Food, “Barking Tomato” readers sooner or later come to recognize, isn’t the only thing I write about. Sure, I can wax poetic about plain old wax beans like nobody’s business. But, holy smokes. I can reminisce like a Faulkner-wannabee on the complexities of life at the mere suggestion of an ingredient or scent without blushing, or lay down, chin up, on a soapbox to talk about breast cancer awareness from my perspective.
More on that in a minute.
For example, take Old Bay. Caked like wet sand on Maryland Blue Crabs turned fire engine red from the steam pot on the massive outdoor stove at Aunt Rose’s farm and chucked by the bushel on the picnic table covered with the Baltimore Sun on a hot September day after the whole family – granny, aunts, uncles, cousins, farm hands — spent the whole afternoon butchering and feathering chickens; the cacophony of laughter and exhausted exuberance mingled with the lip-numbing and oh-so pungent, vinegary, peppery cloud of Old Bay obscuring the mélange of poultry putrefaction and general barnyard stench.
A quarter-sized nugget of succulent white backfin, hard as a Rubix’s Cube to extract from the spiny crab shell without wounding yourself but worth the battle. Was there ever a more festive, chaotic day of the year for a scrawny kid from the sticks from a broken home and without siblings? Not to me, anyway. Not even Halloween came close.
And just like yesterday, that first trip to Napa Valley in 2002 to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary. Ten days of idyllic weather, wine tours, and that whimsical brand of California gourmet “zen” one often imagines, drooling from afar, then embracing in the moment. We seized it. Morning, noon, and night. What was it about those Jerusalem artichokes, anyway?
Delighting, always, in sharing life’s “Kodak moments” with our kids, we took them with us. Ages 8 and 11 at the time, with sophisticated palates – by most standards — they reveled in the adult world of fine food and wine, enjoying the winery presentations and demos as much as their parents.
Unable to participate in the tastings, of course, they were particularly happy when, at Francis Ford Coppola’s winery, Niebaum – Coppola at the time, the guide gave them a wine glass just like the rest of us but instead of a pour of cab or chardonnay, she cracked open one of those classic little green glass Coca-Cola bottles and preceded with her swirling, sniffing, and tasting instructions without missing a beat. Sydney and MacKenzie were spellbound; as serious as Robert Parker in determining the characteristics of that Atlanta, Georgia, varietal.
That day was the highlight of their trip and, in some ways, mine — a trip not only celebrating my marriage and the family ultimately created by its union, but its legacy going forward, one that all families naturally aspire to: passing on the greatest gifts of love, understanding, and knowledge to our offspring in the hopes that they will, in turn, be valued, treasured, and passed on yet again.
I think of that day whenever I see an old Coke bottle and thank God for the pleasure of reliving it every time. It hasn’t been easy.
Prior to the trip I had struggled with anemia for several months for which there was no explanation, despite batteries of tests. I wasn’t obviously sick but it was obvious I wasn’t 100 percent. Despite eating well, sleeping well, and trying to “think” myself well, I felt like an old lady at 44. The proverbial ball-and-chain of fatigue around my ankle pulled me down a little more each day and the sensation and anxiety was unsettling, to say the least. Still, I pushed on with a smile and a mother’s vengeance that, until this mysterious condition had a name, I would not burden my children with worry.
We spent our last afternoon with the Golden State living up to its name. All sunshine, totally carefree, no tours scheduled, not even a hotel booked – which was my idea of living dangerously – we drove south along one of the world’s most breathtaking highways, Pacific Highway 1, toward San Francisco, stopping to take pictures when we wanted, stopping to eat when we were hungry, stopping to find a place to rest our heads when the feeling struck.
We found a funky old bungalow of a motel – one story – like a giant sprawling retro ’60s ranch house on a magnificent bluff overlooking the ocean. They had one room left; a king-sized bed with a denim covered feather duvet that practically took up the whole room. We didn’t care. Next door the dive burrito joint – the manager insisted – was authentic and the best for miles. Sounded good to us. We had blown the budget by this time anyway and had had our fill of California’s chichi cuisine. Enough, already, with the artichokes.
Luggage, kids, and husband unloaded and in the room as the sun slipped into the Pacific, I spied a lone worn cedar bench next to the parking lot that commanded a noble view and plopped my exhausted-as-usual self down for the count. “Ten minutes?” I asked God, exasperated, “Ten minutes for you to reveal the secrets of the universe?”
