I stopped eating mid-morning on October 28.
It’s not that I dislike food. But due to the growth of an incurable tumor that’s blocking my bowels (sorry for these grisly details), food that enters my body at one end is now unable to exit at the other end. I won’t describe the long week that led up to the decision to stop eating; but I guarantee that if you had experienced that awfulness yourself, you would understand my choice.
Because there is no Death With Dignity law in my state – no option for physician-assisted-death – I am very calmly starving to death. I can drink water, but I can’t drink smoothies, shakes, etc. because my body perceives them as solid foods.
Oddly, I felt no hunger until nearly three weeks into my fast. The sensation of hunger is now quite different than it was in the pre-cancer days, when I’d get cranky if my breakfast was forty minutes late.
I perceive hunger nowadays as visual images of the foods I used to love in the long-ago days of childhood, along with memories of how delicious those foods were. The main image I see is that of my father’s soft-boiled eggs, which he would cook for my brother Jim and me on Sunday mornings. Dad readied the eggs and prepared the toast using his watch’s second hand to ensure that both parts of the meal would be ready simultaneously. I can still clearly see, smell, and even taste those memory-eggs, yolks broken and spreading out slowly over slices of golden-brown buttered toast, with fresh fruit to follow.
Because eating at this point has become purely theoretical, a harmless exercise in nostalgia, I’ve begun compiling a mental list of foods that I find pleasing, comforting, or simply delicious. Let’s begin with apples. Because I was born in upstate New York, the heritage variety Northern Spy was the first apple I ever tasted. To me, it’s how an apple ought to taste: packed with juicy flavor, both sweet and acidic at the same time.
Using Northern Spies, or the tartest substitute apples she could find, my mom baked exquisite apple pie throughout my childhood, featuring plump raisins and molasses. Later on when I worked as the baker at the old Uptown Café (1980-’81), I used her recipe. The wait staff told me that one regular Friday night customer used to drive down each week from Indianapolis just to eat my apple pie.
Another outstanding sweet childhood comfort food included homemade tapioca pudding. – But hold on! At this moment, a large number of readers out there are exclaiming “Tapioca? No way! YUCK!!!” based on their memories of the horrible “fish-egg” commercial pudding of their youth. But tapioca pudding is wonderful when made by hand and eaten warm from the stovetop; and because it’s mainly milk and egg, it’s modestly nutritious as desserts go. I always lessen the amount of sugar and use large farm eggs with orange-colored yolks for best results. Ambrosia of the gods! (Sound of lips kissing fingertips in ecstasy.)
Home fries are fabulous, especially when cooked in bacon grease, and hash browns are basically a different form of the same thing. Last year I achieved a state of perfection in my hash browns: evenly browned and without any tendency to stick to the pan. Here’s how to do it. While the frying pan is heating a 50/50 blend of cooking oil and butter, shred one to three potatoes (it’s great fun to use spuds of different colors: yellow, purple, white). Taking this moist lump between your hands, stand above the sink and squeeze out as much as possible of the starchy juice. Then spread the shredded potatoes evenly across the bottom of the hot skillet. Apply seasonings and then press flat with the spatula, frying gently. When the hash browns turn medium-brown around the edges, it’s time to lift and flip. Hash browns prepared this way will lift up in a uniform mass, much like a pancake.
Great meat foodstuffs range from humble to high. I will never forget the sandwich from an old-style Jewish deli (a real East Coast deli, not a yuppie deli with pretenses) consisting of a mountain of rosy corned beef piled between thick slabs of rye with tangy mustard. But then again, how can one say one has really lived until one has eaten pork chops complete with all the succulent crispy fat around the edges? But, more suitable for summer picnics, and situated at the opposite end of the meat spectrum, I remember mountains of Hebrew National bratwursts drenched in ketchup and mustard. Back in the day, Hebrew National’s dogs popped enticingly when you bit into them and they were far tastier than other brands like Oscar Meyer, Vienna Beef, etc. But like so many other things, they may have degraded in quality over the years, and now we’ve got a wide selection of artisanal sausage products. They’re undoubtedly made with superior meat, but still, I can’t forget those Hebrew National brats and hot dogs of my youth.
As for great vegetable dishes, I love mixed baby veggies sautéed together in butter at the opening of each summer. It’s heavenly to eat fresh cherry tomatoes warm from the sun, plucked off the vine and eaten right there in the garden. And there’s invariably a feral butternut squash vining and twining from the compost bin, the taste of which is incomparable.
For dairy dishes, give me a large, heavy portion of traditional cottage cheese/sour cream noodle kugel. Or homemade kefir, which I kept in a glass on the counter and regarded as a useful pet that lived in the kitchen. This, with a smudge of dark cherry concentrate stirred into it, was divine on a hot summer’s day. And of course I should mention The Milkshake Diet, which I spent some time on in the summer of 1984 when I was young and unemployed and living on less than two dollars a day. For breakfast: a leftover carrot or apple or banana. Nothing for lunch. Around mid-afternoon, when the hunger pains began to mount, I’d take my two bucks and go to the Indiana Sweet Shop for one of their enormous quart-size sludgy chocolate milkshakes, where the coldness of the huge drink would immediately induce a small localized headache in the center of my forehead. The caloric value of the milkshake meant that I would not be hungry again until the following morning’s breakfast. And thus, in a single meal, I had carbs, protein and fat, the three building blocks of nutrition (or so I assured myself).
I no longer eat any of these things. But I remember them with enormous fondness, and they are what is now sustaining me in these last weeks on earth. Who knows: if there is a Hereafter, I think perhaps I’ve earned a good seat at the table.