Being told you have breast cancer at the age of 34 completely blindsides you. One minute you're a fit and busy mum of two little ones — my youngest only six months old — but soon after your fingers chance upon a gravel-sized lump in your breast, you're plunged into a world filled with endless medical appointments. For me, it's been four long years of non-stop treatments — from intensive chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction, to more chemotherapy and other treatments.
In 2019, they discovered the cancer had metastasised and spread to my sternal tissue, liver, adrenal and lymph nodes, necessitating my third round of chemo. The prognosis for the first spread was relatively positive; doctors thought a combination of treatment would work for me, but to keep my mind focused on something positive, I decided to create a cookbook of family recipes, notably my mum Jeanie's ones, to help celebrate her upcoming 70th birthday.
Food has been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember. Having started my career as a food technologist, pre-children, I studied patisserie and boulangerie at ESCF-Ferrandi, a culinary school in Paris, before taking positions at Jason Atherton's Michelin-starred Pollen Street Social and Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi's NOPI.
The cookbook wasn't initially intended for a wide audience, though. It was to serve as a memento to pass down old, favourite recipes within our own family. My mum was dubious at first, but once she understood what I was trying to create — not only for her but for my children — she soon warmed to the process.
The process of cooking and photographing the recipes has been an interesting time, to say the least. Like a lot of home cooks, my mother cooks by sight, feel, touch and taste so at times it was difficult for me to quantify things and commit it to paper so others could follow. Within a few hours my mother would churn out five dishes and I'd have to work at lightning speed to try and keep up!
"After five months of solid work, we had over 70 gorgeous recipes to feel proud of."
Every Wednesday, mum, dad and I would get two-thirds of the way through the shoot, stop to eat everything we'd already photographed, then get back to finishing the rest. That in itself was a lovely ritual, and after five months of solid work, we had over 70 gorgeous recipes to feel proud of before sudden shortness of breath in November 2020 alerted me to the fact that the cancer had spread again.
A medical examination revealed the cancer had spread to my lungs, brain and spine, which led to urgent heart surgery and further treatment, which I'm continuing. The prognosis this time is harder to predict; I was told that in 12 months that 50 percent of patients would do well on the drugs given, but on the flip side, I was suddenly being introduced to palliative care nurses and doctors to discuss end of life care and my wishes for resuscitation. I won't lie; the days in the hospital and the weeks that followed were a dark time, filled with tears and all-consuming thoughts. When I was being admitted to the hospital, the cookbook was still on my mind so I said to my husband Jeremy, "Make sure my book gets published if I die." I was only half-joking.
However, here's the thing about printing: it's costly, so we started a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to assist with costs. It was so successful that within just 33 hours of the launch, we reached our funding goal of $15,000, and after we closed the campaign five weeks later, we had reached over 360 percent of our funding target with over 800 backers getting behind us. Now our books can be purchased at makanatmums.com (delivered by Amazon) with 10 percent of the sale price of each book, going to the Australian Cancer Research Foundation.
"I put my focus on enjoying the present, content in the knowledge that my mother and I have created a legacy."
I try not to think too far into the future, as I don't always see myself there beside my children as they grow up. Instead, I put my focus on enjoying the present, content in the knowledge that my mother and I have created a legacy, something tangible they can hold and feel pride in what their mother and grandmother achieved together.
I don't know that ingrained passion for cooking and culture comes from a cookbook, but from someone you love standing by your side in the kitchen. That said, I have no doubt my children will feel a connection to me each time they flick through this book, even long after I have moved on to the next place. I'm counting on it.
Katrina Lau Hammond and Jeanie Lau's cookbook, Makan At Mum's, $59.95 plus delivery, can be purchased through Makan At Mums.