I was 25 years old when I learned that I had cancer.
It’s the phone call that you never want to receive from your doctor. Let alone when you’re at work at 8PM, surrounded by darkened cubicles. Grief is meant to be shared.
That was the beginning of a year-long struggle to get cured, get healthy, and get a new perspective on life. I’d been working in finance logging the usual hours of 7AM until 9 or 10PM. I was exhausted and undernourished, going hours without a meal, and bingeing on lukewarm delivery and a nightcap of gin and tonics. I knew that it wasn’t sustainable, but I didn’t know a way out of that lifestyle. Cancer gave me one.
My cancer treatment and recovery lasted a full year. At first I despised my situation. I was stuck on a couch with nothing but a TV to keep me company. My brain was in such a fog that even reading wasn’t enjoyable. But one day I stumbled across the Food Network, and everything began to change. I could rest, I didn’t have to focus, but I could still learn.
This was in 2001, when the Food Network was in its infancy. I still get nostalgic about the network back then. It wasn’t about food entertainment, road shows, cake-offs or sugar-sculpting. Nor was it dominated by bigger-than-life chef celebrities. It was Sara Moulton, Ming Tsai, Mario Batali and other food-obsessed chefs, stewing around in the kitchen…urging me to really sear the meat, use the best Parmesan I could find, and grind my own spices. I learned about farmers’ markets, French cookware, and Japanese chef knives. It was honest and authentic. I could watch it all day long.
For a girl who hadn’t even kept cereal in her cupboards, it was life changing. Strangely, coming out of that year, even though I’d barely picked up a knife, I found that I could cook. I knew how food should feel in my hands and what sounds it should make as it hit the pan. I was amazed by the way cooking could make make me feel safe, healthy and alive.
By the end of that year, I emerged from my cocoon-like state, ready to live a different kind of life. I switched gears and applied to business school, with Berkeley, California in my sights. I wrote one of my entrance essays on Alice Waters and her work with the Edible Schoolyard Project. My husband had also applied, and together in 2003, we packed up our meager belongings and headed west.
My interest in food and cooking was cemented in California. At the Berkeley farmers’ markets I’d buy flats of strawberries…so many that I’d have to hunt for recipes to use up the mountain of fruit before it went bad; I regularly ate at the The Cheese Board, a worker-owned pizza collective, just across the street from Chez Panisse where my hero Alice Waters had started her food revolution so many years before. I’d trek to the San Francisco Ferry Building on Saturday mornings to eat crab while taking in the immense view of the San Francisco harbor. It was, by all accounts, the quintessential California food experience.
That was quite a few years ago, and now back in New York, with three young kids, I teach my kids to love and appreciate food just as much as I do. Food connects us a family. Through food, we experience life. We we laugh over dinnertime conversations. We’ve learned to be gracious in our likes and dislikes. To try new things, new tastes, new flavors, and new textures and to be fearless in the face of adversity. Even when that means tasting an exotic fruit, or summoning the courage to order sweetbreads. I owe a lot to my cancer diagnosis and newfound love of food – for giving me health and happiness, but also for giving me a passion and a purpose in this big adventure called life.