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Rosenblum: A chef cooks up meal to remember for man battling cancer

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM
  • Star Tribune
  • March 29, 2014 - 5:55 PM

Nothing could stop Dave Nelson from din­ing out with his wife, Jan, on their 55th wed­ding anni­ver­sa­ry. Not windchill, icy roads, nor a li­quid diet that is a wist­ful re­mind­er of his bat­tle against stage four blad­der can­cer.

It’s a can­cer doc­tors say should have tak­en him months ago.

Dave fell in love with Jan at age 14, mar­ried her at 19, raised three kids with her and cher­ish­es the noise of seven grandkids, ages 11 to 24, es­pe­cial­ly when they’re all to­gether at their Wis­con­sin cab­in, named “Lykkebo,” Nor­we­gian for “hap­py home.”

On Jan. 10, Dave want­ed to cele­brate all of that, even if he had to do it over a bowl of broth.

The low-key cou­ple couldn’t i­mag­ine what hap­pened next.

As Jan sipped champagne and dined on a sal­ad and filet mi­gnon, Dave’s cup runneth over with flavorful clam chow­der, beet sal­ad, wall­eye and beef, all of it served up with a secret in­gre­di­ent:

One amaz­ing blender.

“Pret­ty much any­thing can be puréed if you have the right blender,” said Paul Neu, ex­ec­u­tive sous chef at Mc­Cor­mick and Schmick’s in Edina. Neu was de­light­ed to help make the cou­ple’s anni­ver­sa­ry mem­o­ra­ble.

“He nev­er men­tioned he was in stage four,” said Neu, who cre­at­ed the menu with sous-chef-in-train­ing, Shan­non Nelson (no re­la­tion). “He just said he couldn’t di­gest food, but want­ed to have the taste of it.”

Jan and Dave, both 74, are not me­di­a-hun­gry peo­ple. “But this is so be­yond what any res­tau­rant is ex­pect­ed to do,” Jan said.

Dave nod­ded. “We want­ed them to know how im­port­ant this was to us,” he said.

He also wants ev­er­y­one to know that cold, puréed beet sal­ad, “was so good.” He’s been back twice to ord­er it by the quart.

The cou­ple met 59 years ago on a church out­ing to Luck, Wis. As luck would have it, Dave said, “the car broke down or some­thing,” which meant more time get­ting to know Jan.

Af­ter they mar­ried, Jan stayed home to raise their kids, Paul, Deb and David, first in I­o­wa, then in Edina, and vol­un­teered for many or­gan­i­za­tions, in­clud­ing ser­ving as pres­i­dent of the Edina League of Women Voters. Dave be­gan a 51-year ca­reer as a CPA. He was an avid ten­nis play­er. To­gether, they golfed, traveled the world and loved to eat out.

In 1987, they head­ed to Bay­field, Wis., to hunt for a fam­i­ly cab­in. They found one on a popu­lar lake and, only later, re­al­ized that it was lo­cat­ed in little Luck, just min­utes from the church re­treat where they had met more than 30 years be­fore.

“Is that nuts?” Jan said. “It’s just crazy.”

His can­cer first was di­ag­nosed in 2002. While blad­der can­cer of­ten af­fects smok­ers, he nev­er was one.

When treat­ments didn’t work, sur­geons built him a “neo-blad­der,” and he went into re­mis­sion for near­ly a dec­ade.

In the sum­mer of 2011, he sensed “dis­com­fort” in his bel­ly. The can­cer was back. The cou­ple down­sized to a con­do in Minnetonka a year ago.

Lim­it­ed to juic­es and soups, and weak­en­ing af­ter his sixth round of chemo­thera­py, Dave de­cid­ed to stop treat­ment in Oc­to­ber. “That’s it,” he told Jan. “I’m quit­ting the chemo. We’re very blessed. Let it take its course. I’ll live as long as I can.”

Doc­tors gave him three months. He’s gone six. “Still going,” he says.

“This guy has passed all of our boun­dar­ies,” Jan said. Still, she add­ed, “we know we are liv­ing day to day. We’re doing ev­er­y­thing we can do to make him feel good. We try to live.”

Dave gets up and dress­es hand­some­ly every morn­ing, some­times head­ing to the Brae­mar Golf Course to hit balls. He and Jan still go to Orchestra Hall and the Guth­rie.

In­stead of pre­par­ing din­ners for friends, they gath­er for cof­fee in the late morn­ing, or for a glass of wine in the af­ter­noon. But even “wine doesn’t taste like wine” any­more, Dave said. “Your taste gets so weird when you get this.”

Jan jokes that, for a guy whose op­tions are so lim­it­ed, “he sure is fuss­y.”

De­spite that, he want­ed one spe­cial night, a night to gift his wife with an em­er­ald ring to thank her for 55 years of mar­riage.

A few days be­fore their anni­ver­sa­ry, Dave called Mc­Cor­mick and Schmick’s and spoke to man­ag­er Mike Herstine. “I have this sit­u­a­tion,” he said. “I can only take li­quids.”

Herstine didn’t hes­i­tate. “I’ll talk to the chef,” he said. “I was hap­py that I hap­pened to an­swer the phone. Fifty-five years to­gether is pret­ty spe­cial.”

Twen­ty min­utes later, chef Neu called, which de­light­ed Dave. “I’ve nev­er had a res­tau­rant call me!”

“I have a fan­tas­tic blender,” Neu said. “I can blend any­thing. I can blend a steak for you.”

“Oh, clam chow­der will do,” Dave said.

Their son, Paul, sent flow­ers to the table. They or­dered champagne. As Jan en­joyed her filet, a rare treat for her, Dave fin­ished his clam chow­der and looked up to see a ser­ver carry­ing over a tray with “three little dish­es” for him. Cold, puréed beet sal­ad, wall­eye soufflé and beef soufflé.

As they dined, Herstine and Chef Paul came out to meet them. “They’re a love­ly cou­ple,” Herstine said. “They were so ap­pre­cia­tive and down to earth.”

Tir­ing and pre­par­ing to leave, Dave looked up to see one more sur­prise. Des­sert was com­ing. Apple pie — puréed. “You’ve got to pack it up for me,” he said, de­light­ed. “He ate it for two days,” Jan said.

Many days later, they still mar­vel at strang­ers who, for one night, helped Dave re­claim one of life’s sim­plest pleas­ures. “The fact that the peo­ple cared that much,” Dave said, “made it so ex­tra spe­cial.”

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

612-673-7350

Fol­low Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum

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