Cooking for Cause: One Family’s Fight Against Breast Cancer

Her last name is Murray, but don’t let her married name disguise the Italian roots that run deep in her family.

Born Anna Purificato, Murray --author of a new cookbook,  Zi Anna's Kitchen --comes from a typical Italian family from Queens, N.Y.  Family meals at Zi Anna's house, (Zi Anna is “Aunt Anna” in Italian) are like a scene right out of the movie the "The Godfather." They gather each evening in the kitchen to prepare dinner, and the whole extended family sits around in the basement dining room of their Queens home, talking about their jobs and lives.

The dinner conversation is as diverse as each course that is brought to the table. They laugh, argue, and (of course) talk with their hands, as Italians love to do.

"When you are sitting around a table and sharing a meal, those are the happiest times,” said Murray. Those happy times were put to the test on Columbus Day 2008.

On a usually joyous day for Italian Americans, Murray will never forget the day her older sister and best friend, Tina DiFava, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“She went in and they knew right away it was cancer,” said Murray. “They told us that they were going to treat it and that there were lots of treatments for this. We had no indication that it wasn’t going to be just fine.”

A year later, the cancer had metastasized to her brain.

“At that point they told me her life expectancy was 8 months. But we never told her. Until the end, she never knew,” said Murray.

DiFava, born Annunziata Purficato, died on Feb. 6, 2010, at the age of 60, leaving behind three sons and four grandchildren.

“She had three major loves in her life: her kids and grandkids, food, and gambling. She really, really loved gambling,” recounts her sister.

Before DiFava’s diagnosis, Murray had begun working on a cookbook with all of their family’s favorite recipes to pass down to her many nieces and nephews.

“I decided I would make a little family cookbook and make copies for all the girls who were getting married at the time,” said Murray. “I had about 50 recipes by the time she was diagnosed, so I thought ‘Why not turn this into a little fundraiser?’”

The cookbook was put on hold during the majority of DiFava’s illness while Murray and DiFava’s husband acted as the primary caregivers.

“It took me a long time to get this going, but last year I decided it would be a cookbook for breast cancer research,” said Murray.

Murray used about 80 recipes of her own, and slowly people started getting interested and donating recipes. Zi Anna’s Kitchen is now complete with 120 recipes.

Click here to see some recipes from Zi Anna's Kitchen.

“The whole purpose is to sell copies and raise money…to help get rid of breast cancer. That’s it. Maybe Oprah will spot it one day,” said Murray.

According to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, there will be 230,480 new invasive breast cancer cases among women in 2011. Of those cases, there will be 39,520 deaths from the cancer.

“We want to get people aware. Wake up! We have no history of breast cancer, and then out of the blue this happens. It would be nice for people to know it doesn’t have to be your mother or grandmother,” said Murray.

DiFava was very regular with her annual exams. Every year she went and everything was normal. She missed one year.

“The one year she missed, the following year they found it,” said Murray. “If she wouldn’t have missed that one, she might still be here.”

The family started selling the cookbooks in September. The books haven’t even been shipped yet and 200 copies have already been sold.

“I want to sell 1 million copies,” Murray said laughing. The cookbook is focused around Italian family favorites. “A lot of the dishes are favorite family foods: old Italian dishes that my mother used to make,” said Murray.

When asked what her sisters favorite dish was, that was not an easy question for Murray to answer.

“My sisters favorite dish? God, she had so many! You can’t say one thing,” she said. “But anything I would make she would say ‘Ooooo, it’s delicious!’ She loved food.”

One of the dishes featured in the cookbook is one of DiFava’s favorites: string beans with potatoes. “It was those old peasant vegetable dishes she loved!,” said Murray.

DiFava’s family has already donated $3,800 in her name and is hoping to donate much more. Zi Anna’s Kitchen sells for $20, and all profit is donated to the American Cancer Society.

“Tina would love the cookbook. She would absolutely love it. She would give her last dollar to support a cause,” said Murray.

Click here for more on how to purchase a cookbook.