eating can provide life's most accessible pleasures, and much of food memory is inextricably linked with intimate and shared experience -- at least, I think that way. An intimate experience with breast cancer is not so appealing, whether you've had it yourself or lived with someone who has. We're talking about loss of appetite, a metallic aftertaste that lingers for weeks, and treatment that is literally gut-wrenching. Certain food smells can turn your stomach, and the memories can last a lifetime, even with faith and a talented oncology team on your side.
It would be more palatable, perhaps, if the food-related companies involved in breast cancer awareness promotions simply donated a portion of their October sales and bypassed the impulse to leave an impression on the palate, or on our kitchen countertops. I know that Breast Cancer Awareness Month is not aimed at me, but the growing ranks of breast cancer survivors represent a sizable number of the very same eating, cooking demographic the campaign is reaching. I bet I'm not the only one who would rather keep what made us queasy a great distance from what we find so delicious.
I love food. Don't you? I revel in the just-split warmth of a homemade biscuit, that first salty hit of caviar, a lifelong embrace of all things chocolate. If you like to make food, you're privy to a whole other level of enjoyment, with the physical warmth of a humming kitchen and the creative outlet cooking provides. Even the language of food seems powerfully evocative: Fresh domestic foie gras baked in Pineau des Charentes, served cold with baked apple slices. Hand-cut fettucine with soft herb lie and shaved french black truffles. Pan-roasted lobster with chervil, chive and cognac. There's a reason why restaurants take care to lavish heaps of adjectives on their menus. They realize folks like me savor the du jour descriptions as much as the food itself.
Do I want cancer mixed in with all that? Thanks, but I've already had my fill.