Chapter 01:  A Family Experience Rich in Influences

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Chapter 01: A Family Experience Rich in Influences

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In this chapter, Dr. Cohen talks about the rich array of influences his family life offered. He talks about his multicultural upbringing by an American father and Florentine mother. He recalls his summers spent in Italy, notes that he speaks fluent Italian, and observes that Italy feels like home to him. He begins to talk about the maternal line of his family and particularly his grandmother, Vanda Scaravelli, whom the family would visit each summer and who became one of his most important mentors. He recalls early influences that raised his awareness of the pleasures and health benefits of food: in the early 1980s, his parents did research for their first cookbook (he was their "number one taster") and that his uncle, Alberto, was a vegetarian and macrobiotic gardener. He recalls their garden in Italy and the "gourmet vegetarian" foods that would be prepared.

Identifier

CohenL_01_20160504_C01

Publication Date

5-4-2016

Publisher

The Making Cancer History® Voices Oral History Collection, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

City

Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The Interview Subject's Story - Personal Background; Character, Values, Beliefs, Talents; Personal Background; Professional Path; Influences from People and Life Experiences; Experiences re: Gender, Race, Ethnicity; Formative Experiences

Transcript

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

All right, so the counter is moving, we are now recording. And I'll just put an identifier on for the archive and then we'll be ready to roll. So it is 18 minutes after 1:00 on May 4th, 2016. And I'm Tacey Ann Rosolowski. And today I am in the offices of the Integrative Medicine Program in Pickens Tower on the Main Campus of MD Anderson and I'm interviewing Dr. Lorenzo Cohen for the Making Cancer History Voices Oral History Project run by the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. Now you'll correct me if I've got any of these little details wrong. Dr. Cohen came to MD Anderson in 1997, right? As an assistant professor in the Department of Behavioral Science in the Division of Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences. Since 2002 he has served as director of the Integrative Medicine Program. And what division is that housed within?

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

Cancer Medicine.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Cancer Medicine. OK. He has a primary appointment as professor in the Department of General Oncology and the Department of Palliative, Rehabilitation, and Integrative Medicine, both in the Division of Cancer Medicine. Is that correct?

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

Kind of. So I went from the Department of Behavioral Science, and I can't remember the exact date, but we can get it if it's necessary, to the Department of Palliative Care and Rehabilitation Medicine in, I don't know, let's say 2005. And then in 2008 went to the Department of General Oncology. And then in 2014 went to the Department of Palliative, Rehabilitation, and Integrative Medicine.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Well, I have a feeling we're going to follow that story in a little more detail. Because I bet there's an interesting backstory to that.

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

Unfortunately, yes. So we're now currently a Section of Integrative Medicine in the Department of Palliative, Rehabilitation, and Integrative Medicine. And there's three sections in this department, which are properly Palliative, Rehabilitation, and Integrative Medicine.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Well, it's interesting. Because as people start talking about this peripatetic movement between sections and the renaming, it actually all has to do with how disciplines are formed and weird processes within the institution. So these things sometimes cover up an interesting history. OK, well, we will I'm sure trace that. So I wanted to say thank you again for making the time for doing this. Appreciate it very much.

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

Happy to.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Well, let me just start with a traditional place. Where were you born? When? Tell me a little bit about your family.

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

Sure. So born November 14th, 1964 in Rome, Italy. Was there for a year and then we moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where my father was a brand-new assistant professor at Yale. He's an economic historian and focused his research early on in the Italian banking system, and so was first year of my life in Italy doing research. But my mother is Italian. She's Florentine. And she spent her life between Rome and Florence but her early years in Florence, but moved to the US to finish high school when she was 16 and then met my father when she was 17. They got married at 20 and 22. So kids came nine months later. So I have a brother who's just a year and a bit older than me.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

What are your parents' names?

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

Paola, P-A-O-L-A, and then Jon, J-O-N.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

And your brother's name?

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

Just J-O-N.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Oh, I'm sorry.

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

And David is my brother's name. So spent from I guess '65 until -- it'd be '73 in New Haven, Connecticut. Don't have a lot of memories of that. And then moved to Toronto, Canada when I was in third grade and was in Toronto through thirteenth grade. We had then in the province of Ontario grade 13, so there was five years of high school.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

But your dad is an American citizen?

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

Dad is an American citizen. I was nationalized American. Mother is an Italian citizen. I think she holds dual now. My father holds dual with Canada. My father is dual Canadian/American. And he's been in Toronto since 1973.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Well, I'm just interested, because of course as an adult you work across cultural and national boundaries. And you had that in the beginning in your family situation, which is cool.

