Thursday, February 5, 2009

Food of the heart

This photograph, which I lifted from a blog post by the wonderful food writer Michael Ruhlman, depicts a peanut butter-and-cabbage sandwich, one of his "staple meals." 

"I don't remember exactly when I began eating this oddity," he writes, "but it was more than a decade ago and I've been lunching happily on peanut butter and cabbage sandwiches during the week ever since."

I honestly don't know where to start with this -- even looking at the picture makes my teeth ache -- other than to say that I, alas, am not likely to start going through "several pounds" of raw cabbage a week. But the idea of staple meals -- and how those staples change or stay the same over time -- interests me a lot, especially now that I have cancer. 

The tumors and their treatments have completely distorted my palate. I used to love spicy food; now I can barely tolerate it. For a long while, I shunned coffee and red wine and sought out... er... Big Macs. The Micky D's is over now, thank god, and coffee has returned, though I now take it with half-and-half instead of black. High-alcohol red wine still tastes intolerably hot to me, and even slightly jammy wines (the simpler, less-expensive reds L. and I buy for weeknights) seem unpleasantly sweet when I catch a whiff of them in the glass. During one bad period, when I was bottoming out at about 130 pounds including fluid weight, I subsisted largely on ice cream. During another period, ice cream was intolerable. Chocolate chip cookies are a constant, however.

Sometimes food has seemed like an obstacle, a necessary evil to maintain my strength, and at other times, it has been a huge pleasure and distraction from the illness. I'll never again have as simple relationship to my appetite as I once did (the new me is picky, the old me's motto was "Hungry. Eat"), but some appetizing themes have emerged over time. If I can swallow anything, risotto seems appetizing. Cheeseburgers, especially great ones, almost always call to me. Sometimes scrambled eggs work, sometimes they don't. Bacon, I confess, usually sounds good. Grapes and carrots usually work pretty well.

An food that summons me again and again, even though I cannot prepare it for myself, is my dream of the perfect omelette. Rolled in thirds instead of folded in half, soft in the center, filled perhaps with a little gruyere, a perfect omelette is so often what I crave. Call it a staple of my mind, if not my table.

Brivanib hasn't had much effect on my eating, other than a diminished appetite and the black pepper issue. But I'm taking some antibiotics right now that require additional mindfulness about what I eat and when I eat it. That has left me hungry a fair amount of time, dreaming of omelets. My response is a minor resolution for myself: Learn how to turn out a perfect omelette smoothly and consistently. It's harder than it looks -- classical French chefs sometimes make aspiring apprentices cook an omelette as part of a job audition -- but I'm confident this aspiration, at least, is within my reach. I'll let you know how it goes.

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