“Food has more love when it’s homemade – it just tastes better. For me, my mom’s cooking is comfort food that’s almost like medicine. All those weeks in the hospital, it helped me heal and feel better.”
My buddy Jack Witherspoon is barely twelve years old – but he knows a lot about secret ingredients for recipes and life. And he says love is the most important of all.
Jack was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of two, went through years of hospital stays and chemotherapy – then relapsed when he was six. His mom, Lisa, recalls: “When Jack relapsed, I was devastated. It meant the chances were down to 50% that he’d survive. They weren’t guaranteeing us anything.”
But in a world with no guarantees, Jack and his mom found something they could always count on.
During one of Jack’s hospital sojourns, he discovered the magic of cooking. “I was channel surfing and found the Food Network. I was totally intrigued!” Jack says. “I asked my mom to write down ingredients so we could make the recipes together when I went home. Cooking was something super-fun that even having leukemia couldn’t stop me from doing.”
Lisa remembers when her six-year-old son announced that he had a new life goal. “Jack looked so little sitting there in the back seat of the car. He didn’t have any hair, but he had a big smile on his face when he told me ‘Mom, I want to be a chef when I grow up’.
“I told Jack that now when we cooked together, he would be in training for his new profession,” Lisa tells me. “It’s funny: I’d never paid much attention to cooking before – I was always so busy. But when your child tells you something like that, everything changes.
“Cooking together gave us a focus that kept everyone’s energy going. Instead of concentrating on all the negative things, we found a positive energy that’s helped get us through some of the hardest times.”
Jack and Lisa turned their home kitchen into a family culinary school, working together to develop recipes and master new techniques. Jack’s younger brother Josh took on the role of official recipe taster – and his dad, John, kept everyone entertained with his hilarious food riffs and word play.
Going out to eat became like a treasure hunt for new recipes – Jack learned to always ask the waiter or chef about the restaurant’s special dishes and how to make them. “Then I’d go home and change things around to put my own twist on them,” he says. “That’s how I came up with my catchphrase, ‘twist it up’.”
Food shopping took on a whole new meaning. “The grocery store is like a toy store to me,” Jack says. “It’s really fun to see so many ingredients in one place and imagine what I could do with them.”
Over the years, Jack and his mom found new ways to nourish people through the gift of cooking. Jack helped other sick kids by cooking at charity events, raising enough money to create the Jack Witherspoon Endowment at Miller Children’s Hospital.
“On the nights of those events, people said the food that came out of the kitchens was the best they’d ever had,” Lisa recalls. “Jack and the chefs made every dish with love – and you could taste it in every bite.”
Jack’s philanthropic culinary adventures had him cooking with everyone from local restaurant chefs to Bobby Flay and Jay Leno. By the time he turned eleven, Jack was deep into working on his own cookbook, Twist It Up.
Then, last summer, the unthinkable happened: Jack’s leukemia came back. And this time, he needed a bone marrow transplant – a procedure that frightened even his ever-optimistic mom.
“It’s amazing how much a child can teach a parent,” Lisa tells me. “During this second relapse, Jack was the one giving me pep talks. He’d tell me: C’mon Mom, we beat this twice before – and we’ll beat it again!”
And they did. Just like with a great recipe, everything came together – from finding the perfect donor (a young soldier) to a months-long medical odyssey that inspired a doctor to refer to Jack as “the poster boy for how a patient should respond to a transplant.”
Lisa spent every day and night with her son, bringing in home-cooked favorites that he loved sharing with the nurses. “I cooked the dishes we’d always made together – shepherd’s pie and lots of pastas.”
“It helped me so much to have my mom’s food in the hospital,” Jack says. “That’s when you really need to have love and soul in your food. Everyone needs comfort food in the hospital: patients, their families – even the doctors and nurses.”
It looks like comfort food worked its magic. These days, Jack’s back in the kitchen – and he’s living his dream. His cookbook is on bookstore shelves, and a couple of weeks ago, Rachael Ray surprised Jack with a request to appear on her show.
Best of all, things are getting back to normal, like being able to have dinner as a family again. “It’s so great to have everyone at the table, sharing stories about our day,” Jack says. “It’s a big deal for me and my mom and dad and brother to be all together – we don’t take it for granted.”
Lisa agrees: “This whole ordeal has brought our family so much closer. And Jack loves being able to do all the things a normal kid gets to do – because he had it all taken away from him. No kid should have to go through what he has, but Jack’s a stronger and wiser person because of it. He understands things it’s taken me my whole life to learn.”
The next ‘normal’ thing on Jack’s agenda is cooking Lisa her favorite brunch dish for Mother’s Day: his signature spaghetti carbonara. And he’s really excited about it.
“I want to be a normal kid and surprise my mom with something she loves,” he tells me. “You know, normal is really underrated. For me, normal is amazing – it’s the best.”
Jack’s Spaghetti alla Carbonara
My mom loves this pasta for brunch or a leisurely lunch. It is yummy and satisfying but so different from the pastas I normally make. I feel really Italian when I eat this dish.
2 large eggs at room temperature
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2/3 cup half-and-half, warmed
1 pound spaghetti pasta
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
8 ounces pancetta, cut into small cubes
½ cup finely chopped yellow onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
½ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (optional)
- Break the eggs into a medium bowl and add ½ cup of the cheese and all of the half-and-half. Whisk to blend well.
- In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook the spaghetti for 7 to 9 minutes, or until al dente.
- While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the pancetta and sauté until it just starts to become crisp, about 4 minutes. Add the onion and sauté for 3 minutes, or until translucent. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute.
- Drain the hot pasta and add to the sauté pan with the pancetta, onion, garlic, and all the pan juices. Stir in the egg mixture to coat the pasta evenly. Season with salt to taste and generously season with pepper. If desired, add the parsley and toss again.
Serve immediately with the remaining Parmesan alongside for sprinkling. Serves 4 to 6.
Twist It Up: Pancetta gives this dish its delicious flavor. In a pinch, I’ve made it with bacon, and I have to say, although it’s not as authentic, it tastes pretty good that way, too.
Image Credits: Jack shaping and cooking turkey meatballs, spaghetti carbonara photos and Twist it Up cover by Sheri Giblin from Twist it Up by Jack Witherspoon, courtesy of Chronicle Books. All other photos courtesy of Lisa Witherspoon.