Monday, 26 October 2009

Cooking for Chemo

Oh I do feel guilty after not posting anything here for days. I know how you all worry and fret. Obviously I’ve been having fun with Nick. I have missed him a great deal. All my friends have been wonderful. Nonetheless it’s been hard going through all the chemo on my own. I find it immensely comforting just to share meals and watch DVDs with him. And it’s great to have someone to help me water the plants and take out the rubbish.

That said, I was surprised at how distressed I became after Nick arrived. “Compare and despair,” the wise ones say. What they mean is that wanting to be who one is not is a hiding to nothing. Yet that is what I was doing. I managed to put a subtle spin on it by comparing myself not to Cate Blanchett but to myself, six months ago. When Nick met me I had long red hair. I was carefree and healthy. Now I’m bald and sick. I’m tired all the time. I fear that he will see the reality and run away in horror. Oh, strike up the violins.

Nick reassured me. He told me that he thinks I’m beautiful and generally laid it on thick with all the stuff I like to hear. That cheered me up.

There are pros and cons to maintaining a long distance relationship. We don’t get bored or irritable with one another. At the same time there is unfamiliarity after a period of separation.

On Friday Nick and I jumped on the train up to Worcestershire. Eckington Manor Cookery School to be precise. I had heard that they were having a cookery demonstration called Cooking for Chemo. I love going on trains. I love food. To complete the trinity, Eckington Manor Cookery School has a luxury bed & breakfast attached. I was sold.

The whole shaboogle, including the cookery school, the guesthouse and an extensive farm belongs to a woman named Judy Gardiner. She is one of those people who positively fizz and crackle with good energy. I gather that Judy made her fortune by building up a pickle business from her kitchen table into a multi-million pound concern and then selling it off to a big name food conglomerate. It seems that this cookery school-farm operation is her life’s dream. I am always enthused by people who have the courage and imagination to pursue their vision and make it real.

Judy’s daughter, Jane welcomed us and took us to our room in Lower End House. Wow! The guesthouse is a timbered former farmhouse that dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries. It has been restored and modernised with immaculate attention to detail. Judy has an eclectic style that marries ancient and modern beautifully. The downstairs sitting room is built around a huge stone fireplace that one can stand inside. My guess is the house must have belonged to a wealthy farmer in its day. And now it does again. The furnishings are pure English Eccentric. There is a brown leather Andrew Martin Chesterfield with a Union Jack painted across the back of it. Above it looms a portrait of Judy’s prize winning Highland bull. Another sofa is covered with needlepoint cushions decorated with dogs. A leather pig footstool lurks nearby waiting to relieve one’s tired tootsies. Our bedroom was simple and luxurious. We occupied one end of the house, under ancient rafters that had been restored and repaired by craftsmen using hand cut joints and wooden pegs instead of bolts and nails. The floorboards were covered with a thick striped rug and the 12th century stone chimney-breast was hung with an enormous flat-screen telly. It felt as stylish as a posh hotel yet as cosy and comfy as my mum’s (minus the spiders).

After a reviving cup of tea we sauntered across the yard to the cookery school. Here we met Judy herself, Dean the chef and Ledan, a nutritionist from Worcestershire Royal Hospital. Nothing about this place failed to impress. The cooking school is state-of-the-art. There are about a dozen workstations, each with an Aga or a high-end gas range. The surfaces are polished stone and the whole room is wired with sound and video. Along with about twenty others we settled down to watch Dean conjour up some of the Cooking for Chemo recipes that he and Ledan had collaborated to devise. First up was a starter of fresh prawns in cream, shallot and mustard sauce with warm, wilted lettuce. As Dean whisked and stirred our mouths began to water. Then, as he artfully arranged the finished demonstration dish we were magically served with the real thing. Some talented genii at the back of the class had cooked it up whilst we were absorbed with watching what Dean was doing.

For the main course Dean whipped up Vietnamese chicken with honey and ginger and jasmine rice. Again, we were all served with a bowlful to sample. Sweet honey mixed with zingy lime and salty fish sauce combined to create a complex yet enlivening flavour.

I should say a bit here about how big a part food has played in my whole cancer saga. Alcohol gave me up over ten years ago. Smoking is generally frowned upon by oncologists and other medical bods. For all sorts of chemo related reasons, sex can be problematic. What with surgery and the physically gruelling regime of chemotherapy, one usually feels too tired to go out dancing. So, for the duration, food is one of the few pleasures available. The problem is that the chemo makes one nauseous and imparts a metallic, cotton-woolly taste to everything. On those mouth-full-of-brillo-pad days I found that spicy foods were the best bet. I don’t mean food rammed full of throat-incinerating chillies. In view of the fact that chemo can cause one’s mouth and throat to become infested with ulcers I would suggest that one steer clear of the Vindaloos for a while. I am talking about skilfully spiced dishes that blend sweet with sharp and salty flavours. Vietnamese and Thai cuisines are perfect examples if one chooses the less fiery dishes. One of my favourite meals was Mee Hoon soup from the Number One Thai Café. It’s a delicate, clear broth served with rice vermicelli, chicken, prawns and crunchy vegetables. Afterwards I would rush home for a few squares of Green & Black’s dark mint chocolate.

Apple fool was served as pudding on the Cooking for Chemo menu. Sharp and sweet apples were mashed into whipped cream and yoghurt. It was not only delicious but also soft and easy on the mouth.

“Now wait a minute,” I hear you ask, “what’s with all this cream and sugar? Where is the broccoli, the raw carrots, the fish and brown rice?” Well, I asked those questions myself. It must be said that this demonstration was not entitled Cooking for Cancer Prevention but Cooking for Chemo. The recipes were devised in consultation with Ledan who is a nutritionist at a large general hospital. I understand that they see many patients who, because of the hideousness of chemo-induced nausea and how awful everything tastes, simply stop eating altogether. That leads to them losing a lot of weight. Tired and demoralised many others live on ready meals and take-aways. They can end up being overweight, yet malnourished. So their primary concern at the hospital is to try to figure out ways that patients eat enough calories to maintain their body weight and also manage to get in the five-a-day essential to basic nutrition. From that perspective the menu fitted the bill. There was loads of cream to fatten one up, protein in the form of chicken and prawns, rice for carbohydrate plus vegetables and fruit. The flavours were sharp and sweet so would be as bearable as anything can be whilst chemo taste buds are in play.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer I was deluged with well-meaning advice about what I must not eat. I fell into a frenzy of food paranoia. I gave up coffee and tea, sugar, dairy products, bread, pasta, all white flour, all biscuits and sweets, white rice and meat. I suspected that I might die if I ate a slice of toast with marmalade. Juicing became a religious ritual. I shopped daily for fresh, organic vegetables. In the midst of an event so life threatening and overwhelming it seemed like one area of my life that I could control. Everything associated with food became stressful and exhausting. One morning, after about two months, I thought “to hell with this.” I marched down to the Electric and ordered eggs, bacon, tomatoes, toast and a nice cup of tea. After that I felt a lot better.

These days I have settled into a way of eating that feels good for me. I have a fresh juice every day. I buy mainly organic fruit and vegetables. I eat a lot of vegetables and whole grains. I substitute every other cup of tea with a herbal tea and use organic milk in my regular cuppa. I prefer fish to meat. But I will also go out for a Chinese. And I have toast with marmalade for breakfast if I feel like it.


Anonymous said...

"In the midst of an event so life threatening and overwhelming it seemed like one area of my life that I could control."

Exactly. I was there too. I gave up artificial sweeteners immediately after my diagnosis but am now relaxed about it.