My friend Dan was going through his fifth round of chemotherapy, and the treatments were taking a toll. Though he had an incurable form of esophageal cancer, Dan was one of the most optimistic, energetic, glass-is-always-full kind of guys I have ever known. So when he lost his energy and good appetite, I was seriously worried.
I was determined to make him something so delicious it would slap the face of nausea and stifle chemo’s ability to make the world feel as if it’s spinning out of control.
I knew what he was facing. Last spring I learned I had non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system, and began five months of chemo. Dan was a great source of inspiration for me, and always, even when he was low, he found time to talk and help me get through some of my biggest I-can’t-face-this fears.
One day last summer, Dan’s wife brought me an overflowing bag of ripe peaches from their trees, just down the road from my house in southern Maine. She hinted that he would love a pie.
Most people going through chemo talk about their lack of interest in food. Although the first few days after my chemo treatments certainly wiped me out and nearly erased my appetite, I was always thinking about food, reading food magazines, imagining the recipes I would make as soon as I was back on my feet. Cooking made me feel normal. It let me know that I was still here doing what I love most: taking gorgeous vegetables and fruit from my own garden and local markets and transforming them into delicious meals for my family and friends.
I know it’s supposed to be the other way around. Friends were supposed to cook for me. And cook they did. At first, a few people wrote saying they felt intimidated cooking for a cookbook author. Could they bring flowers or send a funny DVD instead? “The idea of cooking for you puts the fear of God in me,” one friend wrote in an e-mail. I wrote back: “You aren’t cooking for a food writer. You’re cooking for a friend who is sick and deeply appreciative of your culinary gift.”
After each chemo, friends dropped off pitchers of mint tea, miso soup, plain grilled chicken, rice salads. And I was so grateful that I was often brought to tears. But still, I wanted to be in the kitchen. I needed to be in the kitchen. It is what grounds me and gives me my place in the world.
So I took the peaches from Dan’s trees and got to work. I have never cooked with such clarity and focus. I handled the flour for the dough with the lightest touch. I added ground ginger, sprinkling it in while thinking, “Let this help Dan!” The dough was buttery and flaky.
I peeled the peaches, cut them into thin, perfect slices, mixed them with maple syrup from our own trees, and willed the sweet elixir to mingle with the fragrant peach juices and create something curing. I wove the dough on top into a lattice pattern and placed it in the hot oven. It was the most beautiful pie I had ever made. The peach juices bubbled up onto the top, giving the pastry a sunset-orange caramelized glaze.
Dan’s gray, ashen face lit up when I presented the pie. And the next day, the payoff. “Dan ate half the pie, but no dinner. Hmmm?” his wife wrote in an e-mail. I couldn’t stop smiling.
I was on a roll. The next day, I ignored the metallic taste pooled just beneath my tongue. It was a humid summer afternoon and I was shelling some late-summer peas, tossing the pods into the large blue pot that I use to make fresh pea broth. I plunked the impossibly green peas into a small red bowl, where they would gather until I pureed them into the broth. This is the basis for the cold Pea and Lettuce Soup I make in summer, when the peas in our garden threaten to overwhelm. It’s a dish I look forward to every year.
Fueled by the success of Dan’s pie, I ignored the exhaustion that made it necessary for me to sit indoors. I focused on the shelling with an intensity I rarely have. Most years, when I shell peas I am also thinking about the 20 or so other things I have to/want to do in a given day. I get up after a dozen pods and check e-mails or phone messages, run through some laundry, wash a few dishes. But on that summer day, I simply shelled peas. Grateful that my right hand, somewhat swollen with phlebitis, an inflammation of the veins, wasn’t too painful, and that I could still maneuver the shell string and release the peas.
Why keep cooking while my body fought with the cancer medications? As I shelled the peas on that sultry afternoon, I was reminded of a runner who refuses to stop training despite weakness or illness. Or a stricken musician who needs to practice and play even though swollen hands make it that much harder. I remember thinking: I will spend whatever energy I have to create new work, because it’s what I do. It’s who I am. I need to keep cooking.
A year later, I have finished with chemo treatments. I am placed under huge machines for scans every few months to make sure the lymphoma hasn’t returned. I make a deal with myself to think about it all as little as possible and try to always talk about cancer in the past tense.
People say that having cancer changes you. I wouldn’t argue. Always a fast person (a how-much-can-I-cram-into-one-day kind of person), I have slowed down. It would be a cliche to say I appreciate my life and the people in it more than ever. But it would be true.
And, to be really honest, my cooking is more thoughtful. I find myself paying closer attention to ingredients. Rather than plan a dish ahead of time, I let the ingredients talk to me, give me ideas for coaxing the most flavor out of them. Maybe the real change in my kitchen is that I am listening more.
I used to scramble eggs over high heat, using a fork and hurrying it along. Lately I find myself preparing eggs with a touch of olive oil and fresh chives over very low heat, using a soft spatula to gently fold them into a light, nearly fluffy dish. An egg. Perhaps the most basic food on earth presents itself in a new way.
This summer I will make my Pea and Lettuce Soup and celebrate a year gone by. Celebrate the fact that I am still here, still in my kitchen loving the process. I will bake another peach pie. I will take it to Dan’s widow, wrap her in a big hug, and hope that the sweet fruit and buttery pastry fills the gap in both of our hearts.
Gunst, who lives in South Berwick, Maine, is in complete remission from cancer. She is the author of 14 cookbooks, including “Notes From a Maine Kitchen: Seasonally Inspired Recipes” (Down East, 2011).