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

I don't know if you were to add it up. But except for -- from birth until graduating college actually -- probably not quite. From birth to graduating high school spent three months every summer in Italy or the surrounding neighborhood except for two. So I'm fluent in Italian, it feels like home, essentially I was spending a quarter of the year in Italy every summer. We would get on the plane as soon as school got out and we would come back on Sunday and go to school on Monday.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Tell me about your educational experiences amid all that. How was this multinational experience feeding your interests?

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

Well, I've only known multicultural and certainly Italy. But in the summers we'd go to Greece, we'd go to Turkey, we'd go to France, Switzerland, those were our stomping ground. And lived in England for a year during one of my dad's sabbaticals, for eighth grade, so was there for the whole year for eighth grade. And I was in Toronto for 9, 10, 11, 12, 13.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

And I'm gathering that you enjoyed these experiences.

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

Oh, yeah, love traveling.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

There's some people who talk about living overseas as a kid experiences and they say, "Oh my God, it was the worst thing in the world.

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

No, but you see, I was born overseas, and my first year of life was in Italy. And then came to New Haven for nine months, and then I was back in Italy, and then went back to New Haven for nine months, and then we were back in Italy.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

What did you enjoy about it? What fed you?

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

I never thought about that. I love traveling and being in different cultures and movement that it represents. Of course when you're on vacation things are festive. But it was always this different environment. I have a very unique grandmother, who we'll of course talk about, in the picture there. And she's my Italian grandmother, so my mother's mother. And her husband committed suicide when my mother was -- I think she was 16. So I of course never met him. My grandmother at that point, I think she was in her early fifties. And that's when she picked up yoga, was very close with Krishnamurti and then Iyengar. And these luminaries of the yoga world were part of her life before that, but then really became part of her life. So as a young kid hanging out with her and being in this environment as a preadolescent I didn't know of course how unique this is. But it became clear as I got a little bit older and entering high school.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

So you got to meet these folks via your grandmother?

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

Correct. And her father was a really fascinating man. Alberto Passigli. He and his compatriots at the time were really -- they represented for Florence for the music world what the Medici represented for the art world. That may be overstating it a little bit but there was not a lot of music in Florence before Alberto Passigli got his hands on things. So they founded a music society, they built the primary music theater. Today there still remains a music festival called Maggio Musicale, the main music festival, that is going on now. That was an offshoot of Amici della Musica, the friends of music. And so all these phenomenal artists were around all the time from Toscanini to Pablo Casals to Rudolf Serkin, Bernard Berenson the art historian, Aldous Huxley. These people were guests at the farm outside of Florence. Federico Fellini. These were her friends and colleagues.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

What was your grandmother's first name?

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

Vanda, V-A-N-D-A. And her maiden name is of course Passigli, P-A-S-S-I-G-L-I. And her married name is Scaravelli, S-C-A-R-A-V-E-L-L-I. Actually she married a really interesting guy. Of course she would marry an interesting guy, although I never pictured her as a married person, because I never saw her in that light, who was trained in World War II to become a physician. And he essentially had his whole degree essentially done except for the final exams. And then World War I broke out. And so he was shipped off. He was the closest thing that they could have at that point to have a doctor. And so he was sent to do doctoring during that horrible war. And he during his spare time read philosophy to try to deal with the traumas that he was seeing and what he had to do in the conditions. And then when he got back after the war he had friends who were actually reading these things for their PhD and careers. And he thought that sounds much more interesting. And so he had read so much philosophy and was such a brilliant man, this is how the story goes, that he just wrote all the exams. In Italy I think even to this day to get your degree you just have to pass the exams. And so he wrote all the exams and he passed all of them, got his PhD in philosophy, and then became a world-renowned Kantian philosopher in particular, and was University of Pisa and Rome and obviously he had some mental health issues, and depression is what was -- and I always joke, "If you spend your life reading Kantian philosophy, if you don't have some good coping skills, yes, you're going to be depressed. But of course I don't know the full story.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Sure, that's the way family stories are.

