About the time Lexi Mestas started school in Biloxi, Mississippi, she began devising ways to skip and spend the day at her grandmother’s house, eating chocolate cake and watching the Food Network. Mestas has “always been enthralled with everything food,” she says, calling it her “longstanding passion.” She was only 6 the first time she tried to make a pound cake by herself, which did not turn out. In fact, she likens her early kitchen experiments to “an Amelia Bedelia story,” but that did not dampen her love of cooking.
The kitchen was always the heart of the Mestas home and served as the family gathering place. Her grandmother, called Mamie, especially loved to host parties and went above and beyond to make every family gathering lavish and fun, whether an after-church get together or the annual Kentucky Derby party.
In the kitchen, the Mestas family celebrated a mix of cultural cuisine. Her grandfather loved all things spicy and made his own hot sauce. Her Michigan grandparents celebrated summer days with Koegel-style hot dogs and potato salad. Her father’s Spanish upbringing contributed tostadas and enchiladas. Mestas also cherishes her Grandma Honey’s cookbook, which holds rare recipes for humbugs and Mestas’ favorite: century pudding.
Mestas has always taken this culinary heritage seriously. As a very young child, she felt compelled to make her grandmother’s apple pie. “I have to do this,” she remembers thinking. “I need to know this.”
Growing up in Biloxi, Mestas also experienced Southern and coastal food traditions, often through her friends and their families who had lived on the Gulf Coast for generations. She remembers her first trip to a catfish house, where she ate fried okra for the first time. “It blew my mind,” she says. Mestas learned where to get the best crab claws, hush puppies and po’boys. She was enamored with the grits, fried fish, greens and cornbread made by the women who cooked in the hospital where both of her parents worked, which she calls “comfort food.”
Of course, living on the Gulf Coast has its perils. In August 2005, Mestas and her family experienced this firsthand when Hurricane Katrina flooded their home. While her dad stayed behind to clean and salvage, Mestas bounced from house to house with her mother and three sisters. It was the first time the family had been separated, and homeless, and it was devastating. “Having that experience so young, where everything that you have ever known has quite literally been ruined by mud and dirt and silt — I had three outfits in a bag and a pair of yellow Crocs,” Mestas says. “This is what I had.”
They eventually settled in Mobile, where Mestas’ mom worked as a nurse, and began rebuilding their lives. “People were so giving,” Mestas recalls. Multiple families took them in. St. Paul’s Episcopal School educated Mestas and her sisters without charging tuition during their first year. Yet at the same time, Mestas felt a chasm between herself and her peers. She turned 12 shortly after moving to Mobile and recalls how strange and disconnected she felt, in a new community where no one knew it was her birthday or what she was going through. “I had this light bulb moment of, I will never, ever live in this ignorance or darkness of not knowing what people are going through. And I am who I am today because Katrina happened to me.”
For the first time in her young life, Mestas was someone in need, and living in this state opened her eyes to others who were struggling. She became active in community service, especially around food insecurity. In high school, she would use her wages to buy supplies, make 50 sandwiches, and alongside her dad, hand them out to hungry people in downtown Mobile. “So many people gave to me, gave me a home, made me feel at home,” she says. “There are people still going through hard times. So, I should give.”
Mestas followed this calling throughout her education and early career. In graduate school, her thesis explored food deserts in New Orleans, evaluating whether programs designed to alleviate food inequities actually did. She shifted into adulthood “no longer just adoring food, but really finding purpose in it.”
Mestas then worked with FoodCorps, an AmeriCorps program, and later managed an education unit for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), working directly with families to improve health, boost cooking and gardening skills and stretch grocery budgets.
Listen to Your Body
Yet despite food’s central place in her life and work, Mestas had been battling ongoing stomach issues and an ever-narrowing diet. Doctors assured her nothing was wrong. She was young, they said. She was healthy. When Mestas’ pain intensified until she passed out, they told her to eat more fiber. It didn’t work. They told her to eat less fiber.
In February 2021, the pain became so extreme that it landed Mestas in the emergency room, where she was finally properly diagnosed. It was ovarian cancer.
“My whole world stopped. I mean, my entire life. It’s the same way that I feel about Hurricane Katrina. There’s pre-Katrina, there’s post-Katrina; there’s pre-diagnosis, there’s post-diagnosis. It really just changes you at your core.”
Dr. Katherine Lackritz diagnosed the cancer after noting abnormal markings on Mestas’ abdominal wall. She thought it was endometriosis but ran a biopsy just to be sure, and as Mestas says, “She is responsible for saving my life. She has been incredible. She remains in contact with me, calls me just to ask how I’m doing. She’s like my fairy godmother.”
Mestas entered a world of tests and surgeries and chemotherapy, where she worried about her care, after her pain was ignored for so long. “After being told over and over again, ‘It’s nothing,’ and not being taken seriously, I didn’t take myself seriously,” she says. “I got used to this high level of pain, and I would do nothing about it.” Her advice: “Be your best advocate. If someone is not listening to you, find someone else. You know your body better than anyone.”
