The night before I began my first clinical trial for leukemia, my then-girlfriend Jessica and I argued about a hoagie.
“You know you can’t eat that,” she said. Clutching the classic Philly Italian cold-cut sandwich in my hands, I looked at her, uncomprehending. “You can’t leave meat and vegetables under the Texas sun all day,” she continued. “It’s a salmonella hothouse.”
We had just returned to the Houston home of a close friend, where we had been staying during the run-up to the trial at MD Anderson Cancer Center. We were there because my leukemia hadn’t responded to the initial treatment and because my oncologist in Austin, where I lived, had said something alarming: “We may have to put you on a bland diet.”
[Make the recipe: Louie’s Cure-All Beef Stew.]
As the saying goes, sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. When I told my oncologist about my interest in the interferon trial, he replied, “They just do a bunch of voodoo down there.”
Voodoo? Beats a bland diet any day.
We got to Houston within a week. The following days were a blur: CAT scan, blood work, EKG, bone marrow biopsy, forms — lots of forms. And then came the night before the trial.
It was November. In Texas, that month can be hot, and this one was. The hoagie had been sitting all day in FedEx packaging on the stoop of my friend’s house.
We didn’t know it was a hoagie until we got inside and opened the box. This was not just any hoagie. It was a hoagie from my childhood shop, the Drexel House, in suburban Philadelphia, sent as a good-luck gesture by my brother, Ric.
I held the sandwich in my hands and gazed upon its beauty: the creamy tan long roll, crisp outside and squishy inside, encapsulating a perfection of ham, salami, hot capicola, sliced tomatoes, onions and lettuce, all sprinkled with salt and oregano and drizzled with olive oil and wine vinegar.
“It was sent with love,” I told Jessica. “Nothing sent with love can harm you.”
[Make the recipe: Philly Italian Hoagie.]
It can, though, emit a sour odor. I took a bite anyway. Then another. And another. The flavor was slightly . . . off. Yet each bite conjured, like Proust’s madeleine, a blur of childhood memories. There was my father, with his wavy black hair and crooked smile, who would die of cancer at 43, when I was 17. My mother, young and beautiful, a 1950s housewife, in her apron at the stove of our tiny kitchen. Box hockey at my elementary school. Pinball at the pizza joint. Baseball in the back yard. The girl in fourth grade who swung her leg back and forth, flipping her shoe on and off her foot.
This was some hoagie.
I ate every bite, honoring the spirit in which it had been sent. The slight pang in my belly would pass, right? Wrong. Later, in bed, I was awakened by a horrible, sour rumbling in my gut. I raced to the bathroom, where I more or less stayed the rest of the night, throwing up.
The next day, I began the interferon treatments. I plunged a small vial of the protein subcutaneously into my upper thigh, an act I would repeat three days a week for months. I suffered no side effects. No headaches, No fever. No nausea.
I credited the hoagie, but Jessica was skeptical. “You got lucky,” she said.
That was 1985, and things since then have mostly gone well. My spleen was removed, but I haven’t missed it. I’ve been in and out of remission, but mostly in.
The notion of hoagie as inoculation has stayed with me. Whether science would agree, I can’t say. But there exists mystery and faith in this life, unquantifiable. Call it the placebo effect, if you like. I’d say it’s out of reach of Big Data, but in fact the phenomenon has been backed up by plenty of research.
I don’t know if anyone has researched the merits of believing in a hoagie, but believing in the power of love communicated through the offering of food strikes me as not as crazy as it sounds. I’m not talking about superfoods, like blueberries. Nor do I dispute a connection between diet and disease.
[Make the recipe: Chocolate Babka.]
I’m talking about the spirit with which a food is offered and received and the psychic healing it provides, like a jolt of unseen electrical current. Shortly after that first bout with leukemia, a friend suggested I go on a highly specific diet aimed, she said, at helping boost the immune system. I replied that, while I appreciated what she was suggesting, I was considering writing a book called “A Barbecue Way to Health.”
I was joking. A little.
The last time I battled what I came to call Big Leuk was 1998. That episode was tough. I had moved on from interferon to chemo, and I reacted with uncontrollable chills, dry heaves and a high fever. My head lolled on my shoulders like a baby’s, while Jessica — now my wife — rushed me to the hospital during a tornado. Emergency room patients were moved away from the windows, for fear the glass would shatter. Because of my low blood counts and susceptibility to infection, I was quarantined in a room under a heavy, thick “chilling blanket” intended to bring the fever down. The last thing I wanted was food. Which was good, because it was among the last things I could have.
