At the beginning of September 2009 Pam was diagnosed with Stage 4 bladder cancer. That afternoon we stumbled out of the urologist’s office into the unreal bustle of Central and headed straight for the Joel Robuchon café. There was only one possible response to cancer, Pam announced: cakes from the café and a bottle of champagne. Twenty months later, at Easter 2011, she died.
It is impossible for anyone else to share the experience of pain and fear that is cancer. One thing Pam did not do was deny. We got home with our cakes and champagne. I put on music so that we could dance in defiance of what she had just been told. And she called her family and closest friends to tell them the news. We cried.
The next day it all began. Tests in hospital. An immediate crisis. Chemotherapy. Major surgery. Tantalising hope that miraculously the chemotherapy might actually have vanquished the disease. The loss of that hope. The grinding slog through more chemotherapy to control it, no more than that. Her body would stabilise, then take another lurch downwards, until that moment when her oncologist said that there was nothing more he could do. She had always said that she wanted to die in London. Many of our friends were there and it was easier for her family to get there from the east coast of the US. Packing up took only a few days. It was all quite orderly and straightforward, our minds concentrated by the more urgent concern of what lay ahead. We flew back at the end of January 2011.
It can be all too easy to forget that there is much more to someone’s life than the cancer that kills them. Pam had two passions: food and teaching. These two passions come together in a small book she put together just before she was diagnosed, a guide to the wet markets of Hong Kong and the produce to be found in them: Roots, Fruits, Shoots and Leaves: A Guide to Shopping at Chinese Fresh Food Markets.
Food was central to Pam’s life. She could do fine dining, as she proved during her time as food and restaurant critic in Beijing, but it was fresh ingredients and the people who sold them in markets that she most enjoyed and it was curiosity about street food that always pulled her round the next corner in anticipation of finding something new. She believed firmly that it was possible to eat well, healthily, and inexpensively and that with just a little bit of encouragement everyone could be brought to understand that.
In her work in London and Beijing and in the cooking classes she ran she set out to dispel the fear that many people can feel about cooking for themselves and experimenting with new ingredients. Teaching was in her blood. She had taught English in Prague, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Hanoi. Before that in New York she had run cross cultural courses for American corporate executives about to be sent to work abroad. Food was an important element in these courses. In London she ran the test kitchen at Books for Cooks, the famous bookshop in Notting Hill, testing and correcting recipes and advising customers. In Beijing she wanted foreigners in China to feel confident about going to markets, buying fresh local produce, and cooking it for themselves. And that is precisely what her book aims to do for foreigners living in Hong Kong or visiting as tourists.
The cancer colonised her body. Friends would tell her that she was being very brave. What choice do I have, she would say when they had gone. But she did choose. She chose to look cancer in the eye, not to give up hope, but also not to look away.
She retained the pleasure she took in good food right up to the end. Back in London, weak, in terrible suffering, she asked for cheese toasties for breakfast. I was despatched to find Vietnamese vermicelli noodles and good Italian ice cream. A friend brought a particularly rich rice pudding that was enormously appreciated. She could not eat much but that did not mean she was willing to put up with bad food. Towards the end cubes of artisan cheese from the farmers’ markets and home made pear or apple compote became the staple of her diet. Barely 48 hours before she died she gave a ginger biscuit an appreciative thumb’s up.
Not long before she died she wrote to her publisher, Pete Spurrier at Blacksmith Books, that she wanted any royalties from the sale of Roots, Shoots, Fruits and Leaves to be donated to the Hong Kong Cancer Fund. She went to support group meetings. She was grateful for the telephone calls checking to find how she was feeling. While the quality of medical treatment in Hong Kong is as good as anywhere in the world the provision of support and palliative care is not as strong as it could or should be. She wanted her book to make a contribution to developing that support.
Roots, Fruits, Shoots and Leaves: A Guide to Shopping at Chinese Fresh Food Markets is available from Blacksmith Books, all major bookstores in Hong Kong, and Amazon.