FIERCE FRIENDSHIPS AND FIERCE FOODS:
The Story of An Anti-Cancer Cookbook
By Amy Senk | Contributor
SPRING 2023 ISSUE
Photos credit courtesy of Anne Watson
The friendship between Audra Wilford and Anne Watson was inevitable, the universe throwing together two women who bonded over food, family and fighting for a loved one with cancer. Years later, their Fierce Foods work has culminated in the publication of an anti-cancer cookbook — a project that, like their friendship, was always meant to be.
“The Fierce Foods Kitchen: Healing Through Culinary Medicine” represents a decade’s worth of recipes, tips and principles culled from the Fierce Food Academy, a MaxLove Project initiative that uses cooking classes to help families bond while they learn about nutrition and cancer-fighting foods. Audra founded the MaxLove Project in 2011 after her son, Max, was diagnosed with cancer. Each initiative and program support its mission to increase quality of life and reduce health risks for families surviving childhood cancer and related rare diseases.
“The concept of the Fierce Food Academy came from my own cooking with Max after he was diagnosed,” Audra says. “When I learned about the healing power of food, I started modifying his diet and learned how to make new recipes and … cook without added sugars.”
Despite her culinary background, Audra had to do a deep dive to learn about therapeutic nutrition. She began creating recipes and sharing them with other parents of children with cancer.
“It started to organically grow, sharing the information and sharing my learning,” Audra says. “I was really struggling to modify food, yet I am culinary-trained. I knew how to correct something. I knew how to experiment. But for these other parents who don’t, this could be just enough to give up.”
Cooking classes began in early 2013 in a teaching kitchen at Saddleback College, and Audra continued to work with dietitians to formulate the tenets of the Fierce Foods philosophy. She asked questions like “What does an evidence-based, anti-inflammatory diet look like?” and “What is the data showing us about the relationship between nutrition, inflammation and cancer?” Clarifying conflicting information and advice that parents would find online also became a goal.
She also began recruiting chefs to help create recipes and teach more classes. Eventually, families began to ask, “Hey, when are you going to have a cookbook?”
The seed for a Fierce Food cookbook was planted but would ultimately need time to germinate.
Meanwhile, food photographer Anne Watson had been hired by Sapphire Catering to cover MaxLove Project’s Farm to Fork dinners at Tanaka Farms. In 2019, Audra reached out to discuss the assignment with Anne, who had just learned that her husband had terminal cancer. A cordial professional relationship immediately became personal and intimate.
“I don’t know if serendipitous is the right word,” Anne says. “It just felt very meant-to-be.”
“Our first conversation opened the door to one of the most significant friendships of my life,” she says. “We are just soul-connected. We met at the right time. I can’t believe we didn’t meet before, sometimes. I feel like I’ve known her forever. She’s like a sister, a chosen sister.”
They teamed up again later the same year, when Audra put together a cookbook team that included Anne, along with chefs, dietitians and designers.
“We were so excited to make the first MaxLove cookbook,” Audra says. “Then Covid hit.”
With funding no longer available, the cookbook plans were shelved, but the cooking and teaching continued with online classes and information. The group continued to create, test and share recipes.
“We said, ‘Hey, we’re not going to stop. We’re going to push forward,’” Audra says. “Even though we don’t have the funding to create the cookbook or design the cookbook and do all of that, we’re going to keep pushing. And we survived Covid and came through it with a ton of tested recipes.”
Audra also reconnected with a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston who had helped her with a curriculum guide for MaxLove Project’s hospital-based program in 2017. The professor asked if Audra had any new projects.
“You know what?” Audra told her. “We really want to make our cookbook. Would you be willing to design a cookbook?”
The professor agreed, so Audra brought her team together once again.
“Within six months, we had gathered all the food photography, all the recipes, all the nutrition data, all of the text for the book,” she says.
For Anne, the Covid pause gave her time to spend with her husband, who died in 2021. She also transitioned her career to be able to spend more time at home with her 9-year-old son. She remodeled her home to include a photography studio and began shooting food there instead of in the field in restaurant kitchens.
