I’ll admit that it hasn’t been completely oven-free. There was that day in early summer when I decided to make shallot confit. Nearly set my kitchen ablaze when the olive oil heated, expanded, and flowed onto the oven floor. Which isn’t such a problem unless you panic and reach for a wad of paper towels to mop up the mess. An act that my husband described as “not my best moment”. (Hint, hot oil + paper + blistering coils = the kind of gentle flames that require the front yard testing of a 10-year-old fire extinguisher.)
There might have been a roasted chicken or two, I remember a baked blueberry oatmeal, a sheet pan of salty olive oil granola. But otherwise it’s been magically quiet on the oven frontier. I’m a griller these days, a smoker to be exact. And let’s not confuse that last sentence…a smoker of edible things, not the inhalable variety.
Smoking builds on my favorite style of summer cooking – easy, minimal ingredients, and very little prep time. It lets me enjoy everything that our short but sweet summer season has to offer. Paddleboarding on the lake, beach trips with the kids, hiking with my pup Happy in the woods. Which is most fun when she’s not chasing bears and my itty bitty pepper spray keychain poses no threat of actual use.
It’s the kind of food that I love to pair with equally easy sides – vegetables fresh from my CSA, simply prepared, lightly cooked.
In my last post I mentioned that I’d be taking on fewer but more meaningful projects so I’m happy this week to showcase Taylor Farms, a California-based grower of produce whose focus is on sustainability and food safety. They offer a range of easy breezy products from pre-made salad kits to fresh organic bagged greens and vegetables.
So now for that awkward re-introduction…The kind where you’ve been gone a while and tiptoe back, ready to re-embrace old traditions, a blank Word doc, images shot and edited, a storyline, some fumbling with basic code, thoughts of the next post already on my mind. I missed it.
It’s been a hectic year. 18 months in fact between the moment when I decided, after watching a set of green business owners stumble their way through an episode of Shark Tank that, hey, now’s my time to do this.
To build a business. To fulfill a dream that had been burning inside of me like a well-concealed flame.
From the moment when I realized over 15 years ago that you could buy a domain name and set up shop on the Internet, I’d been consumed with the idea. My GoDaddy account was a graveyard for ideas come and gone. BoxTheParty.com, HubandSpokeBranding.com; BuildingBrandMe; the ever-essential JessicaFiorillo.com.
“What about starting a fruit molasses business?” I’d asked Rodney while we brushed our teeth and jostled for space at our one-person sink. Forrest Gump-like, I forged on. “You know, gluten free, vegan, refined sugar free. Cherry molasses, berry molasses, how about blueberry molasses?”
And so, several weeks into my remission from cancer, with a bowl of salted almonds and a bedtime glass of red at my side, I settled into a nightly routine of Shark Tank and daydreams. My mind raced, thoughts formed, notes were scribbled into a neon yellow notebook whose sales label I’d removed unsuccessfully, leaving a 2-inch square of goo. Copies of entrepreneurship books started showing up at our doorstep: “The Lean Startup”, “Zero to One”, “ReWork”, every book by Steve Blank.
It felt mission-driven, even if it was one woman’s mission to fulfill her life’s true calling rather than the altruistic kind that saves the lives of tiny babies in faraway countries. My eventual plan was to develop an e-commerce marketplace that would give a voice and commerce opportunities to emerging kitchenware designers (think ceramicists, metalworkers, textile makers).
I got an office, hired some freelance staff, and after much deliberation, landed on the name Propped, a nod to the term “food props” that cooks (and especially cooks who photograph their food) use to refer to the artillery that lines their kitchen shelves. I bought yet another domain, Propped.com, and we were off to the races.
It’s been a while since I’ve written here, and for good reason. Life has been kind to us and it’s thrown me off guard. It’s been a process to put down my fists and take solace in the fact that my battles – for now – are over. I’ve been cancer-free since January. The kids are healthy. We just got back from a once-in-a-lifetime family trip to Jamaica. Life, mercifully, is good.
We rented a home through Inspirato and spent 8 glorious days in post-nuclear family bliss at the Tryall Resort near Montego Bay. My dad, my stepdad, my mum, brother and his girlfriend, and of course me + Rodney with a gang of kids nipping at our heels.
I’ve been aching to write a post because the last time I wrote, while things were on the mend, the year was still a fresh wound, more present than past. In the weeks and months since, I’ve received many letters thanking me for my candor and sending best wishes for a prosperous 2016. It was lovely to feel such compassion; I’ve shed many tears of gratitude, including one memorable moment in Jamaica when it was just me and a plastic glass of wine, sitting in the pool, staring out at the palm-speckled sunset beyond.
Early this year, I declared to Rodney that 2016 would be “the year of healing” and I’ve followed through on my word, which I’ll get to in a minute.
There was something mystical about 2015. It was a year of personal growth and discovery, but a year of hardship. As my oncology nurse likes to say, “everyone needs a benchmark year”, a year so challenging that no matter what’s thrown your way, you’ll know that you have the strength to overcome.
And so that was my 2015 – a benchmark. I’ve written about my struggles with cancer. But there were other trying moments too; so many that I decided to keep them to myself. At best I feared that in telling them, the stories might perceived as gory and unnecessary; at worst they’d sound like the ramblings of a woman clutched in the grip of Munchausen Syndrome.
