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Recipe for life

July/Aug. 2006 California Country magazine

Chef Biba Caggiano gets 'Strength for Living' from California produce.



Chef gets 'Strength for Living' from California produce

Much of her life has had roots in the garden. After all, Biba Caggiano found fame as a chef, cookbook author and television personality in part from her ability to combine her passion for cooking with the vast array of produce grown near her Sacramento home.

She loves to peruse farmers' markets, talking to local growers and creating new recipes in her mind for the bounty that's in front of her. It makes sense then, that Caggiano's biggest life challenge would also be discovered in the garden. And so would the recipe for fighting it.

It was a sunny spring day in 2001 when a leaf brushed across Caggiano's chest as she was bent over her flowerbeds. She brushed it away only to feel a lump. "I hadn't felt it the day or two before," Caggiano recalled. "Immediately, because I was married to an oncologist for 45 years, the first thing I thought was, it's going to be cancer."

And she was right. A series of tests indicated that Caggiano had stage-two breast cancer. In an instant her life changed from that of a busy and very successful entrepreneur, to a frightened and exhausted cancer patient. Caggiano underwent a lumpectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation. She then struggled with anemia, a common result of chemotherapy, which leaves patients weak and worn out. At times, she was too weak to climb stairs, stand in her kitchen or visit her namesake restaurant, Biba.

It was these times that the well-known chef decided to focus the strength she did have on the things that mattered most in her life.

"You know we all have things in life that make us happy," she said. "For me, my joy besides my family and my children and grandchildren, is being in my kitchen."

But Caggiano found there were many new challenges that came along with enjoying her old passion. For one, food didn't appeal to her, and often when she did eat her favorite dishes, they didn't taste quite right. Suddenly, she couldn't eat anything spicy, strong tasting or with a lemon flavor. Many of her traditional hearty Italian favorites left her with a metallic taste in her mouth. But Caggiano, who has always felt that her kitchen was a cocoon that could fix any problem, refused to give up on what she loves. Instead, her cancer gave her a new challenge in the kitchen as well.

"Once I understood what I couldn't eat, I began to play with the food," she said, smiling. "Slowly but surely I was able to make something that was palatable."

And so Caggiano was able to mix her love of cooking and her life with cancer--and come up with a recipe that could not only help her, but help others also battling cancer.

Today Caggiano is the spokesperson for an educational campaign called Strength for Living, sponsored by Ortho Biotech Products. Caggiano has created several recipes for the campaign that rely on fresh ingredients and are geared toward the cancer patient. She created a small cookbook--added to her seven best-sellers--and is featured on the Web site www.cancer.com, where she shares her story and inspiration. Caggiano also spends time traveling the country, speaking and cooking at seminars attended by survivors who have a hunger for knowledge when it comes to cancer-fighting foods.

"People stop and pay attention to Biba," said seminar attendee and breast cancer patient Karen Jo Hunter. "Because it's her expertise, we can believe her even more. Plus, she's had the experience. She's had the cancer and the chemo--and she looks and feels wonderful. For all of us, that's our hope."

While Caggiano openly acknowledges she's not an expert when it comes to cancer, she also says that one of her greatest supporters is. Her husband, Vincent Caggiano, is a widely respected oncologist with Sutter Cancer Center in Sacramento. He sometimes will make appearances with his wife and is quick to tout the need to eat right when battling cancer.

"It's important under normal circumstances to eat well, to eat a balanced diet," he said. "But it's particularly important for someone whose life is being changed and completely overhauled by chemotherapy. If they don't maintain that nutrition, they're setting themselves up for a lot of complications."

When it comes to nutritious food, both of the Caggianos believe there is no better place than California for finding the right ingredients. Her menu items include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, ranging in color from dark greens to vivid reds and oranges. Deep yellow or dark green vegetables are rich in vitamin A, and all vegetables help provide necessary fiber and vitamins that a cancer patient needs.

Tomatoes, asparagus and broccoli rank high among Caggiano's favorite vegetables to cook with. Tomatoes are rich in cancer-fighting lycopene, asparagus contains the phytochemical glutathione, known for its anti-carcinogenic properties, and broccoli is touted as one of the most healthful foods available. Its levels of sulforaphane are also known to help reduce the risk of cancer. When it comes to fruit, Caggiano favors antioxidant-rich strawberries and blueberries. Berries are perfect for cancer patients, she added, because they're extra easy. Cooking isn't needed.

In fact, the task of cooking is often an added challenge for cancer patients, including Caggiano. Despite her lifelong love of the art, she found she was often too weak to spend time in the kitchen.

"When you're not feeling well, you don't want to cook," she said. "Some of these dishes (on www.cancer.com) take 10 minutes, others take 15 or 20 minutes, and it's not tough work. You just stand by the stove and stir, and you see this wonderful dish come together."

One of the easiest recipes she suggests is this: Grab a handful of any vegetable--green beans, baby spinach, carrots or squash--and either steam them or put them in the oven. Simply drizzle with a little bit of olive oil, and in a matter of minutes, they're done. For Biba Caggiano, who has built a successful career on feeding others, the Strength for Living program has provided a way to feed not only the stomachs, but the minds and spirits of her fans.

"Food is important for many reasons and when you have cancer, it means that your body can survive," she said. "And it means you are allowing yourself to have hope."

Now in remission, Caggiano hopes her story of cancer--and her recipes born out of a painful time--will help others find strength as well.

Kristen Simoes is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation and the popular weekly television program "California Country." She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or ksimoes1@yahoo.com.


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