All the Wild Hungers (2019) by Karen Babine is an enticingly unique venture into food writing. The text ruminates on diverse ailments to intensify the reader’s craving for culinary balm. I selected this text because of my newfound curiosity for food writing and started reading it while hungry. So, I entered Babine’s book ravenous–for fresh language and flavor. Babine satisfies both with lyrical flare.
In the first chapter of her autobiographical essay collection, Babine writes, “We learn that my mother’s is a childhood cancer called embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma and they tell us it appears only in children under the age of ten, not in sixty-five-year-old grandmothers, and I keep thinking of embryos…I keep thinking about what is inside us that never goes away” (2). The yoking of pregnancy with cancer, each a medical risk, as well as the fusion of notions of the body with that which nourishes it is immediate, breathless. Absorbing the first paragraphs of Babine’s prose makes these innovative connections clear. In the span of a few pages, Babine has laid fertile ground for an orchard—harrowingly acidic and perfectly ripe.
All the Wild Hungers is full of evocative food metaphors. Early on, sweetness and femininity are tethered to malevolence in Babine’s question, “Would the woman who loved chocolate see old tales in their faces, dark stories, the ones where the women are the danger…the stories where witches lure children closer with houses made of candy and gingerbread, where stepmother-witches offer poisoned apples, where tiny bottles labeled Drink Me and cakes labeled Eat Me send us to places we never expected to go” (3-4). Such an intense question sets the scene for the story. Readers realize that cakes, petite and pretty, can pose danger.
To combat the uncertainty caused by her mother’s mysterious cancer, Babine cooks. She searches for vintage cast iron in thrift stores and healing recipes in her family’s culinary lineage. The first in Babine’s cast iron collection, a Le Creuset skillet named Agnes, is described as “the color of orange not found in nature, not citrus or pumpkin or persimmon…She is the color of warning” (6). Later, Babine elaborates, saying, “Agnes is the color of fear, of orange cones and emergency vests, a color to startle” (12). Babine’s search for lost treasures in a place characterized by the unwanted and discarded parallels her search for meaning in a pained existence. Readers see how Babine imbues meaning into the flesh of what surrounds her–people, produce, pans. The metaphors Babine selects serve a dual purpose: to propel the plot and make emotion palpable. She writes, “What is the purpose of metaphor except to understand what we absolutely cannot, to compare something we do not know to something we do? It tastes like chicken, after all” (34).
Babine confronts the cracks in her foundations. After considering the Greek custom of hospitality called xenia–“navigating a world where their gods did not live lives separate from them, a world where we find the divine in an ordinary salad”–Babine wonders whether “community is a myth” (16). Among other myths Babine considers are individuality and time. Everything that once was real to Babine is now at risk of rot. She accepts this harsh reality with bravery, consistent literary mastery, and frequent optimism.
There are moments to savor amid such pervasive uncertainty. A standout bright moment from the book is contained in one of the world’s greatest wonders, cheese: “Eating our feelings is pejorative, something shameful in this desire to find comfort in food, but I find delight in the fat from the melting cheese having woven itself into lacelike bubbles on the surface…eating my feelings seems healthy and desirable” (51). For Babine, food grants the gift of feeling.
When instructions for how to heal from the universe’s tragedies—a mother diagnosed with a rare childhood cancer, a child who will not grow—are absent, Babine’s seeks answers in recipes. Her cooking helps us understand, in our stomachs, the kind of healing the mind cannot yet fathom. All the Wild Hungers can nourish all kinds of readers, not just those looking to pursue food writing or literarily cure themselves of illness. Reading this book feels like fellowship. It is akin to sharing a meal.
All the Wild Hungers is available for purchase at Milkweed Editions
Marah Hoffman is a senior double major in English and creative writing at Lebanon Valley College in rural Pennsylvania. Within her campus’s lively literary community, she is a writing tutor, mentor for prospective and new students, co-poetry editor for their literary magazine, and president of her college’s International English Honors Society chapter. Marah enjoys reading classic and contemporary literature. She has written poetry since she was twelve but has lately found herself wandering the realm of creative nonfiction, particularly personal essays. Besides being a bookworm, Marah is an avid runner. She is a member of LVC’s cross country and track teams. When Marah graduates, she hopes to find a position that allows her to continue pursuing her passion for books.
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