When the worst passed, I regained an appetite. And the first thing my friends did was the first thing they should have done: rallied with food. I came across a notepad from that time. In it was a message from a longtime close friend: “Robb wants to bring you some chicken soup, he will drop it off this eve. Call me + give me a job!!” The job I gave her was to make one of her macrobiotic dishes. Not because I regarded the grain-and-vegetable-oriented diet medicinal but because she was good at making those dishes, and I wanted to eat whatever she wanted to make.
This has remained central to the way I have viewed food, in sickness and in health: It is a sharing of love.
This past January, during a routine visit, my doctor discovered I had fallen out of remission again.
After the diagnosis was confirmed, the first thing I did was go back to the childhood well, so to speak, and a variant of my brother’s kindness: On my way home from the hematologist’s office, I beelined to Taylor Gourmet and ordered a cheesesteak.
I’ve ordered countless cheesesteaks over the years: in Philly, mostly, but also in the District and elsewhere. I love them so much, in fact, that it was Taylor’s 2008 opening that first drew my attention to the H Street NE neighborhood, where Jessica and I ended up buying a house.
The cheesesteak on this morning struck me as among the best ever. The roll was overstuffed with flavorful, tender, well-seasoned meat, gooey with melted American cheese. (Taylor doesn’t offer Cheez Whiz, or I would have ordered it. I like the way its silken texture seeps into the very membranes of the grilled meat.)
It was 11 a.m., and no one else was in the place. I had arrived 20 minutes earlier and waited in my parked car until Taylor opened. A guy believes what he believes, know what I mean?
The problem was, I could barely eat the thing. I was feverish. Achy. Deeply fatigued. Not just not hungry, but frankly revolted by the idea of eating. I nibbled, hoping to tap into the magic of restorative nostalgia.
The magic barely flickered. And over the next few days, I uncharacteristically picked at my food, forcing a couple of spoons of breakfast granola and yogurt into my system just to eat something, neglecting lunch altogether, and scarcely touching dinner.
Dispirited and weak, I returned to the clinic for a blood transfusion. After I returned home, my temperature rose into the low 100s, which sometimes happens immediately afterward. Through the afternoon and evening, Jessica tended to me with Advil and cold compresses, but my temperature continued to go up. My hematologist had instructed me to return to the ER if my temperature hit 100.5.
Around 5:30 that evening, a close friend named Lou stopped by with an enormous pot of homemade beef stew. “Wish I felt up to eating it,” I told Jessica after he left.
My temperature hit 102, and Jessica called the doctor, who said I had to go to the hospital. “If I can bring the temperature down within the next hour,” I pleaded, “can I stay home?” I could.
I furiously drank ice water and continued the compresses. Jessica brought me a bowl of stew and insisted I eat something. I glowered at it, but to appease her, I took a spoonful. “Wow,” I said. “Wow. That is amazing.”
The aroma went from off-putting to intoxicating. I had another bite, then another. Meanwhile, my temperature gradually declined. Within the hour, it was at 98.7. “That,” I proclaimed, “is a magical stew.” I had it for breakfast the next morning, and again for lunch.
Meanwhile, as word was getting out about my situation, friends and relatives sprang into action. Melissa and Aileen, colleagues at Syracuse University, where I teach journalism, had a pastrami sandwich from Katz’s Deli in New York shipped to me. My close friends Tim and Carrie dropped by with an enormous cache of groceries that included Bolognese sauce, rustic bread, and bone broth from Red Apron. My cousin Kathy and her husband, Yoram, brought a dozen bagels with all the fixin’s. Longtime bestie Marion, who had been through this with me before, brought barbecue from Baltimore, where she lives. For his part, my brother Ric eschewed the hoagie idea but stayed true to our sentimental hearts, having three loaves of Italian bread shipped from DiCamillo Bakery in Niagara Falls, where our father grew up.
Our son, Sam, who lives in New Orleans, lifted my spirits with a surprise visit. He lifted them even higher by making his spicy tomato-based cabbage soup, a dish I find addictive in the most healthful sort of way.
On a brutally cold day, a homemade chocolate babka showed up on my porch. It was from a colleague. Having eaten only a couple of babkas in my time, I am no expert on the Jewish pastry immortalized in a Seinfeld skit. This one, though, was larger than any I had ever encountered, its sheer bulk worth a riff on a sequel episode.
I sliced off a hunk and dug in. I savored every bite because it was good, yes, but more so because the baker had made me something from her heritage, which, to me, was kind of like her hoagie.
At the time, I was due for another blood transfusion, and would get one in two days. Eventually — this month, in fact — I am scheduled to participate in a clinical trial at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.
Until then, I know in my blood that, whether it’s handmade or purchased, hand-delivered or shipped, beef stew or babka, an offering of food rejuvenates the psyche and, in turn, the body.
Science calls it the placebo effect. I call it hoagie voodoo. And I thank my lucky stars that it exists.