When Culinary Dreams Take A Back Seat To Cancer

I paid my dues in professional kitchens, working my way up the food chain from back kitchen prep, to line cook, to lead, to sous chef, and then a shot at running the show in one of this city’s oldest restaurants. And, after an injury ended my professional kitchen career I found myself wondering what an old chef did with the rest of her life.

About the time I thought I might have to get a real job that did not involve food at all, my mother passed away and left me enough money to start over and to create the kind of career that would feed my love for all things culinary and for something a little less physically taxing on my older, but still usable body. Unlike the Tony Bourdains’ and Mario Batallis’ of the world, I knew that television was not the ticket out of my culinary doldrums. I just ain’t traditionally “purtty” enough for the small screen and it is not my cup of tea anyway. But, I did have journalistic chops honed at several print publications in the time of dinosaurs, or more precisely, before the computer put most newspapers out of business.

In a bold and what some would consider foolish decision, I convinced my partner to quit her job. We bought a lovely used RV we named Ruby Sunshine and set off on a 10,000 mile, five month culinary adventure to find, eat, and learn about the authentic cuisines of the southern regions of these United States. My grand plan was to sharpen my old writing and photography skills and to put finger to keyboard or finger on the shutter and capture everything we saw, ate, touched, and created. I went to cooking schools all across the south to learn how to prepare dishes with a long and storied histories. I had hopes of teaching regional cooking classes and writing about food and travel for the rest of my days. It would have worked out, except for the beast that came knocking at my door.

Towards the end of our trip, we were in Washington, DC I think, a small mole on my back started to grow. Slowly at first. By December of 2008 I knew something was really wrong, and I was right. Stage 2A Melanoma that had spread to the lymphnodes in my right hip area. After two surgeries to remove any suspect tissue and enough lymphnodes to cause sometimes painful lymphadema, my focus changed. Instead of travelling more and cooking more and writing more, and teaching I have been going to doctors more, and doing chemo treatments and taking harsh-assed horse pills and letting them stuff me in a tube to see if my cancer has moved inward and made things worse. In simple terms, I’ve lost my chops to my fight to survive. Culinary pursuits, for the last three years, have been on the farthest back burner of the stove that is my life.

Sad really. I still want to do all the things I planned on back in 08. Unfortunately, the money is gone from paying my own way along this road that has had so many twists and turns. My mind has been occupied with so many things, and a mundane job has taken my days of growing food and cooking from me. It is spring 2012 and I am itching to get back into the garden and into the kitchen. I am tired of not being able to do the things I really love, except in very small doses. But, with even small doses, I feel my chops coming back and my love of all things food related growing again. I am cooking for friends, developing new dishes, and, with this post, putting finger to keyboard and trying, in spite of my disease, to keep on writing and living and being grateful for every day above ground. I hope to teach some this summer when the tomatoes are green and ready to be coated in egg and cornmeal and fried just like Anne taught me when I was living the dream in New Orleans back in the summer of Twenty Oh Eight.

I might not yet have the career I want, but today I do have a belly full of my very amazing tomato and basil pasta sauce and even that will do… for now.


About jaicarney

I am a culinary artist, writer, dreamer and urban farmer dedicated to teaching people to eat and live well. I love my chickens, my garden, my friends, and this mother we call Earth.
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