I tell them now to memorialize. Soon they’ll be hidden away in the blog’s archives, accessible by a few basic keywords. But I’ll know where to find them, and I’m sure that I’ll be reading them down the road when I need a reminder of where I’ve been. We’re a tough bunch and I see that in retrospect. Amidst each hurdle, we still made room for laughter. Just ask “Grease Witherspoon”, my alter ego, the woman with the oily skin and matted hair who cared less about showering and more about the simple act of getting through each new day.
At the outset, I didn’t intend to hijack the blog’s usual content and replace it with a year of illness talk. But part of having a personal blog – food or otherwise – involves having to own up to life’s struggles. Not the minutia, but the bigger issues, the ones that impact your life in a meaningful way.
We all have good years and bad years. I wanted to paint a picture of emotions that aren’t always discussed: grief, fear, anxiety, isolation. In the process of talking about these difficult subjects, I’ve lost some readers. Not everyone wants to hear about cancer when they’re looking for recipe inspiration. But I was proud to write these posts. I didn’t intend to be so explicit, but the words kept coming, and in honoring them, it felt good to be vulnerable. As my favorite sociologist Brené Brown says, vulnerability plants the seed of true connection.
I’d be lying if I said that publishing these last few posts wasn’t hard. Part of me cringed when I thought about people reading about my intimate and unfiltered moments over their morning cup of coffee. But life isn’t about achieving perfection; it’s about accepting that our roads will travel from sun-strewn peaks to darkened valleys. The internet loves to celebrate the climb, but there’s a place for the other accounts too.
And that was my 2015. A valley so dark that I could barely see the sunlight from above. It filtered through the trees on occasion, but, almost as if I’d been blindfolded, I’d lost my ability to navigate. In June as many of you know, I was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma and underwent lung surgery and six months of treatment. Nothing was immune – my ability to breathe comfortably, eat, and sleep. My mental health took as nosedive as I struggled with anxiety and depression, fearing the most likely outcome: that my cancer would come back. And it did for a time, spreading to my spine where it stayed for several months and then disappeared as quietly as it came.
During this time, other challenges presented themselves.
In late June, a mass was found on one of my ovaries. When my CA-125 tumor marker came back looking like one of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, my doctor told me that we we were dealing with ovarian cancer or late stage endometriosis. I could barely function post-lung surgery and had to sort through the logistics of how I would handle two types of cancer at once. I have a tendency to race online and figure things out for myself and spent the next few weeks jumping down Internet rabbit holes from Teal ribbon campaigns to sites like the HysterSisters and OvarianCancer.org. “Can you even have two cancers at once?” I asked. According to Google you can. By mid-July I was cleared of both diseases.
August was no easier. Lauren came to me with an unusual problem: she’d found lumps in her neck. I felt the base of her skull and my heart sank when my fingers moved over the chains of hard and swollen lymph nodes. She’d had no fever, no illness, no pain. It’s one thing to worry about your own health, but it’s quite another to face the possibility that your child might be seriously ill. After a series of bloodwork panels, ultrasounds, and X-rays, Rodney and I found ourselves leading our daughter past a set of bald children on the second floor of the Hassenfeld Children’s Center for Cancer & Blood disorders. The doctors reviewed her files, a nurse took her into another room, and we sat down to have the discussion that every parent dreads: “it’s likely lymphoma, we’re looking at six months of chemo, maybe more”. She had surgery the following week.
A full week after her surgery, we got the results. Against the odds of her presenting symptoms, the biopsies had, for the second time this summer, ruled out cancer. It wasn’t until late October though, with swollen nodes that refused to heal, that we got our final diagnosis – an uncommon but benign condition, dermatopathic lymphadenopathy. Which, to absolve the doctors from the raging and undue stress that we endured, looks exactly like lymphoma.
I was winded. I’d been dealing with treatment-induced colitis for weeks, and the stress from the summer had been enormous. My yoga teacher once told me that injuries are common when you’re not rested – “listen to your body” she said, if you hurt yourself, you needed the break.
I won’t get into the details of why, when, or how I ended up in this sacred place called “Callanish”, deep in the mountains of British Columbia. But I will say that, although I don’t look for signs in my life, like a cloud shaped like “The Giving Tree”, there was some unknown force that pulled me there.
I spent a week with a group of women living with breast cancer, in most cases metastatic, some of them young, like me, with elementary school-aged kids at home. We explored a range of difficult subjects – identity, love, isolation, and fear.
The experience was beautiful and painful, a re-birth in many ways. Only through great physical exertion do we bring forth our children into the world, and as such, I had to pant and sweat and whack at the underbrush to clear a path for this baby-soft new me. A “me” who doesn’t want to shut herself off from the world. A “me” who no longer dreads making plans for coffee with a friend. Lets her text messages pile up. Doesn’t respond to email. Can’t mention her kids in her blog posts because it’s just too painful to go there.
I’ve had many happy moments over the past few months. The kids’ nightly tuck-ins and discussions about their day, long walks along the Hudson with Jackson, whose quiet and loving company I’ve come to appreciate more than ever.
As much support as I’ve gotten for the honesty in my recent posts, the fact remains: I am scared. With data at my back that suggests that I won’t be here in five years, I’ve had many hard days.
I’m not playing red or black at Roulette. In fact, those odds would thrill me. Without my consent, the universe has put all of my chips on a single number, and as the wheel spins, I am powerless to control where that tiny ball will jump, skip, and ultimately land. I know that eating well, meditating, and all of my new-aged “integrative” habits will serve me well. But even when you do everything that is required to heal yourself….even then… the odds will terrify.