“It was ready to go when we started shooting the cookbook,” Anne says. “The chefs would make the recipes [and] send them over to me, I would test them and cook, style and shoot them right in my home.”
Along with Audra and Anne, cookbook contributors include chefs Andrew Johnson and Cathy McKnight; nutrition information and lesson author Alexia Hall; photographer Nicole Wilson; and editor Jordan Nishkian.
The book grew out of recipes taught to families with children fighting cancer, but this book is different from most cancer diet cookbooks, Audra says.
“I’ve purchased a lot of the anti-cancer books out there, and a lot are not accessible,” she says. Many have recipes for things like seared salmon with kombu broth — healthy, sure, but expensive and complicated, and not necessarily kid-friendly.
“And those are all of our parameters,” Audra adds. “We are looking at accessibility, affordability, tastiness, and then also our Fierce Foods criteria. In our recipes, you’re going to find very limited sweeteners. There will be dates, maple and honey, if there are any.”
The book is constructed to give home cooks flexibility when they are shopping for ingredients that may not be available or may cost more than their budget can accommodate.
“We focus on what is most important in this meal,” she says. “You’re getting a good amount of dietitian-written information on cancer, which is amazing. And it’s family-friendly. “
The book includes sections for smoothies and condiments, as well as ideas for quick sauces that can liven up any veggie you happen to be serving. There are also soups and desserts, among other categories.
A favorite for both Anne and Audra is a fried rice recipe that uses a 50/50 blend of white rice and cauliflower rice. Anne serves it with the book’s Eggroll in a Bowl that features crunchy cabbage and lots of carrots. The rice-veggie mixture is a game changer, they both say.
“People are not talking about the value of what we call the 50/50 approach, which is what it looks like to add 50 percent cauliflower rice to your rice mixture,” Audra says. “The nutritional impact of that is tremendous.
“Same thing with potatoes, same thing with other high starchy, carb foods,” she continues. “You can add fiber and micronutrients to it, and you’ve got that more palatable flavor for families that is kind of changing their diets. … In the (anti-cancer cookbook) space, you usually get an all or nothing approach.”
Speaking from personal experience, Anne agrees that this is a cookbook every family can use.
“How we nourish our physical body affects our mental and our spiritual and emotional bodies,” she says. “It’s completely interconnected, and I am so relieved that there is a cookbook out there like this now. It speaks directly to my firsthand experience of watching how these recipes literally prolonged my husband’s life. They gave him a matter of weeks to live when he was first diagnosed. And he lived 18 months, and every month was a total gift.”
The cookbook also can help families bond. Those who choose and prepare recipes as a team could also begin to build lifelong, healthy habits. Audra’s son, Max, who is almost 16, used to help her cook in the early Fierce Food days, and he remains very tuned in to his nutritional choices and what his body needs.
“A good amount of this is in his hands, and he will say, ‘Listen, I think I need this today. I’m wanting this in my diet today. I don’t want to eat that,’” Audra says. “If we’re going out somewhere, he will really look at the menu and consider it. We don’t tell him what to do.”
The cookbook officially launched at a party on Feb. 26 at the Fierce Foods Academy and is available for sale on the MaxLove Project website. The first printing is limited, but Audra says she hopes to see future print runs and eventually availability on sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
“This book really represents well over 10 years of the Fierce Foods Academy,” she says. “Our journey started with the food before we started teaching it.”
The book also marks a milestone in the history of MaxLove Project.
“It can be hard to see and feel and understand what MaxLove does if you’re not in the community seeing it,” Audra says. “It can be hard to tell the story and show people the power of what it means to support MaxLove Project. It’s one thing to say, ‘Hey, support cancer research because we hope we might find a cure.’ People get what that is. They don’t get what it means to support quality of life care for families who need it the most. And this cookbook provides us with something tangible. You can hold it. It has power.”