In her prize-winning essay, Heather McDonald, MFA ’07, shows how food and life are inextricably bound in our memories. The former Food & Wine intern, who was four years old when she tasted her first casserole — comfort food family friends provided after the death of her grandfather — won $1,000 as Creative Nonfiction’s first prize for best essay about food. Not bad for her first published work.
McDonald is a writing instructor in AU’s College of Arts and Sciences’ literature department. What follows is a condensed version of her essay, published in Creative Nonfiction’s June issue.
When I met John, we both worked at nonprofit organizations. We were underpaid, we found cheap happy hours and restaurants, and we did what we could with inexpensive groceries. He always saw it as a challenge: “What can I do with half a chicken, mustard, spinach, and Rice-a-Roni?”
We scrimped our paltry salaries for the occasional fancy dinner, having researched the best restaurants in D.C. — the ones where people whispered about the chef’s magic.
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We quit our jobs and began grad school. He moved to Baltimore and I stayed in D.C. The fancy dinners stopped, but we still cooked. That year, however, John noticed his neck tightening, his left arm going numb, his shoulders off-center. Seven years earlier, he had been treated for a benign tumor in his chest called a desmoid. He began to worry.
Another tumor was now growing at the place where the arm joins to the shoulder and connects nerves, muscles, ligaments, tendons and blood vessels. The surgeon said removing the tumor would be better than chemotherapy or radiation.
Days later, he had to go back into surgery because “something was wrong.”
For the next few months, John was admitted and released over and over.
John was wasting away and no one could do anything.
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Nurses would bring John a menu on a half-sheet and a golf pencil so he could circle the options he wanted, though some were crossed out depending on the ward and your illness. John was on the thoracic ward. Most of the patients were frail old men with lung cancer. John was in his late twenties.
No exceptions were made when an item was crossed out for that ward.
“Can’t I get the eggs and bacon? Please?” John begged the nurses.
“But I’m only on this ward because my surgeon is a thoracic surgeon! I have an infection!”
What would arrive was usually white or gray, served on tan melamine plates, placed on a beige elementary-school cafeteria tray. Styrofoam-flavored dinner rolls. A dry, ropey chicken drumstick. We tried not to complain.
We found other options after wandering the hospital corridors, at least when John could move around. We often ate Subway sandwiches. The sweet, yeast-tinged-with-preservatives smell that hits you a few yards from any Subway began to nauseate me. The store was actually in the hospital, so it was easy — and better than nothing. Occasionally, John and I would order Chinese. I doubt the hospital dietician would approve of the salt and sugar levels, so I snuck it in and hoped no one noticed the smell of broccoli with garlic sauce. One time I was caught, and said, “Oh, but it’s for me.”
There was a Popeye’s and a KFC nearby; even though the fast-food chains were within walking distance of the hospital, navigating East Baltimore at
1 a.m. seemed like a death wish. I snuck in some fried chicken one day, with biscuits and gravy and mashed potatoes. That was a good day, but the questions lingered. How is this healthy? How is this what we have resorted to, after our days of cooking and eating well? We brushed it away: it was better than nothing.
And that became our refrain. I guess this is better than nothing.
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Back home, I shut down. After I had not returned several messages, my friend Lauren surprised me by stopping by my apartment.
“I need to be alone,” I sputtered. She shut the door behind her anyway. “That’s fine,” Lauren said, pushing me out of the way. “But you need to eat,” she said. “I brought some lasagna.” She popped it in the microwave. I stood, staring at her, numb.
“You. Sit. Eat,” she said. She looked over her wire-rimmed glasses until I did as I was told. She sat with me, in total silence, as I ate half of the lasagna. It had been so long since I had eaten anything satisfying. The mozzarella, the peppers, the meat, the noodles: real food.
“How about I bring some quiche tomorrow and you can take it to Baltimore? I bet John needs to put some weight on after all that hospital food,” she said. I was relieved that someone knew what to do.
When I arrived in Baltimore a few days later, John was at home. He smiled a little when he saw I had brought food. His eyes focused, opening wide.
“Yes!” I said. He pre-heated his rickety oven. We set the table. The bacon, spinach and cheese quiche bubbled in the oven. I made a small salad. Despite appetites diminished from months of not eating, we devoured the meal.
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The joy was short-lived. Back in the hospital, John was no longer a “good patient.” The hospital food did not help; if anything, it was a cruel joke.
His steady diet of painkillers destroyed his appetite, but he knew his body needed food.
John was young, and I was young, and pale food, pale people, and the smell of disinfectant surrounded us. We were supposed to be out with friends, drinking and eating our way through the glow of our late twenties. Now John was sick, weak, in pain, and trapped in a hospital where experts admitted they could not diagnose the infection consuming him. I was watching the whole scene unfold, at arms’ length, stupidly impotent.
I decided to cook.
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The real relief was my belief that my lasagna was a cancer-fighting superhero. The lasagna — and I — would win. When researching cancer-fighting foods, one Web site told me that garlic “appear[s] to increase the activity of immune cells that fight cancer and indirectly help break down cancer-causing substances. These substances may also help block carcinogens from entering cells and slow tumor development.” Garlic can fight tumors. I cheered. Then, I learned that mushrooms have a protein that can attack cancerous cells and possibly prevent them from multiplying. This lasagna has one pound of mushrooms. This will stop the growth, too. I read elsewhere that tomatoes have high levels of antioxidants, which may fight free radicals and cell damage. And cooking tomatoes strengthens these powers. This lasagna will fix everything.
I missed the qualifiers in that research. Magical thinking told me I could save John.
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On the days I cooked, the smell of softened onions and garlic mellowed in warmed olive oil filled the rooms. The sauce always overflowed the cast-iron skillet, but I believed the extra iron the sauce absorbed would strengthen John. Tomato sauce spattered the walls. My fingertips stung from garlic and tomato soaking into the knife nicks and my raw, gnawed-on cuticles burned. But I could feel that pain and that, too, quieted the panic. The apartment smelled like it was a place where people were healthy and comforted.
Sometimes I still like to believe the lasagna is what saved him. In fact, it was the infectious diseases team that diagnosed him with the bone infection and found the right intravenous antibiotics. Within a week of treatment, John began to laugh again. He spent that summer in our garden, weeding and pruning. We had the best tomatoes, green beans and zucchini we have ever had.
Creative Nonfiction (www.creativenonfiction.org) is published quarterly. Each issue features long-form essays, notes on craft, and interviews with writers and editors.A one-year subscription is $32.