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

So anyway Vanda obviously was a huge influence in my life. And of course my parents, they wrote -- I graduated high school in '87, so I think it was in '82, '83, they started doing research for their first cookbook, which was called Cooking from an Italian Garden. So Vanda, being a yogi, was a vegetarian. Her son, who was a huge influence in my life, my mother's brother, was also a vegetarian and a gentleman farmer. He was a stay-at-home dad. His wife was an executive in the Bank of Italy and high up, so he was really into macrobiotic gardening, and he oversaw the farm, but super creative, and always pushing the farmers to do things that were different, farming in a different way. He was vegetarian as well. And so Vanda had at that time working for her -- early on of course in Italy there was sharecropping. So the farmer who was sharecropping, his wife is just this incredible cook. And of course she's a traditional Italian, so they know how to cook vegetarian food well, but they tend to not of course just cook vegetarian food in the standard Mediterranean diet. So when we were there in the '70s and early '80s she's just putting on incredible meals. And Vanda at the last minute would say to her Sunday morning, "There's 22 people coming today. And she's like, "A little notice would have been nice. And there was always these fascinating people coming. And then she'd start rolling out the dough for the lasagna. And just eating these multicourse phenomenal banquet style meals, 100% vegetarian. And then in Toronto in the early '80s this big movement of vegetarianism and the health food stores were starting to open up and beans and rice and very bland and boring. And they thought what we eat every summer is pure vegetarian and it is ultra-gourmet. So this was of course super early on. This is the early '80s when cookbooks were not -- there was of course no Cooking Channel, there was no cable. These were the early days. So they were like the first on the block of a pure vegetarian cookbook that could be gourmet.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Now let me be clear. It was your parents who did the research for this book?

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

Yeah, my parents were the authors of the cookbook. So I was in eleventh grade or twelfth grade when they were researching the book. So I was in some sense part of that process. It was their book.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

What do you remember about that?

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

Oh, eating five soups for dinner because they had to test five soups. Where's our main course? It's like not tonight. We're sitting there at dinner. My brother had already left for college. And tasting a soup. And my dad says to my mom, "This is a real keeper, this is really good, how much nutmeg did you put in? And she goes, "Oh, I don't know, just a little bit. And he's like, "You do know that we have to be precise in a recipe. You can't just say a pinch. You have to say a quarter or a half or an eighth of something. So then we cook the recipe again. So I was certainly their number one taster because I was in the house. But obviously that had some impact on me of what I'm doing today. Even though at the time it wasn't part of my consciousness. My grandmother being a yogi, obviously I didn't know what was going on inside my development at the time, but it's obviously something that -- as you'll hear but I know you know -- I do yoga research. So that's always been knowing yoga, knowing vegetarianism, healthy lifestyle, this larger Eastern perspective and philosophy has been in my environment since birth.

T. A. Rosolowski, PhD:

What were you learning about yourself? When you were tasting what was the joy about? Was it palate? Was it community? What was it about those moments of tasting this great vegetarian cuisine that made you understand something about your own gifts and capacities?

Lorenzo Cohen, PhD:

I guess growing up in Italy, when it comes specifically to diet, and eating primarily a Mediterranean diet since birth, that to me was normal. I didn't know anything different of course as a kid. So eating a little bit of pasta and then having the next two or three courses was normal. We never really had dessert. We always had a really well-balanced meal. And when it became quite apparent that this wasn't normal is when I would go to other people's houses and we would have Kraft macaroni and cheese and TV dinners and this was again back in the early '80s and the late '70s. I when I wasn't at home ate a horrible diet. Our school didn't have a cafeteria, the high school. And so for two years I was at a conventional high school that didn't go so smoothly education-wise. And there was fast food joints. And that's what we ate. Actually in my seventh grade -- eighth grade I was in England -- in seventh grade was at a conventional high school. And we'd go out for lunch, whatever nearby. And it was McDonald's and Burger King and we just lapped up that stuff. But the preference was always the Mediterranean food. It had more flavor, it's just what I knew. What was remarkable that I knew early on of course was the difference between fresh food and not fresh food. Because in Italy at that time literally everything we ate vegetable-wise came from the garden. We had a full-blown garden which was at its peak in the summer. And we had farmers that farmed the garden. Very quickly when of course sharecropping ended always there was a lot of strife during that time because of the cost of the farm. So when the sharecroppers went to salary, they weren't just fired. They went to salary. We had to pay their salaries. Well, it was a working farm, but it wasn't a financially viable farm outside of sharecropping, because there were six full-time farmers and the wine sucked and was sold for next to nothing. The vegetable garden was just for our consumption. And there was the olives and there were some animals. But it was a huge financial loss. So for me the farm represented summer and fun. For my parents it represented anxiety and strife and arguing about how to make ends meet and stuff like that. But the food out of the garden was just unbelievable.

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Chapter 01:  A Family Experience Rich in Influences

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