by Susannah Breslin
A week ago, I took a plane from Naples, Florida, to Chicago, Illinois. I spent a grand total of 24 hours in Chicago, and the only reason I was there was to eat a $350 dinner at a restaurant called Next. The highlight of the meal was the part where we were served a canard à la presse tableside. The idea is French and this: a smothered cooked duck is hacked to pieces; what remains is packed into a press, and the blood runs out of the press and is made into a sauce. The technique has been considered “the height of elegance.” Watching the blood flow, it felt kind of obscene.
Four years ago, I was living in a studio apartment in Lincoln Square, a neighborhood on Chicago’s far north side. I was sleeping on an air mattress, and my desk consisted of a top from a desk I’d never bothered to assemble straddling four milk crates, two on each side. That was in the spring. That fall, I met a guy on an online dating site. We got married nine days after our first date, and eloped in Vegas. It was all very romantic.
After that, I wasn’t living in a studio apartment, and I wasn’t sleeping on an air mattress, and I wasn’t working at a milk crate desk. Everything had changed. I was living in a townhouse in the suburbs, and I was a wife. But four days after we promised to spend the rest of our lives together, I was informed that I had early-stage breast cancer. And it wasn’t even the good kind. It was the bad kind: The tumor was large-ish, and while the cancer hadn’t spread, this type of cancer liked to creep, and everyone wanted to make sure that this wouldn’t be the thing that would kill me.
So, within six months of our marriage, I’d had a chunk of my right breast removed, I was bald from the chemotherapy, and the radiation had seared a sunburn that would linger for years across my chest. For a year I had some terrifically expensive drug pumped into my system that made my bad kind of cancer not want to come back to the terminal party that it had hoped to host in my body.
There is nothing interesting about cancer. It is not sexy. It is the opposite of glamor. It involves taking on toxic fluids, and moments spent gazing at pieces of your tissue in Petri dishes, and long mornings in which the grand number of cells within you that the chemo is killing makes you feel like you are dying. Cancer is not a war. There is no battle. It has no heroes. There is just you, and your fallible body, and everyone involved hoping that this constellation of drugs, and scalpels, and embarrassments will result in some type of personal betterment.
The miracle that is science got rid of my malignancies. After a year and a half, I was cancer-free. I was no longer The Sick Person. I could go back to being The Wife. My hair returned to my head. My brain emerged from a fog. We got tired of the endless misery that is a Chicago winter and moved to Southwest Florida. Here, in this state shaped like a gun and nicknamed “God’s waiting room,” there are palm trees, and dolphins swimming by like no big deal, and sunsets that go on forever as they lazily sprawl their persimmons, and their fuchsias, and their honeysuckles across the sky.
Then a month ago, I got a note from a friend, who had a ticket to Next, and what he wanted to know was: Did I want to go? As far as restaurants go, Next is kind of a unicorn. It’s co-owned by Grant Achatz, who is a pioneer in the strange world of molecular gastronomy and the owner of Alinea, which is considered to be one of the best restaurants in the world, and Nick Kokonas, and it is so exclusive that you have to buy a ticket in advance to get into it. The date of the reservation was one week after my birthday. I fantasized that if I went, on the night that I was there, by some strange coincidence, Achatz would be there. Achatz, I knew, had had cancer, too, and, in my daydream, Achatz would come by the table, and I would motion to him, and he would bend down low, and I would tell him, in a murmuring voice, that I had had cancer, and I knew that he had had cancer, too. He would smile knowingly at me, and I would smile knowingly at him, and then he would disappear into the kitchen, and he would emerge with a plate of something that looked like a tumor splattered across porcelain, and I would eat it, and whatever it was made of (rhubarb? venison? something else entirely?), it would be delicious, and I would have eaten the tumor that had tried to eat me, metaphorically, of course, and the cycle of life would close upon itself, completing itself, like Ouroboros with his tail in his mouth rolling down a street like a wheel.
That didn’t happen. Instead, I got the duck, and the press, and the blood. There were other things, too, that night — a bit of pig head, a clutch of snails, a sponge of rum, a skate wing, cheeks and sweetbreads in cream, chicken custard in an empty egg shell, a lineup of wines and an aperitif, all miraculous, a blur of the culinary wonders of the world — but the duck, it haunted me. There were six of us: me, my friend, who is an attorney, two hedge fund guys and their wives. We sat at a special table, and the only thing that separated us from the kitchen was a pane of glass. On the other side, everyone working in the kitchen was very serious. They were practicing a science, I realized. Or perhaps they were more like monks. This was their religion, maybe. Dinner and its blood-letting was Leviticus 17:11 incarnate: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.” (In other words: I felt bad for the duck. I felt glad to be alive.)
Every year, I get a mammogram. This is done to make sure nothing bad is happening inside of me. This last time, which was in February, there was something that was maybe something or maybe nothing, so they brought me back for a biopsy. In an exam room, I held onto a giant machine, and they stuck a long needle into my right breast, and my breast started bleeding. My head was wrenched in the opposite direction, but I could feel the blood running down my chest, and I could hear it dripping onto the floor. The doctor was unimpressed. She told me that this happens sometimes. In cases like mine, the flesh gets tired. Afterwards, I waited in a dressing room. From there, I watched the doctor as she went in to see if the chunks of meat they’d taken from me were good samples. “Perfect!” she exclaimed, marveling at what would reveal themselves to be benign specimens. “Perfect!” she cried. Her voice was ecstatic. Her expression was delighted.
This story is part of our food month series.