I AM a ravenous, ungraceful eater. I have been compared to a dog and a wolf, and have not infrequently been reminded to chew. I am always the first to finish what’s on my plate, and ever since I was a child at my mother’s table, have perfected the art of stealthily helping myself to seconds before anyone else has even touched fork to frog leg. My husband and I have been known to spend our rent money on the tasting menu at Jean Georges, our savings on caviar or wagyu tartare. We plan our vacations around food — the province of China known for its chicken feet, the village in Turkey that grows the sweetest figs, the town in northwest France with the very best raclette.
So it was a jarring experience when, a few months ago, at 36 years old, I learned I had stomach cancer.
I had only mild symptoms at first: a slight pain below the breastbone when I swallowed, discomfort that felt like nerves or indigestion. Two doctors told me it was nothing. “Take some Prilosec,” they said, which made sense. We had just returned from a trip to Italy. In Florence, we had eaten mounds of roast duck, crostini and rich fish stews; maybe I just had heartburn. But the feeling lingered, and the hypochondriac in me went to the gastroenterologist.
It was a tumor. We got the call early on Friday morning. My husband and I were still in bed, and it took more than a moment to register. At my age, I am not supposed to have stomach cancer. In the United States, it’s a disease that most commonly afflicts older, Asian men, and I am none of these. I have also parted with all my vices, save the occasional sugar binge. But after years of worrying that I might have cancer, years of, “Can you look at this? Is this a lump? What’s this right here? No, here,” I actually did.
I had only one thought about the possibility of death: the fear that I would have to part from my husband a half-century too soon. We had just married in October. We had just moved into a cottage in Connecticut. We had just discovered the simple pleasures of a happy routine. A calendar on the fridge. Roast chicken with leeks for dinner. Losing our life together was what death meant to me, and that, I think, is love.
Thankfully, my doctors assured me that death was a remote possibility. But I wasn’t getting off easily; there were things to lose. First, with three rounds of intense chemotherapy, I lost my appetite. But that was only temporary. Then my surgeon told me that I needed a total gastrectomy — I would have part of my esophagus and all of my stomach permanently removed.
With nothing but a small intestine left to digest food, my gastronomic future would hold only small, frequent meals, consumed slowly and deliberately, without my characteristic gusto. Without abandon. Without — there would be a lot of without.
“You can live without a stomach,” my doctor told me. I have often thought about what I could live without, if I had to: a savings account, an extra bedroom, the new Prada suede platform pump in burgundy. But a stomach never entered my mind. And food? It was so much more. As a little girl, sharing food with my mother was a solace, a joy, and a way of communicating. Sharing it with my husband has been as intimate as anything I’ve experienced. We fell in love one taste at a time: roadside cheeseburgers, bonito with ginger sauce, hazelnut gelato. After the first bite had lingered on our tongues, we’d say to each other: Wait for it. And then: Did you get that? The smoke? The spice? The texture? We always did.
And so, with just 10 days left with my trusted stomach, we set out to capture all that food meant — all the memories it conjured, all the happiness it brought. We were determined to eat as much and as well as possible. We made lists. What categories of food needed attention? Which meals did we want to recreate? We went from lowbrow to high, and everywhere in between. Peanut butter and jelly doughnuts, ginger ice cream, sashimi, grilled porterhouse, wild blueberries. We came up with a plan. Travel options were limited (health, timing), but we would go from Connecticut to Maine to New Brunswick, and finish in New York City three days before my surgery.
On the road, we ate candy in the car like kids. Then, at the White Barn Inn near Kennebunkport, Me., we ate a foie gras and fig torchon, which was velvety, buttery and dusted with pistachios; we ate butter-poached smoked lobster, the summery steam wafting up from the meat; and we tasted scallops with passion fruit coulis, thinly sliced disks of silky pleasure in a sweet, tangy sauce.
MY mother made scallops like nobody else. Perfectly seared and turned in butter. Simple and divine. And she served them at her hugely popular, often impromptu, dinner parties. Watching her cook was what I imagined it was like to watch Jackson Pollock paint. She hurled salt and spices. Spun sugar like a sculptor. Emptied a bottle of rosemary onto a leg of lamb, massaged it with butter into the meat, and turned out a masterpiece. I surged with pride when the first guests arrived and remarked on the wonderful smells sailing out of the kitchen, to whose creation I alone had been witness.
My father was something of a tyrant, and every year my mother and I went to southern France to escape him. We were like war buddies on leave there, and we ate like queens. We drank tea out of giant bowls and picked lavender and stayed at wonderful old inns with names like L’Hermitage. There were cheese courses and pastries and the most delicious filet of sole I’ve ever encountered. There was also a deep and unwavering friendship between my mother and me, the tastes and smells of the food we shared overpowering even our worst memories of my father.
Those summers came back to me at our next stop: the Kingsbrae Arms in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, which had an exquisite dining room, gardens full of lavender and a chef who studied in the south of France. There we sat down to a wild boar terrine and Guinness vegetable soup with rosemary whipped cream. It was sublime and hinted of beef, celery, sweet carrot and earth. Finally, there was a warm apple and cinnamon tarte tartin — not too sweet, not too tart and not quite large enough. I ate mine and half of my husband’s as well, and yearned for more.
It had been a long time since I had experienced such satisfying fullness. There was comfort and exuberance, a familiar feeling like a long embrace, a coming in from the cold — that I fear I will not know again. I know I will mourn my loss. Because for me, food — and eating it with abandon — is about shared experience. It’s about love and memory and the capacity to conquer even the worst hours with something warm and wonderful.
BUT let me be clear: I am unspeakably lucky. Had my diagnosis come even three or four months later, my prognosis would have been much, much darker. I had the surgery two weeks ago, and thankfully everything went smoothly. Once I’ve recovered a bit more, I will be able to eat again. In the future, my meals will be little intermissions throughout the day. Overtures, not full symphonies. They will be small, but I will try to make them grand. Even if it’s just a spoonful of pudding. And I would give up all of my organs for the possibility of many more years with my beloved husband.
We had our last good meal together — our last of the old meals — in Manhattan, at Le Bernardin. It’s the best place in the city for a final meal with a stomach, the best place in the city, arguably, for any meal. When I called the hostess for a last-minute table, I was told that the only seating they had was at 10:45. I pulled out the big guns: “I have stomach cancer, and this is literally my last meal with a stomach.”
“Well,” she said, irritated, “I suppose we can seat you at 5:30.”
What a town. And what a magnificent meal it was.