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Culinary caregiving

Kyle Wagner
The Denver Post
Vail, CO Colorado

Sometimes the phone call is good news. It’s a boy or it’s a girl – or maybe both. The surgery was a success. The loved one is coming home.

Sometimes, though, the news is not so good. The lump is malignant. The cancer is back. They’ve done everything they can.

Regardless of the nature of the news, however, for many of us the response is the same: We pull out the casserole recipes and start cooking.



“When people get the news that someone is ill, they are usually at a loss as to what to do,” says Rebecca Katz, author of “The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen,” a cookbook filled with recipes and resources for cancer treatment and recovery. “But the one tangible thing that someone who cooks can do is to cook.”

As a person in remission from cancer who has friends and family in the midst of their own battles, I’ve been on both sides of the equation. “Culinary caregiving” comes with its own challenges.



Katz, who also is the executive chef and offers nutritional one-on-one counseling at the Commonweal Cancer Help Program in Marin County, Calif., points out that there is a helpful way to cook for people and a not-so-helpful way to cook for people. The goal is to get the food to those in need in a healthy way for everyone concerned.

“Cooking for somebody, especially somebody that’s ill, is the most humbling experience,” she says. “I go into it with humility and intention, and I encourage others to do the same.”

It helps to remember that the fact that you’re showing up with a meal should be a blessing, not one more thing on the receiver’s to-do list, an obligation or a stressor.



My family still looks back on the countless dinners, gifts and other kindnesses we received as instrumental in my recovery. The times I was so weak or ill that I had trouble pouring water into a glass always seemed to be just when a multi- course meal would arrive. And the more filled with comfort foods, the better.

Even when I was well enough to start pulling it together again, my culinary caregivers were there, which in retrospect turned out to be more beneficial than I realized at the time.

As one of the women I recently dropped off food for put it, “It’s not that I couldn’t scrape together something for dinner if I had to,” she said. “It’s just that it would have taken all the energy I know my body needs to fight this.”

It’s important, though, for the recipients to speak up, setting boundaries according to their needs and adjusting them as they go along.

This is where having a “culinary team” with a “culinary captain” who coordinates food drops will help the process. That way, the recipient can speak with one person, and the culinary caregivers have a coordinator who knows what’s needed when.

“For the person who’s receiving, I think there’s a thing where people feel like, ‘Oh my god, this person is cooking for me, so I should just take everything and be grateful,'” Katz says. “It’s a very vulnerable position to be in when you’re sick, and people aren’t great about advocating for themselves even when they’re well, but help is only help if it’s really going to help you.”

Control is a hot button in culinary caregiving for both sides, says Katz.

“It’s very easy for people, when they’re cooking for someone and they feel helpless, to feel that the only control they have is the food that they prepare,” Katz says. “Oftentimes they will extract information, whether it’s from a book like mine, or from the Web or an experience they have with another friend, and then they become an ‘expert.’ “

The problem with that, Katz says, is that they foist this “expert” opinion on the recipient and family, which can cause problems.

Not everyone goes through experiences at the same rate or with the same reactions, whether it’s a new baby growing at his or her own pace or response to chemotherapy, and they need to be allowed to call the shots when it comes to putting food into their bodies, even if you’re the one providing that food, Katz says.

She recommends stepping back for a moment before throwing yourself into the task.

“Understand that the stakes are high, and then let it go,” she says. “It’s really just food that will nourish somebody one bite at a time. Remember that that’s your intention here.”

She says it’s also good to remind yourself that nobody likes to be told what they can and can’t eat, and involving them in the process as much as possible ultimately will be rewarding to both sides.

Leanne Deister has seen firsthand the rewards of watching both sides engaged in the process.

Deister founded Supper Solutions, a nine-location group of make-and-take food businesses headquartered in Westminster, where culinary caregivers can make an appointment at the kitchens to cook and package a month’s worth of food ideal for freezing.

“When I started this, it was completely about, I’m from the Midwest and I was the first generation in my family to stink at cooking, so this idea for people to come to the stores and cook food to take away came out of that,” she says. “But then almost immediately there was this other element: ‘One of our co-workers is ill,’ or a spouse died, and they wanted to have a group of people come in and cook.’ It just went on and on and on, so then we started having these parties.”

Since opening in 2003, Supper Solutions has become as much about people making food for others as for themselves, Deister says.

“I have literally personally hosted 20 ‘cancer parties,'” she says. “That’s not my name for them; that’s what they’ve come to be called by the people who have them. And there will be a bald chick in the middle with all of her friends loving on her, and she’s telling everyone what they can and can’t put in the dish.

“It’s a very positive and uplifting kind of thing,” she adds. “It’s a celebration. And when the person comes, so much the better. They are empowered, and they get to decide what they’re going to eat, or their family will eat.”

Deister says that she never expected her business to head in this direction, and she and her consulting chefs find themselves constantly tweaking menus and coming up with new recipes to meet the nutritional demands – not to mention that everything has to be freezer-friendly.

