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How The Food Network Saved My Life
By Megan Fulwiler

It's hard to be a Buddhist in the middle of a panic attack. I found that out a month into an intensive seven-month chemotherapy regimen when I woke up one night with a racing heart. Drenched in sweat, I couldn't catch my breath and my mind was spinning with gruesome images of mangled limbs. The chemotherapy was killing off cancer cells, but it was also killing other cells that kept me alive. Since I was already learning what it felt like to lose control of my body, I wasn't prepared to lose my mind as well. I struggled to notice my in-breath and visualize my out-breath. I tried to follow Thich Nhat Hahn's advice and practice nonattachment. I scrambled frantically to find my inner place of peace, but I couldn't even remember where it was. Instead I was doing everything you're not supposed to do: clutching, holding, freaking out.

Then I remembered the South Hampton picnic I'd seen that afternoon on the Food Network's Barefoot Contessa: shrimp salad, tomatoes sprinkled with feta cheese, pesto pasta, and lemon pound cake. Host Ina Garten packed everything in small Chinese take-out containers and tied each slice of lemon cake in parchment paper and raffia. The segment ended with her friends gathered together on a windy beach, sipping cold beer and wielding chopsticks as they dined on Ina's delicacies. I replayed this scene over and over in my mind, running through images of firm pink shrimp, bow-tie pasta speckled with pesto, and yellow striped tomatoes. I was soothed by the comforting whir of her Kitchen-Aid mix master beating sugar and butter until it formed a yellow ribbon. I imagined myself on that beach, my skin tight from a day in the sun, my hair coarse and curly from ocean salt. I focused on the shoreline, felt the rough parchment paper in my palm, and tasted lemon icing on my tongue. My breath evened out, my pulse slowed, and my body relaxed. In my hour of need, the Barefoot Contessa sailed in on her silver Viking stove and rescued me with the sturdy shine of her All-Clad cookware.

Barefoot Contessa is a regular program on the Food Network featuring Ina Garten and her sprawling shingled home in the Hamptons. Each show revolves around the gourmet meals she prepares for her husband, Jeffrey, as a homecoming on Friday evenings. She regularly hops in her convertible Mercedes to pick up a quart of local raspberries or a bottle of Pinot Grigio. She's stout and warm, like a fresh baked brioche. Her face is freckled and open and her dark brown hair falls in her eyes as she cooks. She's generous, pleasant, and kind of messy, dropping eggs shells in her bowls and getting avocado all over her hands. She's a fan of heavy cream, liqueurs, and lots of lemon zest. When she makes dessert she smiles conspiratorially into the camera, asking, "How bad can that be?"

For weeks now I'd been watching the Food Network from the depths of my parents' old red sofa. At 35, I'd moved back home to Vermont to undergo chemotherapy for acute leukemia. I'd already lost ten pounds, my hair, and my taste buds. My jeans were too loose, my bowels too tight, and everything tasted like licking tin. A week after my diagnosis, I took a leave of absence from the college in Albany, New York where I was an English professor. Colleagues took over my classes, a neighbor took in my plants, and I packed a suitcase. Instead of living alone in an old brownstone and joining friends for drinks on Thursdays, my mother was tucking me in at night and my father bringing me clean pails for puking.

The worst side effect of chemotherapy, however, was that I couldn't read. A stack of novels sat next to my bed, but I found the language baroque and the plots knotted. So I turned to more straightforward nonfiction books like Lance Armstrong's It's Not About the Bike and Jerri Nielson's Ice Bound: A Doctor's Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole. Even in the realm of real people and real lives, I was just skimming words, skipping pages, and drifting away. I had spent a lifetime reading. In fact, I'd made a career of it. But now stories didn't work; they seemed frivolous and beside the point. That's when I discovered the Food Network and found narrative winnowed to its essence, words reduced to their white-hot core of truth. I found relief in the concrete language of food.

On the days I felt empty, limp, and flattened from chemo, watching the Food Network gave me structure and purpose. When my parents came home from work and started cooking dinner, I retreated to the TV room and the rituals of food preparation I couldn't smell. In my real life, everything made me nauseous and I could only eat white food: egg noodles, rice, vanilla yogurt. But my Food Network life was filled with smoky pancetta, curried chicken, and chocolate mousse spiked with hot pepper. In my real life I was learning about white blood cells and prescription painkillers. In my Food Network life I was learning to smash garlic cloves with the flat of a knife, assemble Panini, and make black olive tapanade. In my real life, I made regular trips to the hospital for blood transfusions and lab work. But in my Food Network life I hung out in East Hampton grilling Tequila chicken with the Contessa, or joined Giada de Laurentis from Everyday Italian on trips to specialty shops wearing a pashmina. For thirty minutes at a time, I could leave my body and the world of biopsies. I could live near the ocean and my biggest concern could be how to make fresh gnocchi or where to buy Callebaut chocolate.

My friends called often to see how I was feeling, but after awhile I stopped answering the phone. My new network took up all of my time. When people asked if I was writing about my experience, I assured them I was. But the truth is I was too busy TIVO-ing Paula Deen's Home-Style Cooking. Against the backdrop of a Gulf Coast bayou, Paula dredged thin filets of Tilapia through piles of corn meal, popped them in smoking oil, and lobbed huge pillows of Crisco into her biscuit dough. I became addicted to Rachael Ray's 30 Minute Meals and her hoarse-voiced culinary enthusiasm. I developed a serious crush on Tyler Florence and followed him to the far corners of Sicily on his quest for the ultimate meatball. When the oncologist talked about my bone marrow, after awhile all I could see was Alton Brown's Good Eats Beef Map: Brisket and Shank, Rib, Short Loin, rump roast.

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