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July 2 2002
By Joyce Rossignol
Every afternoon between four and five they came, delivering dinners to the family of their friend Judith Melchreit, who was battling breast cancer.
She said: "I could hear that car coming up the driveway. It was like the cavalry coming over the hill and the idea of doing a cookbook came to my head."
Eventually that thought turned into The Charge of the Casserole Cavalry, The Official Towanda Cookbook, which is a whole lot more than a collection of recipes. It is a story of friendship, which is to say girlfriendship, when more than 80 friends and friends of friends gathered around to see Judith Melchreit through treatment and recovery.
Mrs. Melchreit and "the cavalry" have been amazed by their book's success. They printed 500 copies originally and didn't really expect to sell that many. She said, "I thought I was going to be carrying these books around in my trunk, giving them out at Christmas next year. But we print them, they sell and we print more and more."
By June they had printed 2,400 copies. Betsy Sommers who has been in the forefront of this cavalry of girlfriends since the beginning said what has happened often is someone will buy a book for herself, and when she has read it, will order four or five more for her friends. In this way, "girlfriend to girlfriend," the book has made its way through 20 states.
Most of the text had already been written by Judith Melchreit in the long nights when the effects of her cancer treatments kept her awake.
In the early hours, she would write e-mails to her friends. On Valentine's Day, 2000, she wrote: "I can't believe it was only two months ago that my life took this wild turn. Six weeks ago, I cried every day because I was afraid and angry. I still cry every day, but now it's because I am overwhelmed by your generosity and thoughtfulness."
Some of those same dedicated friends were by her to celebrate her final chemotherapy treatment. "I don't think the Harry Gray Cancer Center will ever be quite the same. One of the nurses said 'you know Judith most people just join a support group. We've never seen anybody before who just attaches one to herself and walks around with it."
All of the nurses and other patients have asked the same thing since I showed up with a different pal to keep me company for each round: 'Where do you find friends like this?'
"Charles and I have lived in town since 1989. Our kids attend Corpus Christi School. A lot of the moms from there helped. I'm a member of Trinity Episcopal Church, and people from there helped. And Betsy Sommers in the neighborhood took care of miscellaneous friends, neighbors and heathens. You find one friend, and they have friends who are like them."
And it grows.
When the treatments were over, the girlfriend network was still enthusiastically connected, and together they produced this 200-page book in six weeks.
The impetus was the need to raise money for a cancer awareness walk that was coming up in Boston. Two of Judith Melchreit's friends were going to participate, and they asked her to go with them, to walk in her name. She said she couldn't go, but she would help with the fund-raising.
"I had this idea of a cookbook in my head so I said, 'I will have the recipes for you in a week or so.' These guys around the table said, 'you are out of your mind. It will take you longer than that.' I said 'oh yeah? Watch this.'
"In one week, I made 150 phone calls to my girlfriends. I said, 'I need your help.' They said okay. I said 'can you do it this afternoon?'
"Within a week, I had 300 recipes. They would be stuffed under the door; my kids would come home with recipes in their backpack. They faxed me. They e-mailed. Somebody dictated one on my answering machine. They came in the mail.
Then, she and five of her friends, the directors of what is now Team Towanda, Betsy Sommers, Jennifer Merritt, Sue Bernis and Monica Godbout, got it done (one girlfriend would like to be anonymous). They found among their girlfriends every skill they needed: artwork, graphics, editing and typing. While they were putting the book together, Mrs. Melchreit said: "I would be running all over the place. At four in the afternoon, some of these girlfriends were still in their bathrobes; they'd been typing all day long. It was a huge amount of work.
Betsy Sommers said they began to realize "this is going to be bigger than we thought" on the night they launched it. "At Judith's birthday party, we brought 300 books, thinking we'd be lugging 200 home, and they were flying out the door. People were buying five and six at a time."
Judith Melchreit said that response may be because "this book isn't about cancer. It's about somebody who said I need help and saw a thousand hands reaching out."
One set of those hands belonged to her friend and neighbor Betsy Sommers. She said: "When Judith was first diagnosed, I tried to figure out what can I do to help her. I went to the bookstore and the library, and there was nothing on how to be a friend, how to support a friend. Another friend and I came up with the idea of doing the meals, and a whole bunch of people jumped on the bandwagon.
"Then, when we came up with the idea of doing the cookbook, I said what we really need is a girlfriends' guide to how to help a friend through cancer, and weave those ideas into the cookbook... which would be much more worthwhile and inspirational than just recipes."
There are thoughts about how to help a girlfriend through this challenge and also gentle words of advice to the "pink ribbon warriors" who are going through it themselves.
