Whatever else might divide us, we all have to eat. That’s the core of the newly released essay collection “All the Wild Hungers,” written by Karen Babine and published by Milkweed Editions. After her mother’s diagnosis with a cancerous tumor, Babine finds herself examining all aspects of her life: her upbringing in northern Minnesota, the sometimes shamanic relationship between food and health, even her newfound interest in restoring and cooking with cast-iron pots and skillets.
“All the Wild Hungers” is moving without being maudlin, tautly written without being sparse or barren, and a cancer memoir that is so adroitly connected to universal experiences that it isn’t really a cancer memoir at all. Its essays are brief, fast-moving, lucid, funny, and jarring, and it’s hard not to whip through the whole work in one sitting, so propulsive is the book’s pacing and so effective is Babine’s writing.
The Growler: What was the original crystal that this book formed around?
Karen Babine: It was when the doctors referred to my mother’s tumor as “cabbage sized.” They kept using these food metaphors—like chemotherapy “recipes.” I’m a cook, and I like to cook, and cooking is wonderful, and suddenly it was this gross thing.
But then conversely I started finding all this super-expensive cast iron in thrift stores and kept bringing it home, and then I got to play with new things I hadn’t gotten to play with before. It was a new thing because my family was not a cast-iron family and it got to the point where if I couldn’t do it in the skillet it was: ‘Well, what’s the point?’
What’s so fascinating about cast-iron cookware?
I think the larger cultural thing going on with cast iron is that it lasts so long, being passed down from generation to generation. What I found out is that my dad had cast iron before my parents got married, but my mom couldn’t lift it because she was a tiny human being, so they got rid of it. I grew up cooking on aluminum and that kind of stuff.
What are some of your family’s primal connections with food?
I come from a northern Minnesota culture where you walk into someone’s house and they’ll have a coffee cake. My dad’s a pastor; there is so much food around that. My dad’s from California and my mom’s from Minnesota and we moved back here and my dad started seminary. He doesn’t like coffee, and he’s 6-feet-5-inches—he always said coffee would’ve stunted his growth, and it makes people laugh. My mom was 5-foot-3-inches, loved coffee.
My grandma always told him that a Lutheran pastor in northern Minnesota who doesn’t like coffee wouldn’t last long. He did! But he took great pleasure in messing with the people up there. He liked to put fruit soup in his rømmegrøt and watch the little old ladies shriek.
So he was a bit of a provocateur?
There’s a story in there about how they would make lefse for the hunter’s supper every fall—my dad’s office was there and he’d walk down and see how they were doing, and he’d take one off the reject pile [of lefse]. But one time he took one off the perfect pile of lefse and they started shrieking at him. So he poked his finger through it and said, ‘Now it is [a reject].’
Minnesota food gets a pretty short shrift on the national level—we’re seen as a wasteland populated with hotdish and not much else. What’s your experience of it?
I went to an event a couple of months ago about the diversity of northern food and the way the conversation started was a response to an extension survey about ‘what is a quintessential Minnesota meal?’ And it was something like pork roast and mashed potatoes and dinner rolls and apple pie. And I was like, ‘Yeah, that sounds about where I come from.’
But what felt like the purpose of setting that up was to talk about the wonderful food in cities, which is much more diverse than that—Hmong food, and Korean food, and all of this really good diverse stuff. But one of the things I found myself a little bit frustrated with was that it wasn’t taking into account the diversity of rural food.
Can you expand on that?
We have several different bio ranges even in Minnesota—you have different food in the prairies than you have up north in Lakes Country. And it’s really easily to dump on hotdish and say this is a really boring cliche of Minnesota food, but food culture exists for a reason—it comes out of a food climate.
My family would have considered it, like many others, a waste of time to make pasta from scratch. They would’ve considered it a waste of time to make spaghetti sauce from scratch. We would’ve grown those tomatoes, canned them, stuck them in the pantry, because that’s what you did. Then we can think now what we didn’t think then about food deserts, how the nearest grocery store is 15 miles away. You grew things because you couldn’t go to the store every time you wanted something fresh.
What was the journey that you’ve taken, as a writer, to get to this point in your career?
The most important moment in my life as a writer was when I was in college, and I took a class on Minnesota writers. And before then I had no idea that writers came from Minnesota, let alone non-fiction writers. And at that point, Paul Gruchow had just won the Minnesota Book Award for “Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild.” He was teaching in our English department—I had no idea writers did that. And I thought, ‘I could write a book about Minnesota. I could write a book about rural Minnesota! And people could care.’ It was the most mind-blowing, lightbulb experience I could have imagined.
How do you strike that balance: between the nourishing and culinary, and the momentous and tragic?
[Writer Kao Kalia Yang said, quoting her father:] ‘Human life is individual, but it is not unique.’ I kept thinking about that, in terms of how cancer happens to a lot of people. I’m not the first person whose mom has had cancer, I’m not the first person who has lost their mom to cancer, so how do I make this relevant to someone either who has a connection to cancer or no connection at all. For me, the food was the common denominator. I needed to make it into something who people who don’t know me or my mom would read.
This period that this book covers, it ended with so much hope. At that point she was still cancer free and we were good to go. And she was for a little bit more than a year and then it came back. And it came back again. It didn’t end up the way we’d hoped it would. But for all the friction that drives this book, there’s also a lot of joy in it. And a lot of hope: there’s a lot of the kids in there, and funny things, too, because that’s also real life.
The book launch for “All the Wild Hungers” takes place Thursday, January 17, at 7pm at The Lynhall in Minneapolis. Free tickets for the event are available online.