All The Wild Hungers

by Karen Babine 

Milkweed Editions, 2019. $16.00

ReviewED by Whitney (Walters) Jacobson

I’ve been impatiently waiting to read Karen Babine’s second book of essays, All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer (Milkweed Editions, 2019), since May 2017, when I first heard it was going to be published. After relishing the resonant words of Babine’s first book, Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), I followed her essay publications in magazines and journals, wondering when I’d have a longer read in my hands. That time has come and delivered much to savor. 

Written in 64 vignettes, readers may initially think the book will be an easy read. They would be wrong. The bursts of text allow Babine to take focused plunges into living with her mother’s cancer recovery, each time from a different poignant angle. Much like someone working through intense physical therapy to achieve a seemingly impossible task, Babine navigates muscles and nerves to craft moments into manageable bites layered with significance regarding the bones of the matter. 

Babine laments, “There’s so much I want to know, to understand about what is happening to my mother, why it has to happen to my mother, and the lack feels visceral. Can we consume knowing? Can we waste away without it? I feel desperate, wild with hunger” (62).

As she observes the effects of her mother’s cancer remission treatment, Babine analyzes the way we use food analogies and references to explain and discuss medical conditions: “My sister is pregnant with a Lemon this week, Week 14, and this is amusing. My mother’s uterine tumor, the size of a cabbage, is Week 30, and this is terrifying” (1). It was not lost on me as I read Babine’s book, that I was pregnant and also using an app that equated my baby’s weekly size with fruits and vegetables. In this subtle but resonant manner, Babine gently removes readers’ rose-colored glasses to reveal habits taken for granted that perhaps oughtn’t be. 

Though Babine acutely meditates on the overlooked moments within people’s routines, she doesn’t profess to have the solutions to questions regarding cancer, death, life, and family: “What is missing when we cannot articulate the bones, when they are telling us something other than what we expect them to say? What does it do to us when our bones betray us, when children do not grow, when mothers develop childhood cancers, when the bones we trust do not hold us? How do we articulate our lives, then?” (32). There’s a comforting sense that she’s piecing together answers as the chapters accumulate.

Nevertheless, Babine doesn’t hesitate to impress her hard truths amid nuance. Babine’s mother is labeled “cancer-free” for much of the book, a circumstance one would connote with joy; however, the classification does not diminish the stinging nature of the situation: a family touched by cancer, and a rare cancer at that, is a family altered: “We can’t go back to the way we were. This time will always be the burn scars on my hands, the white slices of knife slips. It may not hurt anymore, but we are marked” (155). Disease, much like grief, is not an isolated event—the ripples extend beyond the primary individual.

As she attempts to cook food that both appeals to her mother’s diminished taste buds as well as nourishes her weakened cells, Babine grows a cast iron and Nordic Ware collection that grounds her with pleasure and a sense of permanence in a time of fear and uncertainty. Babine rationalizes, “There’s a legacy to the cult of cast iron that I envy in these days of trying to understand cancer . . . It’s the equivalent of being passed down a hundred-year-old pan with seasoning like silk, the kind of long knowledge that rings with the voice of a great-grandmother you never met, the flavor of old laughter and bright pride” (23-24). As someone whose mother suddenly died decades before she was supposed to, and who watched a grandmother closely associated with food traditions succumb to cancer, I recognize the anticipatory grief in Babine’s words and empathize with her desire to make meaning, stretch time, and cling to patterns, beliefs, and comfort derived from familial food culture.

Ultimately, this devastatingly beautiful book asks readers to notice what we fail to consider daily and recognize what genuinely nourishes us: “Science argues that there are indeed measurable health benefits to chicken soup, particularly that which can be traced back to the ground the chicken scratched, a meal full of nutrients a sick body needs, hydration. But science cannot measure the body’s need for time, for love, even if it is simply soup for dinner, no illness required, just the act of slowing down long enough to let the soup cool on your spoon” (Babine 80). 

Whitney (Walters) Jacobson is an Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Minnesota State University Moorhead. Her poetry and creative nonfiction have been published in Up North Lit, After the Pause, and In the Words of Womyn International, among other publications. She maintains a curiosity in memoir and the themes of feminism, water, generations, blue-collar work, and grief.