One is how to handle the telephone that can ring off the hook with messages of love and friendship.
Mrs. Melchreit said: "One friend who is going through it right now has two little kids, and she doesn't have any family around. People were calling; the phone was ringing and ringing. Finally, she handed her friends the book and said: 'just read this.'"
The book says this is how to phone your friend: "Start your message with 'you don't have to call me back. I'm just calling to tell you I love you."
Mrs. Melchreit said: "There are so many people around willing to help you, but they just didn't know what to do.
"First of all: there is never nothing to be done. You may say, 'I will do anything you want me to do,' but the person on the other end maybe doesn't know what she needs, or what you would be comfortable with. Be specific about what you are offering."
She was diagnosed with breast cancer just before Christmas of 2000. After New Year's, her husband Charles asked her what she wanted to help her through this time. She said I want a party. That became the Power Surge girlfriends' party where her plan was "to tap into the power of women and get charged for the year ahead of me." An artist friend created an alter ego they named Towanda, a cross between Wonder Woman and a Nordic warrior woman with lightning bolts coming out of her boobs.
Mrs. Melchreit said, "I personally don't like the term victim, or patient. You are in the fight of your life. You are a warrior." They came up with the Pink Ribbon Warrior.
She hoped that 30 or so would come to her Power Surge party. More than 80 did, and in the true spirit of girlfriending (another work they made up), they stuck by her from that moment all the way through July 2001 when her treatments were completed, and they were still there when the call went out for help in putting together the cookbook.
What is next for what they now call Team Towanda as the Charge of the Casserole Cavalry sells more and more copies? Judith Melchreit said they are just going to follow their book wherever it goes. They have applied for a copyright, and they are working with the firm Cummins and Lockwood in Stamford, which is doing the legal work pro bono to set up a foundation.
Team Towanda Foundation's stated mission is to distribute The Charge of the Casserole Cavalry, The Official Towanda Cookbook and other related projects to: (1) Serve as a guide to help a friend through a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment; (2) Raise money for breast cancer detection, services and research; (3) Share ideas and suggestions of encouragement, support and friendship to "pink-ribbon warriors" and their friends and family.
Mrs. Melchreit said that at this point the money is being donated to the Partnership for Breast Care at Hartford Hospital, to pay for imaging services for medically underserved women. "It's the pet project of Dr. Beth Brady, who was my surgeon."
The books are for sale in town at House of Images, Blades, Spicy Green Bean Deli, Haircraze, Ficara's Hair in Rocky Hill and Ginger and Pickles in Glastonbury, or by email at TeamTowanda@yahoo.com. The price is $15, plus $3 for shipping.
Judith Melchreit said: "This book is what worked for me and my friends. This doesn't tell anybody else how you should do it. Some people are extremely private and don't want anybody to know. You have to respect that.
"For me, that didn't work. Charles and I kept it to ourselves for two weeks. It was awful. You can't say no to cancer. But you do have a choice on how you're going to handle it. You want to crawl in a hole, but look up and there are so many hands reaching out to you. I am so blessed to have these wonderful people in my life. I have seen the best of the best in people."
As for responses to the book, "the best calls and e-mails have been from people who are starting treatment and have the book. A woman wrote me from Massachusetts. She said 'I start treatment tomorrow, and I am already so much less afraid than I was, after reading your story."
Through this whole experience, Mrs. Melchreit said, "I learned a lot. I hope I learned how to be a better friend. I feel like I will never ever be able to repay these guys. This is just a tiny thing but I started doing Meals on Wheels, to pass it on."
She also wants to pass on some advice her niece passed on to her: "My girlfriends bless my life. Once we were young, with no idea of the incredible joys or the incredible sorrows that lay ahead. Nor did we know how much we would need each other. Get yourself some girlfriends."
The recipes in the book are intended for any kind of Casserole Cavalry.
They travel and reheat well. Some of them are "just plain delicious and decadent."
Here's a sample:
Scalloped potatoes #1 submitted by Patti Wright
3 lbs. potatoes peeled and thinly sliced
2 cups whole milk
3 minced garlic cloves
¾ teaspoon salt
3 bay leaves
1 cup heavy cream
5 oz. grated Gruyere cheese
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- Put potatoes in saucepan. Cover with milk and 2 cups of water.
- Add garlic, salt and bay leaves. Bring to a boil.
- Stir and reduce heat to medium for about 10 minutes. Stir. Cook until tender.
- Using a slotted spoon transfer ½ the potatoes to a 14" x 9" pan.
- Sprinkle with nutmeg and pepper.
- Add ½ the cream and cheese. Layer again.
- Bake for 1 hour until crisp and golden brown on top.