This is especially important regarding ovarian cancer, which often masks as other issues, earning its nickname, “the silent killer.” Ovarian cancer is not detectable by a Pap test (those detect cervical cancer). “In the year 2021,” Mestas says, “we have no way to screen for ovarian cancer. That is why it is so deadly.” She encourages people with ovaries who are experiencing abdominal pain, bloating, back pain, frequent urination, indigestion or changes in bowel habits to speak with their physician and to request a CA-125 blood test and transvaginal ultrasound.
Mestas began connecting with other young women battling the disease, who give her understanding, companionship and strength. But they also consistently break her heart. “You have this connection with these women that is so sad and so horrifying. You learn about their lives and the things they’re doing, and you come to love them. And that double-edged sword of losing them is really, really hard.” On the day we talked, in early June 2021, Mestas had lost four women from her network to ovarian cancer in just one week. “It’s terrifying. Because you have to look the prognosis directly in the eyes and say, ‘This could be me. When will it be me?’”
Mestas is 27 years old and has been told she has 10 years to live. And even if she surpasses those 10 years, her cancer has a 95 percent recurrence rate. “It’s something that I’ll be fearful of for the rest of my life,” she says. In fact, Mestas and her network of friends living with ovarian cancer do not typically call themselves survivors. They prefer “thrivers” because they are living through cancer without defeating it, doing their best to thrive.
She explains, “Cancer has taken a lot from me. It has taken my fertility and my hope to be a biological mother. It’s taken even the hope of being an adopted mother because when you’re told 10 years at 27, it’s not something that you can really fathom. And it’s taken a hit on what I thought my career would be. But it has not taken my resilience, that resilience I got from Katrina. The resilience that I’ve been taught by my parents.”
Mestas especially credits her dad, a Vietnam veteran, for instilling resilience. He pushed through a horrific wartime experience and post-traumatic stress disorder to become an award-winning nurse. Likewise, Mestas has “a drive to do and to serve” and has thrown herself into advocacy, education and fundraising around ovarian cancer. “It’s been keeping me afloat,” she says. “It gives me an avenue of action where so much feels out of control.”
As always, food plays a role in Mestas’ new reality. She has changed her diet to boost her treatment’s efficacy and lessen its side effects, decreasing sugar and increasing protein. She eats foods like oatmeal and bananas to coat her stomach. To raise her blood count, she opts for pomegranate, bone broth, beets and “lots and lots of liver.” Her friend, Dizzy, a cancer survivor, shared her family’s soup recipe, which Mestas loves, made from bone broth, ginger and turmeric, all ingredients to help a sore stomach.
“And of course, you have to have comfort food that is not just about healing,” she says. “Something that really gets your spirits up.” For Mestas, that is Grandma Honey’s century pudding, from that worn and treasured family cookbook.
Finding What’s Important
Mestas and her husband, David Martin, decided to step away from their prestigious and demanding jobs in the Northeast, cancel a planned move to New York City, and come home to Mobile, where they can be surrounded by family. It was a conscious decision to leave the competitive and striving world of career-building, to which Mestas thinks millennials are particularly susceptible. “The two of us were definitely caught in that rat race,” she says. “So much so, we didn’t really ask ourselves, ‘Are we really happy?’ We’re missing out on so much with our family. My grandparents are getting older, and I’ve missed how many Christmases with Mamie’s apple pie?”
Once in Mobile, Mestas plans to fully devote herself to educating, advocating and fundraising for ovarian cancer research. She has already raised nearly $18,000 and is planning a huge fundraiser in September to celebrate her 28th birthday. The theme will be “wiggin’ out,” with everyone wearing wigs. A crawfish festival and tennis tournament are also in the works.
Mestas is determined to see ovarian cancer become a household name the way breast cancer has. She wants people with ovaries to know what to look for, what to do and how to protect themselves. She stresses that this disease “can happen to anyone. You can be doing everything right. Eating right, exercising. You can have no history of cancer in your family.” And because there is no screening, ovarian cancer is often caught late. Sixty percent of cases are diagnosed at stage 3. “It’s just starting your fight far too late in the game,” Mestas says. She has a particular type of cancer called low-grade serous ovarian cancer, which has shattering effects.
“It is devastating for women in their 20s and 30s. We are left with full hysterectomies. I’ve lost my appendix, my spleen. It is horrific to go through that, let alone this 10-year prognosis. And I want to spend every ounce of energy that I have fundraising for MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program for low-grade serous ovarian cancer. They are doing groundbreaking research with treatments and trials that can extend our lives, and that’s where I will be spending all of my time and energy.”
Mestas’ enchantment with food still exists at her core, and on good days, she allows herself to daydream. “If I ever get to a place where I can step away from this diagnosis and feel like I am free to think about something else and not be fighting for my future and years on my life,” she says, “I would love to open my own restaurant in downtown Mobile.”
It will be colorful and funky, she says, with an open-air space and a trailer park theme, serving Gulf Coast classics with a twist, like Biloxi bacon dip made with smoked mullet and fried pickles with comeback sauce. She has all kinds of cocktail ideas: a play on the bushwacker called Mississippi Mud and the Miss Mississippi, made with bourbon, magnolia bitters and Champagne.
