Karen Babine Q&A

March 28, 2022
Karen Babine finds the thread between cooking and grief.

“Sometimes writing looks like cooking, sometimes like washing the dishes, sometimes like vacuuming. I like the activities that require my brain to be just engaged enough that I can let part of it wander elsewhere.”

You write about cooking as something you can count on. Do you view it as a form of meditation?

Yes and no. It’s an act of creativity, for sure, and there’s something wonderful about having something so tangible at the end of an activity. What’s unexpected, though, is that I thought cooking and food would become a touchstone for me during the pandemic — and at the beginning, it was. I revisited childhood experiences of existing on pantry staples — and let’s not talk too much about how I somehow fixated on not getting enough fruit and ending up with scurvy, so I stocked up on salsa — I made bread, I designated Pancake Mondays to experiment with new pancake recipes. But the stress of the pandemic has chipped away at my joy of cooking, and even the pleasure of eating. I used to bake for my students, I used to make cupcakes and have them outside my office door — and I don’t do that anymore, for obvious reasons — at first it was because our  classes were on Zoom, later we were all in masks. I really hope I can get all that back when the time is right. I’m not sure what the difference is between the stress of Mom’s cancer and the stress of the pandemic—and it might just be that I needed the outward-facing care of someone else. When it’s just me, now, it doesn’t seem worth the effort, and that’s how I end up with cereal for dinner.

You confront notions of morality in illness and the cultural expectation that epiphanies must accompany illness. You write about C.S. Lewis and A Grief Observed. Was Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking also on your mind?

It wasn’t particularly, but I think that the types of grief in those books were different. Lewis’ wife died of cancer, and so there was the anticipatory kind of grief we were all facing.

You write about how your mother’s personality changed during her treatment. Did you sense she was putting pressure on herself to live up to some ridiculous model of inspiration?

I don’t think so, not actively. I think what happened was that the chemotherapy changed her brain chemistry, because it was such a sudden and drastic change. When her palliative doctor put her on Zoloft, she came back immediately. She never seemed to fall into that inspiration illness trope, partially because her chemo was so brutal there was no way she could even contemplate how others were able to go to work, or live normal lives. We were in such uncharted territory because her cancer was so rare and the doctors didn’t even really know what to do with her, or what treatment would be best. They were giving it their best guess. There really wasn’t room for that kind of inspirational illness, because nothing about it could be positive, not the frequent trips to the ER, the peripheral neuropathy, her inability to eat anything. I think, in a way, I might be grateful for the lack of looking on the bright side.

You write about Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor” and shared the food metaphors you kept hearing in relation to your mother’s cancer treatments — her drug cocktail, her treatment recipe. Are metaphors often our way of managing fear?

There’s a comfort to metaphors, to describe something we don’t know through something we do. Metaphors, at their heart, are about managing the unknown. One of the metaphorical joys of this experience, though, was that my sister was pregnant, and as many do, we kept talking about what fruit or vegetable the baby was this month — and that was a bit of a balance to applying metaphors to the unknown.

You once took a class from Paul Gruchow and in the book you mention his talking about the dark greed of agribusiness. What made Gruchow so dazzling as a writer and mentor?

Oh, I could talk about Gruchow for hours, and will, if ever given the opportunity. When I was a sophomore at Concordia in Moorhead, I took a class called Minnesota Writers, and before this, I had no idea that writers came from Minnesota. Later, I learned that the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature was a Minnesotan. But we read Gruchow’s Boundary Waters, which had just won the MN Book Award, and it was the first time I encountered the idea that I could write about Minnesota, I could write about rural Minnesota, and somebody might want to read it, and it could win awards. I didn’t have to set my writing in more exciting places. Equally as mind blowing, he was teaching in our English department. I took one class from him called “The Languages of Winter” and it was great.

But good god, that man can write a sentence. I could spend hours inside those sentences. As I went through college, through my MFA and Ph.D, it was a good reminder that writers need to be in love with sentences — and if you’re not in love with the building blocks, how can you love what they construct? He had such a way of looking at the world, such a way of observing something that nobody else had. I didn’t encounter another writer of that level until I encountered Tim Robinson, the Irish essayist, and he’s another criminally unknown place essayist. Gruchow died in 2004 and I feel his loss every February. Robinson died of Covid last April and that loss has been difficult to manage, too.

Your book reminded me of Braiding Sweetgrass in how you encourage the action of slowing down and observing nature. Has this always synced in place for you or have you had to work at it?

That’s a lovely compliment, thank you. When I started, I think I was good at those slow, observational moments, but the work came in needing to make the page relevant to people who didn’t know me, didn’t know the places or the natural history I was talking about. But part of that work is recognizing the inherent value of writing about places as a mode of making them valuable. Before Gruchow, there was Sigurd F. Olson, and Olson wrote about the Boundary Waters in the 1950s, and was largely responsible for getting it federally protected. Because he valued it, he caused others to value it too. Gruchow did that for the Great Plains too, with The Necessity of Empty Places, working towards this idea that spending time in a place, putting words to it, and valuing it for what it is, not what it can give us, is the beginning to a much richer, and complex, existence.

The same became true of ATWH, because if you don’t know me, if you don’t know my mom, what is there for a reader? This is the great joy of creative nonfiction, finding the universal in the specific, taking a moment and shining a  light through it to make it relevant for someone  else.

I hope I’m not the first to comment on your sentence, “If hope is a thing with feathers, then delight stands in the sunshine blowing bubbles.” Have others said they love it or am I the first?

You might be the first. Thank you!

You give a beautiful examination of how things serve as icons that represent love. How many cast-iron skillets do you have?

At some point, I was constrained by space. I have a vertical pot rack which holds six pots or Dutch ovens, and then I have three that don’t fit there; on my pegboard, I have five skillets (12”, two 8”, and 2 6”) and one casserole dish. I do have one cast-iron muffin tin, which makes great popovers. Some of these I use more often than others — Agnes still remains the most popular of the crew. When I travel home for holidays, Agnes goes with me. So does my favorite silicone spatula.

You teach creative writing at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and you have a Ph.D in English. Did you ever have a point where you had to get away from words? Is that where cooking helps?

I tend to think of it as all serving the writing. Sometimes writing looks like cooking, sometimes like washing the dishes, sometimes like vacuuming. I like the activities that require my brain to be just engaged enough that I can let part of it wander elsewhere. There are many ways to be a writer, many ways to write, and I’m grateful for it. The best part of teaching is that words are my job, so teaching, for me, is a kind of writing too. I’ve taught the senior seminar once, and will again in the fall, themed around food writing, and it’s one of my favorite classes I’ve ever taught. Food is so complex, so rich, so full of culture and history and current events and flavor and love. I can’t wait to teach it again.

Photo by Brandi Ashman