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Cooking Teacher

My Story of Growing up Italian and Where It Got Me to Today

My life began when I was 14. Okay, I was born fourteen years before that, but…

I was raised in a big Italian and Irish family, with extended clan members roaming wildly in and out of our house and lives on a daily basis. With the exception of my Irish father, we all cooked…my brothers, sister, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents and of course, my mother.

My mother was one in a million (thank God); I am not sure the world could have handled more than one of her. I surely know my father couldn’t have. She was ahead of her time is what I remember most about her…and her passion for good food and fitness.

My mother birthed four children and until she died (at the ripe young age of 49) she had the figure of a 1940’s pin-up girl. She exercised. As a kid, I remember waking up to find her in front of the television screen, working out to Jack LaLanne. From gyms to aerobics classes, my mother worked at keeping her figure…and instilled that ideal in me. However, she also loved sugar and also instilled that love in me.

Her passion for a fit body was rivaled by her passion for food and ingredients. As a child, some of my most vivid memories are of the Friday night and Saturday morning treks to the farmers’ markets in our area of New Jersey. My mother would pile us kids in the car and head off to find the best vegetables and fruit she could manage. Our eggs were delivered weekly by a local egg farmer. She baked all our bread and sweets, working outside the home as well as in it.

Her commitment to fresh ingredients was matched by an insatiable thirst for knowledge about alternative health. While she and I cooked, continuing right on through dinner, she would talk to me about the latest article she had read about health and food.

And I was sick to death of it all…the recycling, the turning off of the water while we brushed our teeth to conserve, the walking instead of driving for added fitness and conservation, the healthy meals, the ‘weird’ brown whole wheat bread she baked that I would trade at school for something ‘normal,’ like Wonder Bread, the activist marches she regularly attended with me in tow. She was politically liberal and I was raised to be politically, environmentally and socially aware.

Of course you may be wondering why she died so young if she was so committed to health. Dinner was interesting at our house. My father would be at one end of the table; my mother at the other, us kids, friends and family members all around. Everyone ate, except my mother. She would sit at her place, coffee cup steaming, cigarette in hand and pick at her food…unless it was chocolate or some other form of sweet treat. Then she was all over it. You could also guarantee that she would dig into pizza, lasagna or manicotti, but all the vegetables she insisted we eat? Not on your life, except for the occasional salad that was eaten as the prelude to a hot fudge sundae to assuage her guilt.

But she would cook and work in the kitchen all day, if her time allowed. She scoured magazines and newspapers for new recipes, new techniques for cooking. Her passion in the kitchen was unmatched. She developed a highly sensitive palate and could reproduce any dish, down to its subtlest nuance with only one taste. She passed her passion on to me. My love of the kitchen which is a driving force in my life, I owe to my mother.

As I became a teenager, I tried to steel myself against her constant tirades about the environment, health and food. But, as it turned out, I could not escape the effects. My freshman year in high school, at age 14, everything changed. I walked into my first ‘grown-up’ art class with real equipment, real studio easels and real supplies. I was in love. The teacher was an environmental activist (just my luck, I remember thinking) and a vegetarian. He talked to us calmly and peacefully about art, pottery, sculpture, the environment and vegetarianism. He showed us pictures of how meat was produced and how animals were treated…and yes, you guessed it…I turned into my mother. Add to the mix the fact that becoming a vegetarian would make my butcher father completely insane and you had a recipe for success!

What I did not plan on were the limited options available to me as a vegetarian in those days. As long as I was willing to cook it, sprout it or prepare it, then I could enjoy a wide and varied diet. There were no veggie burgers on the menu at our local diner or soy cheese pizza at the corner joint. After a couple of years, I felt trapped. My social life was very cool as long as there was no eating…no carloads to the burger place or out for ice cream on a Friday night after the game. I got tired of cooking…I was not going to become my mother, chained to the kitchen, as I saw it (ah, irony…). So I became a junk food vegetarian…chocolate bars, pizza, soda, snacks, chips…all those foods that had been forbidden to me as a kid, except on rare, special occasions. Being a ‘veg’ wasn’t so hard after all. What did Frances Moore Lappe know anyhow?

My mother was 47 when she was diagnosed with colon cancer. It seemed to come out of left field, but as I look back now with what I know about food, of course, it did not. One day, after an aerobics class, she was complaining that she had pulled muscle in her rear end. Days turned into weeks and the pain was no better, maybe even worse. The family doctor prescribed a tendonitis medicine used for racehorses. Finally, I convinced her to make an appointment with her gynecologist, a doctor she trusted and confided in. That appointment revealed what he believed to be an abscess at the base of her colon. He planned to drain it and be done. It turned out to be just beginning.

She went into the hospital on a Friday morning before Palm Sunday. It was to be a quick ‘in and out’ stay. The day after my mother’s procedure showed itself to be a typically gorgeous South Florida day, sunny and warm. I was hanging laundry on the line before heading to the hospital when the phone rang. It was only 7:15 in the morning. It was my mother, sounding panicked, demanding to know when I was coming. I grew impatient with her, telling her that I had to run the house and my business while she was ‘out of commission,’ so she needed to cut me a little slack. She said, ‘I have cancer. I need you now.’

I do not know how I got to the hospital that morning. I do not remember driving or getting in the elevator or walking to her room. I was just there somehow. My mother’s lovely skin was pale and her eyes filled with terror. And so the roller coaster that so many people know as the fight against cancer began. While cancer had touched us with other relatives, this was my mother. This was personal. For the next two years, she had surgeries, round after round of chemotherapy and radiation. She lost her hair twice and grew weaker and sicker with each passing day. And ironically, the ‘pain in her butt’ never subsided, not for one moment.

After eighteen months of this struggle, she could bear the pain no more. Her doctor recommended a nerve block in her leg, which would leave her unable to walk. My mother knew that she would not survive this disease in the long run, so paralysis of her leg seemed a small price to pay for some pain-free days of life. And so it was back to the hospital for what turned out to be the last time.

The ‘twenty-minute procedure’ performed on my mother took five hours. My father, my brothers and sister and I were insane with worry by the time the doctor came to see us. He told us that my mother’s ‘pain in the butt’ was in fact, bone cancer that was so advanced that her pelvis was turning to powder. He said there was nothing more that could be done; that they had ‘missed’ the bone cancer and my mother would be dead in about ten days. Shocked more deeply than I thought I could be after all we had been through, I took her home to die, which she did…ten days later, in her sleep, in my father’s arms for her last breaths.

You may be wondering why I have told you this long story about my mother’s life and illness. What does it have to do with you? My life with my mother, from my childhood until her death shaped the person I am and for you to understand my passion for my work and my fervent wish for your health, I thought you needed to hear her story so you understood mine. My mother’s experience with cancer and its treatments forced me to re-think everything I thought I knew about health. She helped to shape my path as I hope to help shape yours, basing the foundation of your health on food and living a natural life.

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