Back in the 1920s, all-white-food parties were all the rage, with fashionable hostesses serving up such wan delights as poached sole in cream glaze, vanilla cocktails, and meringues. My take on this concept? Blech.
But one day last summer, I celebrated — if that is the word for it — my first all-white food day. Tepid oatmeal with milk for breakfast, cool clam chowder for lunch, and a warmish baked potato for dinner.
The day’s diet had nothing to do with retro style, and everything to do with cancer treatment and its handmaidens of mouth sores and nausea. All I could stomach was soft, scentless food in neutral tones, the blander the better.
Having always gardened and cooked organically, I knew I had to eat my veggies. I just couldn’t do it, which caused a ripple of concern around me. One friend sent me an article about the benefits of asparagus for cancer; another, the wonders of artichokes. An oncology nurse handed me a pamphlet called Fighting Cancer With Your Fork, promoting the importance of eating to heal and recover faster, illustrated with photos of micro-thin slivers of golden pineapple, red pepper, kiwis, and carrots, all as translucent as flower petals.
There were no translucent slices of white bread. It was all about the color, because the same element that gives fruit and vegetables color — antioxidants — also gives them nutrition: lycopene makes tomatoes red and carotenoid makes carrots orange. I did not want to rely on antioxidant supplements during treatment, on the theory that they might strengthen existing cancer cells along with the healthy ones. So that meant I would have to eat real, colorful food.
But vegetables — whose very meaning comes from the Latin vegetare, “to be vigorous or healthy” — were painfully crunchy when raw and too odoriferous when cooked. So they were off the table. I tried my best with fruit, whipping up smoothies with the summer abundance of berries until the smell of yogurt got to me, which was quickly. I switched to protein powders instead of dairy, but they left a gritty sensation on my tongue.
Overall, I’d say I drank more barium than smoothies during that time anyways, so I gave up on the blender and simply carted around zip-lock bags of seedless cubes of watermelon. But then my white blood cells tanked, and to protect my immune system, I had to stop eating watermelon. (Eating uncooked food carries an increased risk of exposure to infection-causing bacteria.) My body simply refused to cooperate in healthy eating.
And yet I was never so surrounded by beautiful food. My friend Patricia had organized a meals schedule, knowing that even if I couldn’t eat, my family had to. Every day a healthy dinner was delivered, carefully prepared with love and healing thoughts. But the more people worked to make food tempting, the more I ran from it. One couple cooked a multi-course Japanese dinner. The food looked amazing, and my family loved it. I ate the white rice.
Quinoa salad by Miriam passed the neutrality muster, but the grilled asparagus that accompanied it was too complex for my toddler tastes. I was able to down a few bites of Charlie’s perfectly prepared salmon, but was much happier with the beige orzo it was served on. Thorn brought over a bucket of lobsters, which thrilled my family. Me, not so much.
Once my white blood cell count rose and I could eat fruit again, Anni brought rice pudding with wild blueberries she’d picked in the coastal barrens. The berries were so small I could swallow them whole, thereby skirting the issue of tasting them.
So went my summer. The food kept coming, and I kept dodging it. My husband would come upstairs to describe what people had brought, and we negotiated down to the gram what I thought I could tolerate. Then he sat there like a prison guard while I ate perhaps a wisp of chicken. All this love, all this highly considered nutrition, and I was drinking ginger ale for breakfast.
Then one day, not long after treatment ended but before I was feeling anywhere near better, my friend Barbara arrived with a basket of pink rose petals. She strewed them on the floor around my bed, as Buddhists will do, then left a container of take-out broccoli chicken in the kitchen. My husband brought up a small plate of it. Pasta: OK. White meat: Check. Broccoli: bright green.
I hesitated, then picked out the florets from their tangle of noodles and ate them all. And lived to tell the tale.
JoeAnn Hart is the author of Addled, a novel of animal rights, food, and human peccadilloes. Her new novel, Float, contemplates plastics in the ocean and will be published by Ashland Creek Press in early 2013.
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