When I moved to New York City in the late 1990s, I discovered ramen. Not the packets at the grocery store in packs of six for $1.00 that I cooked in my dorm room but the hand-pulled noodles served in ramen houses whose steam-fogged windows welcomed you to a hazy world where men in business suits and women in practical shoes sat at tables and bars with their heads facing down over a bowl of broth. Rooms both sweaty and silent, except for the nonstop slurping of noodles. No one even paused for breath.
On the menu at every one of these restaurants — after the add-ons for corn, tamago, scallions, fish ball, chashu and butter — was kaedama, a magical word that means “extra noodles.” Once I learned this, I fell in love with the indulgence of getting more of something before I’d even finished what I had. I ordered kaedama every chance I could.
Two days ago, I ate broiler fries for lunch and then drove an hour round trip for a mediocre coconut bubble tea. Yesterday I added an extra knob of butter to my rice noodles to help them slide down my throat. Then I doused them in soy sauce and added even more butter — I really wanted to taste them. I ate two bowls because a hint of salt came through and I didn’t want to waste the moment. Later that night, I ate three yellow gummy bears before bed, after I’d brushed my teeth.
I almost died nine months ago — not from cancer, which I have and which my doctors tell me I will not survive — but from malnutrition, a side effect of cancer treatment. I had undergone two months of daily radiation to my face, neck and brain, hoping to kill off some recurrent tumors. As a result, I couldn’t eat solid food for three months. I also lost my ability to taste. My weight dropped to 80 pounds, my hair fell out for the second time in a year, and I became too weak to walk unassisted. Gradually, thanks to a steady diet of strained Campbell’s chicken and stars, homemade whipped cream, ice cream and the cool innards of burrata, I made my way to a fighting weight of 100 pounds.
Before radiation treatment, I was the kind of eater who halfway through a steamer of soup dumplings would place a second order for dessert; who would get out of bed to make a batch of homemade ricotta, sprinkle it with salt and chives and eat it still warm with a spoon; who would order four appetizers instead of an entree in order to cram as many flavors as possible into one meal. I once teetered on heels outside the caterer’s door at a black-tie reception to get first dibs on fried tarantulas and sautéed cockroaches as they emerged from the kitchen.
Now a slice of tomato with basil and a grind of black pepper stings my mouth like a swarm of mosquitoes. A slice of sourdough toast is too dry to make it down my throat. Instead, I eat soft scrambled eggs, cheese tortellini in broth, the centers of pancakes soaked in syrup, Oreos dipped in milk. These are not my favorite foods, but they don’t make me cry from pain. The idea of kaedama — of having more — never crosses my mind when I eat them.
I recover from radiation treatment in my bed. On the days I have the energy to make it downstairs to the kitchen, I am an infuriating dining partner. I sit with a bowl of coffee ice cream dusted with protein powder while my husband, Jamie, eats a proper dinner. I ask him to describe his meals to me in detail. He gets pretty good at the game, but sometimes fatigue sets in, and the light drains from his face as I interrogate him about his spaghetti and jarred sauce.
“Is it chewy? Is the sauce fruity?” I egg him on. “Do you wish you cooked the pasta longer, less long? Can you taste the olive oil? How much did you salt the water? If the sauce tastes too jarred, add butter. Do you want some fresh basil?”
It’s a bit much, but I cannot stop myself.
During these months I can’t eat, I fantasize about what my first solid meal will be. I consider medium-rare burgers dripping grease into the browned nooks of English muffins; freshly baked bagels, untoasted, unsliced and dipped into whipped cream cheese; egg and cheese sandwiches with thin sausage patties on kaiser rolls made soft from steaming in their foil wrappers.
I never have that celebratory first meal because my mouth and throat heal gradually. One day I eat a few leaves of romaine. The next, while Jamie eats chicken wings, I am able to get down a single stalk of celery dipped multiple times in homemade blue cheese dressing.
The following week, I eat a bowl of Rice Krispies softened in coconut milk. These small victories encourage me. I poke around the kitchen, experimenting: Rice Chex seems like the logical next choice, but the squares stay too dry and catch in my throat. Special K is a success, the milk pooling in the crags of the flakes, providing the necessary moisture my salivary glands are no longer producing.
I tolerate boxed mac and cheese by cooking the pasta until it absorbs all of the pot’s water. I tear open the cheese packet and savor its familiar sweet and sour smell. I add one-quarter of the powder to tiny shells that have become so bloated and soft that when I stir in butter, they tear. I eat this straight from the pot, greedily switching to a soup spoon. The pasta slides down my throat easily, like slugs on a water slide. This tastes good, I think. But it is a muscle memory.
By early January, the pain in my mouth and throat eases up. I stand in the kitchen with a wooden spoon in my hand, making watercress soup. I am cooking down onions and garlic to what I imagine is a sweet jamminess that will offset the spicy cress. I feel nervous about the flavors, so I make a pot of rice — one food I feel confident cooking. No spices, all texture. Even though I can’t taste it, I can tell if it’s made properly, by the way the spoon drags through the pot.
And I keep returning to ramen, dreaming of bowls of milky tonkotsu broth topped with a soft egg, too many bean sprouts, a mound of wispy scallions and pork belly. Always with extra noodles — kaedama.
What I love about ramen — its dense yet springy texture, how each strand greedily grabs sauce like invisible caterpillar legs, tiny barnacles — is exactly what makes me unable to eat it. It’s too textured, too unwieldy. It gets caught in my throat, I cough, I get the hiccups.
Yet I make it every week.
I add scallions that I’m growing on the sill in the kitchen. I poach a chicken thigh skin on, then fry the skin in butter. I add the crisp skin and a half sheet of seaweed at the very last minute. I put my nose to the bowl and let the steam soothe my face. I suck up a noodle. I sputter and cough. Sometimes I take a sip of salty broth, but mostly I sit with my hands cradling the bowl, feeling warm, holding hope that next time will be the time I’ll be able to ask for more.
Tracy Kennard is a writer and a former owner of the wine bar Brunette in Kingston, N.Y.
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