“The power of food to nourish is a huge part of what it takes to get through an illness,” Katz says. “It’s a huge gift, given in the right way, unconditionally and with the intention to heal. You can’t underestimate that.”

Kyle Wagner: 303-954-1599, travel@denverpost.com, twitter.com/kylewagnerworld

Like many people who have had cancer, I now eat broccoli about a hundred times a week (OK, it just feels that way, but still). Just Google the words “broccoli” and “cancer,” and then plan to spend a few days reading. I was delighted to find this recipe in Rebecca Katz’s cookbook “The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen,” because it’s bright and beautiful, and while it’s hard to convert true broccoli haters, those on the fence might be surprised at the zippy flavors. Also, it keeps well and even tastes good cold, covered for 5-7 days in the refrigerator. Serves 4.

Ingredients

1 bunch of broccoli

Sea salt

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic

Pinch of red pepper flakes

1/2 cup diced red bell pepper or cherry tomatoes

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 teaspoons lemon zest

1/4 cup fresh basil, finely chopped

Directions

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cut the broccoli florets off the stalks, then peel the stems and cut them into bite- sized pieces. Add a pinch of salt and the broccoli florets and stems to the pot of water and blanch for 30 seconds. Drain the broccoli, then run it under cold water to stop the cooking process; this will help it retain a lush green color.

Heat the olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat, then add the garlic and red pepper flake and saute for 30 seconds, just until aromatic. Add the bell pepper and a pinch of salt and saute for an additional minute. Stir in the broccoli florets and 1/4 teaspoon of salt and saute for 2 minutes; the broccoli should still be firm. Gently stir in the lemon juice, lemon zest and basil and serve immediately.

I’ve always believed in using pumpkin for its healing antioxidants, vitamins and minerals year-round, so when I came across this muffin recipe in an elementary school fundraising cookbook, I made a copy and have been handing it out ever since. I tweaked it a bit, substituting real dark chocolate chips for the semi-sweet, and I substitute real pumpkin this time of year. Recipe optimized for Denver’s altitude. Makes 12.

Ingredients

1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup canned or freshly cooked, pureed pumpkin

2 eggs

1/2 cup melted butter

1 cup dark or semi-sweet chocolate chips

1/2 chopped pecans (optional)

Directions

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line 12-cup muffin tin with paper or foil liners, or grease the cups. In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, spice, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add pumpkin, eggs and butter; mix well until blended. Stir in chocolate chips. Combine with flour mixture until just moistened. Divide evenly among muffin cups. Bake 20-25 minutes or until muffins are puffed and spring back when touched. Remove from pan.

A co-worker makes this with one pork tenderloin cut into 1/2-inch cubes browned with the onion and garlic, while others use a pound of chicken cubed and browned. We go vegetarian whenever possible – everything comes out tender, a little sweet and just faintly spicy, and it’s great the next day. Bonus: It can be done in the crockpot on low for 6-8 hours or high for 4. Serves 4.

Ingredients

3 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 large onion, chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons chili powder

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoons ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 cans (15 ounces each) black beans, rinsed and drained

1 can (28 ounces) diced tomatoes, undrained

1/4 cup brewed coffee

2 tablespoons honey

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/2 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese or Mexican cheese blend (optional) or 1/2cup sour cream (optional)

Cilantro, minced (optional)

Directions

In a nonstick Dutch oven coated with cooking spray, saute sweet potatoes and onion until crisp-tender. Add the chili powder, garlic, cumin and cayenne; cook 1 minute longer. Stir in the beans, tomatoes, coffee, honey, salt and pepper.

Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30-35 minutes or until sweet potatoes are tender. Spoon into bowls and sprinkle with cheese and/or top with a dollop of sour cream. Sprinkle with cilantro, if using.

Just calling it “carrot cake” does this an extreme injustice – it’s really the best carrot cake my family has ever had. The recipe is extremely forgiving, can be made by kids, stays moist for a good week and actually is better the day or two after it’s baked. Co-worker Maureen Burnett made this for my family when I was going through chemo, and we wound up making it four more times, it was that good. I credit it with my recovery. Recipe optimized for Denver altitude. Makes one sheet pan (13-by-9-inch works well), serving about 10-12. – Kyle Wagner

Ingredients

CAKE

1 1/4 cups oil

1 3/4 cups sugar

4 eggs

3 cups grated carrots

2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup chopped pecans

FROSTING

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese at room temperature

4 tablespoons butter, softened

2 teaspoons vanilla

2 teaspoons water or orange juice.

1 pound powdered (confectioner’s) sugar

Directions

Make the cake: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Beat oil, sugar, eggs and carrots well in a large mixing bowl. In a separate mixing bowl, combine rest of cake ingredients. Add to wet mixture. Pour into sheet pan. Bake 40 minutes. Cool completely and then frost.

Make the frosting: With an electric mixer, combine cream cheese and butter. Add vanilla and water or juice. Slowly add powdered sugar until all is incorporated.


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