Cookin’ for chemotherapy

Shot_by_aug_8_057You haven’t heard from me in a while.  I’m finishing my paternity
leave on a three week cross country tour visiting the relatives who are
too sick to travel.  I spent the first
week in my home town, St. Louis, because my mom has cancer.  The whole
family has circled the wagons, as you might expect, and so I’m home
doing my part.  Of course our family is highly competitive, and so
regardless of how sick anyone is, there’s a game ready to be
contested.  Tonight it was Spinners, a version of dominoes with wild


When I arrived I discovered that my mom had been through two rounds
of chemotherapy and had lost a lot of weight and most of her
appetite.  Veterans of chemo know that you take chemo in three and four
week intervals, and the last week and a half before you start your next
chemo treatment is a really good time.  Your appetite is back, you feel
active and friendly, and though all your hair may have fallen out,
you’re on the upswing.

My mom, my step mom, really, is someone I owe everything to.  She
shepherded me through the second divorce, a bitter custody battle, and
my juvenile delinquent high school years.  I came back home and
cherry-picked the good week from my two sisters, who have been taking
care of her through the rougher weeks of the treatment.  My sisters
refer to me sarcastically as the “Great White Hope”, since my mom makes
a big deal of my returning to St. Louis, and I was sensitive to this as
I came back to town after they had just finished the hardest part of
care giving.

When I arrived, I found it highly ironic that after years of
worrying about her weight, here was my mom’s whole family concerned
about making sure she was getting enough to eat.  She’d lost almost
thirty pounds during chemo, and while she wasn’t thrilled to return to
her previous weight, we were all concerned about the weight loss.

One of the things that my mom and I have in common is a love of
food.  Whenever she visits Washington we eat our way through town, and
knowing that while I’m not the best cook amongst I and my sisters, my
mom seems to think so.  So I’m working through my entire repertoire
trying to figure out what tastes good to the palette of someone whose
appetite and taste buds have been ruined by the treatment.  It’s damn
hard, as not everything tastes good anymore to her.

Sarah and I started taking over cooking duties with breakfast the
first day, kicking in with eggs, bacon, and english muffin.  Dinner was
lasagna (not mine).  At mom’s weigh-in the next morning she was +2
pounds.  An excellent start.

Next I decided to pull out all the stops.  We ate meals elsewhere
that day while I spent hours preparing a whole beef tenderloin.  I take
a four pound piece of beef tenderloin (filet mignon) and spear it with
carefully cut pieces of garlic shaped like long sticks.  I put it in a
pan and pour a half bottle of wine over it and toss it in the fridge
for 24 hours.

The next day I cooked it with portobellos and served it with a
super-nutritious spinach, mushroom, and artichoke heart salad.  I
served it to a crowd of oohs and ahs.  My little sister even delayed
going to the airport to catch her flight back to DC so she could have
some.  At the next morning at weigh-in she was +5 pounds.  Boo-ya, mom,

There are some tricks to this I discovered, because not everything
tastes good.  While every chemo patient is different, it seems
that bread is pretty much out.  Tasting ‘pasty’, a mouthful of bread
tastes like it will never be digestible or swallowed.   I made key lime
bars, but she found the crust too thick.  It got the killer crit,
‘pasty’.  No problem, my MO was to cook everything in my book and learn
from the mistakes. 

Brownies died the same death, “pasty, and too much chocolate”. 

I went to the grocery store with Sarah and we raided the bulk candy
aisle.  Without bothering to differentiate any bulk candy we tossed
scoopfuls of anything that cost $3.59 / lb into a bag.  We were like
frantic shoppers who looked like we were on a timer, trying to get as
much candy into the bags in as little time as possible.  Peanut
clusters, chocolate covered espresso beans, (skip the malted milk
balls, we know those will be too pasty), chocolate covered peanuts,
CANDY-COATED chocolate covered peanuts, we grabbed it all to take home
for a tasting.

What we learned was valuable.  Anything that contained too thick a
layer of chocolate was pasty.  Thin layers of items survived the taste
test.  The plain chocolate covered peanuts had too much chocolate, but
the same-size one with a candy coating had thinner layers, and
therefore survived.

Oddly enough, my homemade matzoh balls were not considered pasty.
She loved them, and even said that they might be edible while in the
middle of a chemo treatment, a time in which she can usually just eat
jello and soup broth.  I left instructions for my sister from DC on how
to make them when she returned to help for the next treatment.

Finally, we decided to close with a bang.  Sarah’s favorite pasta
sauce is pasta bolognase, and after downloading a seriously flawed
recipe from Epicurious (I both love and hate that site) we went and
bought the ingredients.  Four pounds of ground pork and veal later, we
were desperately trying to reduce a cream sauce that wasn’t
cooperating.  Our deadline was a little more stressful when we found
out that one of our dinner guests was fellow chemo patient who wanted
to eat early because he was starting his treatment that night.

“Is he leaving us for an hour” I asked?

“No,” my mom said, “the chemo pump is in that fanny pack.  It’s been
pumping the drugs in since he got here, and after this meal he’ll
probably go crawl in bed for two days while his body is ravaged by the

Uh oh, now I see why he wanted to eat early.  Sarah and I
frantically experimented with artificially thickening the sauce with
corn starch, but it didn’t work.  Eventually we decided to announce
that the meal had three ingredients: sauce, pasta, and bread to soak up
the runny part of the sauce.  If anyone noticed a problem, nobody said
anything.  All the bowls were licked clean and my mom had seconds.  We
made an enormous double batch, and my mom froze the rest the next day.
The fellow dinner guest and patient, she said, probably had our pasta
as his last big meal for a couple of days before holing up in bed.

The next day it was time to go.  We scrambled to pack and
reluctantly pried our new baby boy fromShot_by_aug_8_065 my mom’s arms. “Can you bring
him back soon?” she asked.

Of course.  On our departure we left this photo on the desktop of her computer.