Cancer bites, so I bit back
The cookies—neatly frosted half black, half white—came in a brushed metal tin stamped with the Dean & Deluca logo. They were thick, dollar-coin-sized versions of the normally super-sized, cakelike black and white cookies that, as a New York City-area kid, had long been my go-to comfort food. Rugelach and macaroons rated high too, but I’m sure Jewish kids from the Los Angeles area remember them fondly as well. Montrealers too. And all of America owns chocolate chip and peanut butter cookies. Black and whites belong to NYC, and I was in need of of as much comfort as I could get.
A friend who had grown up in Queens sent them. We met as adults and had never talked about black and whites but when you’re from where we are, you just understand their place in a person’s life. Like most B&W fans, I have a dedicated method for eating the wonderfully soft cookies. Start with the white side. In theory, the white is vanilla to the black side’s chocolate. In practice? Not even slightly vanilla. It’s like sticking your tongue in a bowl of sugar. It’s so sweet. Nerve-shocking sweet. Even now, I think of enduring the white side as a brutal kind of penance (and I’m a culturally-Jewish atheist so, really, not a hair shirt person). The reward for getting through it is a slab of chocolate ganache-ish icing atop a cookie so pillowy that, if big enough, would make a fine napping couch. (No, you can’t just break off the white and go straight to the chocolate. That’s cheating.)
After opening the tin that came with the day’s mail, I cried. I was weeks into a new role: breast cancer patient, 43 years old and just 11 months into my life in Alaska—which I’d finally moved to after falling in love with it a decade earlier on an expiring frequent flyer miles-motivated trip. My new home city, Anchorage, is 4431 driving miles away from NYC’s delis, bagel bakeries, and bodegas. This was the cookie version of my friend coming over to sit with me, to just listen.
I downed a few of the mini black and whites within minutes, then tucked the rest away in the freezer for later, intending to stretch their solace out through my treatment. The plan was two surgeries and radiation. No chemo. Still scary but not scary. The whole shebang would be done in four months.
Or not. The cancer—a wee bit of a tumor, it wouldn’t even cover my pinky nail—was more aggressive than expected. It was in at least one of my lymph nodes. I needed a third surgery and chemo. Four months turned into nine. I was, to put it mildly, out of my head.
During the first “chemo teach” session at my oncologist’s office, I showcased a cheery smile and an I got this attitude as I listened to the long list of horrors that might be ahead. There could be hair loss, of course; my hairdresser had already cut my long hair down to a pixie cut to make the transition easier. Nausea, sure. But then there were possible changes to my fingernails—thickening and odd lines; neuropathy that could leave my feet and hands numb; mouth sores; heart problems; loss of taste or a metallic taste in the mouth—on and on.
My taste buds turned on me quickly, weeks before my hair started to fall out. Such a strange experience: I knew what things were supposed to taste like but, aside from extremely sweet foods, everything else tasted of cardboard mixed with metal. I started using my plastic camping sporks to eat, hoping to keep the metal taste at bay. It worked but the cardboard got stronger. The side effect robbed me of one of the few joys that seemed possible as cancer’s fatigue set in and I spent more time on my couch, binge watching—and feeling an alliance with—The Walking Dead.
Right before chemo started, I’d done the unthinkable—I’d quit drinking coffee. Other cancer patients had warned me to give up my great food loves (coffee, gin, wine, bourbon, seafood) for the duration if I didn’t want to hate them post-treatment. So I quit them all. But with the sense of sweet still hanging on, I decided to take a chance on black and whites. I pulled the tin out of the freezer. I bit in, as always, to the white side first—and it was delicious. No penance. Just familiarity. Something in the world that was as it should be.
So I ate cookies for breakfast until they ran out. Then my parents visited, bearing a small duffel bag stuffed with even more black and whites (this time, full-sized from their local bagel bakery) and resumed the practice. Those cookies were the only way I knew to start each day feeling in some control. Black and whites gave me comfort, constancy, and home. They kept me from feeling a million miles from all parts of my life. They rooted me. They quieted my mind.
Yes, I ate fruit and choked down other nutrition-bearing foods. But the cookies offered a kind of sustenance that could beat out any nutritious meal I could dream up. I ate them slowly, steeling myself against the changes my cells had forced on me. To stretch out my supply, I rotated in other cookies and the sweet granola from my local bakery, just about making it through the first three months of chemo. With two months left, chemo life had become normal life. I no longer needed as much comfort. I just wanted it done, and to get to radiation. Nothing could be as draining as chemo. Nothing.
Now 20 months out of treatment (and feeling damn fine), black and whites remain one of the only foods I ate then that I can still eat now. But that white frosting? Oof. It’s the worst.
An Anchorage, AK-based New Yorker, Jenna Schnuer has written for publications including The New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, BonAppetit.com, and Everyday with Rachael Ray. She has a great dog. They share scrambled eggs every morning.