The sea gull’s call just overhead was God laughing. At me. But I wasn’t amused.
Which brings me back to Boobtober and that Santorini self-portrait above.
You’ve heard those “don’t sweat the small stuff” stories from near-death survivors. I’m not one of them. I mean, I’m a near-death Stage 3b breast cancer survivor going on 13 years now, who always sweats the small stuff. (Just ask my family.) My “Type-A” personality thinks going “B” is a downgrade. So as I place the carved pumpkin by the front door this last day of “Bootober” 2015 . . . yawn . . . I’m in many ways relieved that the perennial Breast Cancer Awareness Month is over.
To be fair, I applaud those innovative efforts by national and community groups, large and small, to keep early breast cancer detection, treatment, and research on the front burner. Any marketing exec will tell you how precipitous the drop, from relevance to dust bin, when outreach and media aren’t part and parcel of a savvy, comprehensive plan.
But pink ribbons and pink product overkill when so few actually contribute any substantial percentage to research? Argh! I’ve never abhorred the cross-pollination of red and white so vehemently and avoid it at any/all cost. (My Gertrude Jekyll roses and similar company, by all means, excluded.)
Avon’s Walk to End Breast Cancer, the NFL’s “A Crucial Catch” campaign – oddly, though sometimes simultaneously competing for attention from domestic violence and/or child abuse headlines, the ACS’s Strides Against Breast Cancer (also odd, in the face of growing controversy over when, exactly, a woman should have that baseline mammogram) — have all consistently worked for many years to keep breast cancer in mainstream conversation, where it belongs.
Closer to home, and in September, participants in the New England Peaks for Prevention fundraiser hiked Mt. Washington to raise money supporting the Breast Cancer Fund to prevent breast cancer by identifying and advocating for the elimination of environmental causes of the disease [www.breastcancerfund.org]. Hopefully, in early 2016, Waterville Valley will bring back a fun, family favorite: B4BC, Boarding for Breast Cancer, a fundraiser for the National Breast Cancer Coalition that works hard on national policy issues in D.C. — but here in the Granite State, 30 percent of proceeds will underwrite local patient services. It’s my personal breast cancer non-profit of choice in New Hampshire. No hype. Guaranteed.
Unlike the recent gimmicky social media boob fest, aka National No Bra Day on October 13. This, I am convinced, is how unemployed sit-com writers “spin” their time: Let’s convince women to take off their bras for one day in solidarity with women who have experienced the crippling effects of breast cancer so that if they had breasts that could be free . . .
Long before October 13, I had mixed feelings about the “sexing” of breast cancer messaging. Saving “ta-tas” and saving “second base,” are some of those weird innuendoes where part of you thinks, “sure, it will lighten things up for puritanical grandmas,” while the other part, the right side of your brain, is thinking, “this is wrong; I graduated from middle school years ago.”
Slate staff writer, Christina Cauterucci, read my mind when penning, “No Bra Day is the Latest Way to Do Nothing about Breast Cancer.” She concludes that, “Encouraging women to show off their braless chests in the name of awareness won’t save anyone, but its message to breast cancer patients and survivors is clear: Your disease is about your secondary sex characteristics, not about you.”
To all the sit-com writers still enjoying all the boobalicious photos via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc., you barked up the wrong tomato. Every day is No Bra Day for women like me who, for whatever reason, chose not to have reconstruction. I’m here to remind us that we’re not defined by mammary glands but by our unique creative intellect and spirit. That self-esteem is more the measure of our mettle in this over-sexed society we live in, one we too often feel compelled to “fit in” least we – God forbid – have people talking.
I’m with Bonnie Raitt: “Let’s give them something to talk about.” The beauty and strength of a flat-chested woman, scarred but resilient. And, for me, a salty sense of humor. Santorini smelt with “ribs,” anyone?
About The Barking Tomato: Carolyn Choate loves to chew on food. Literally and figuratively. In the kitchen from her garden in Nashua or her favorite market, a restaurant across town or across the globe. When not masticating, Carolyn is likely swilling wine or spirits as neither is far from her heart – or lips. Forget diamonds and Louboutins, she’d rather blow a wad on Pinot Noir and grass-fed filet with fresh sautéed morels. And write about it. You taste the picture: The “Barking Tomato” aspires to push your “foodie” button. Carolyn’s day job is producing local affairs programming for WYCN-CD. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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