A Tribute to Pam Shookman – author of Roots, Fruits, Shoots and Leaves

A Tribute to Pam Shookman – author of Roots, Fruits, Shoots and Leaves

In Easter of 2011, former Time Out Beijing Food Editor and long-time Hong Kong resident Pam Shookman, passed away after a long and courageous battle against bladder cancer. An enthusiastic advocate of local cuisine and inexpensive dining, Pam had recently finished writing a book before she was diagnosed. Roots, Fruits, Shoots and Leaves: A Guide to Shopping at Chinese Fresh Food Markets is an incredibly handy, no-nonsense guide to the city’s wet markets and the local produce that can be found therein. Aimed at foreigners living in the city, as well as those visiting as tourists, Pam conceived the book as a way of giving non-Chinese speakers the confidence to shop for food locally, and the knowhow to cook it for themselves.

Pam designed the book to be taken with shoppers when heading to explore the myriad markets in the city. Divided into different categories for fruit, vegetables and dried food, each entry in the lightweight volume includes the English name, Chinese name (written both in Traditional Chinese script and pinyin), together with large glossy photos for easy identification and tips on how it should be properly prepared and cooked.

Roots, Fruits, Shoots and Leaves: A Guide to Shopping at Chinese Fresh Food Markets is now available to buy from Blacksmith Books , all major bookstores in Hong Kong and Amazon. In accordance with Pam’s wishes, royalties from the sale of the book will come directly to Hong Kong Cancer Fund, to go towards our free support services and palliative care, so that we can continue to help people like Pam through their cancer journey. Our heartfelt thanks go out to Pam for her generosity, and we extend our continued love and support to all her family and friends. May Pam always be remembered through our exploration and enjoyment of great food!

We received this beautifully written tribute from Pam’s husband, Peter Wood, which we re-print here at his request:

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 it. We got home with our cakes and champagne, I put on music so we could dance in defiance of what she had just been told. 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 and major surgery. Tantalising hope that the chemotherapy might have miraculously vanquished the disease, followed by 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 there was nothing more he could do.

Pam had always said she wanted to die in London. Many of our friends were there and it was easier for her family to visit from the US east coast. Packing up took only a few days. It was all quite orderly and straightforward, our minds concentrated on the more urgent concerns 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 came together in a small book she conceived just before she was diagnosed: Roots, Fruits, Shoots and Leaves: A Guide to Shopping at Chinese Fresh Food Markets, a guide to the wet markets of Hong Kong and the produce to be found in them.

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 enjoyed most and her curiosity about street food that always pulled her round the next corner in anticipation of discovering something new. Pam believed firmly that it was possible to eat well, healthily, and inexpensively and that with just a little encouragement, everyone could be brought to understand that.

In her work in London and Beijing and in the cooking classes she ran,, Pam set out to dispel the fear many people have 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 she had run cross-cultural courses in New York for American corporate executives about to be sent overseas. 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. 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 homemade pear or apple compote became staples of her diet. Barely 48 hours before she died, Pam gave a ginger biscuit an appreciative thumbs up.

Not long before she passed away, Pam wrote to her publisher, Pete Spurrier at Blacksmith Books, that she wanted any royalties from the sale of Roots, Fruits, Shoots and Leaves to be donated to the Hong Kong Cancer Fund. She went to support group meetings and was grateful for the telephone calls checking to find out 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. Pam wanted her book to make a contribution to developing that support.

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