Mestas is, after all, Mamie’s granddaughter. And she knows how to throw a party.
September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month
To help Lexi’s fight to fund research on low-grade serous ovarian cancer, donate to STAAR Ovarian Cancer Organization at www.staaroc.org/donate
To keep up with Lexi, follow her newsletter, “Hypochondriac: One Big Cosmic Joke,”
Or join her birthday fundraiser, “Wiggin’ Out,” the 1st Annual Odd Ball Benefit for
LGS Ovarian Cancer Research, on September 11 from 6 – 10 p.m. at the Malaga Inn.
Recipes from Lexi Mestas
Ginger Turmeric Bone Broth
Inspired by Dizzy’s broth
2 beef marrow bones
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
juice of 2 limes
8 cups water
salt, to taste
1. Roast marrow bones on broil for 20 minutes, turning with tongs halfway through. Remove from the oven and place in a slow cooker.
2. Add apple cider vinegar, turmeric, ginger, black peppercorns, bay leaves, lime juice and water, using just enough to cover the bones, about 8 cups.
3. Cover and slow cook for 24 hours.
4. Strain the broth to remove the bone, ginger, black peppercorns and bay leaves. Cover and refrigerate.
5. Once the fat has solidified, remove from the refrigerator and skim it from the top.
6. Add salt to taste. Broth can be stored in the refrigerator for one week or in the freezer for up to 6 months. Makes 4 – 6 cups
Smoky Pomegranate Mocktail
6 ounces pomegranate juice
6 ounces Ritual Zero Proof Tequila, or traditional tequila of your choice
3 ounces fresh lime juice
3 ounces simple syrup
3 teaspoons rose water
1/2 cup ice
4 large cocktail ice cubes
3 teaspoons edible dried rose petals
3 teaspoons pomegranate seeds
1. In the base of a cocktail shaker, combine pomegranate juice, tequila, lime juice, simple syrup and rose water with ice. Shake vigorously for 2 to 3 minutes.
2. In four glasses, each with a large cocktail ice cube, pour the cocktail in equal portions.
3. Top with edible dried rose petals and pomegranate seeds. Serve immediately. Makes 4
Beets & Strawberries with Lemony Yogurt
1 tablespoon plus 1 pinch of salt, divided
2 golden beets and 2 red beets, washed and tops trimmed off
3/4 cup nonfat Greek yogurt
1/4 teaspoon lemon zest
1 cup strawberries, washed, hulled and halved
1 bunch arugula
2 sprigs fresh mint, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons pistachios, chopped
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon of salt and all beets. Boil for 30 minutes or until beets are easily pierced with a knife.
2. Remove beets from boiling water, place on a plate or cooling rack and allow to cool for 10 to 15 minutes. Under cold running water, peel beets with your fingers, rubbing the beets to remove the skins. Chop beets into large wedges, about 1-inch thick, and set aside.
3. In a small bowl, combine the yogurt, lemon zest and pinch of salt.
4. On a serving platter or large plate, spoon the yogurt, swirling near the edges to create a nest for remaining ingredients. Organize the beets and strawberries together over the yogurt and top with arugula and fresh mint. Drizzle olive oil and sprinkle pistachios on top. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings
Venetian Liver with Creamy Polenta
4 cups chicken broth
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup polenta
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 large Vidalia onion, sliced
6 sage leaves, roughly chopped
1/2 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 pound calf’s liver, chopped into 1- to 2-inch pieces
salt and pepper, to taste
1. In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, bring chicken broth to a boil with kosher salt.
2. When boiling, slowly whisk in polenta, stirring constantly until the mixture is lump-free.
3. Reduce heat to low for 30 minutes, whisking occasionally until the mixture is too thick to whisk. If the mixture thickens too quickly, add additional chicken broth, one ladle at a time.
4. Turn off the heat and begin stirring with a wooden spoon, drizzling in the olive oil until smooth. Cover and keep on low.
5. While the polenta is cooking, prepare the liver. Add olive oil to a frying pan on low-medium heat. Add sliced onion and sauté until translucent. Add sage and gently mix until fragrant.
6. Add vinegar and mix briefly.
7. Move the onions to the edge of the pan and increase the heat to medium. Place liver in the pan, browning on all sides before mixing the onions in from the edges. Add salt and pepper, to taste.
8. To serve, spoon equal portions of polenta into shallow bowls and top with liver and onions. Serves 4
Grandma Honey’s Century Pudding
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
pinch of salt
1/2 cup milk
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. In an 8-by-8-inch cake pan, combine boiling water and granulated sugar, stirring until sugar is dissolved.
3. In a separate bowl, mix remaining ingredients. Drop the mixture by spoonful into the dissolved sugar syrup in the cake pan, making sure to cover the entire bottom of the pan. Bake for 30 minutes.
4. Using a large serving spoon, scoop the pudding from the bottom of the pan and turn upside down into a bowl or onto a plate. Serve with vanilla ice cream or fresh whipped cream. Makes 6 servings