When my father was nearly dead I began to devote myself to eating. I didn’t consciously do it, it was more of an unconscious thing, a passing of the baton. He no longer ate. So I took up the pursuit almost in defiance of the death I was witnessing. I lost all will to be abstemious about my food, now that I knew there was a finite amount of chocolate in our lives it seemed unconscionable to deny myself. I sat by his bed and munched, my gnawing jaw marking the time ticking down.
I had been watching his death for a few years at this point. It is difficult to quite pinpoint when the dying began, as is the case with dying. Did it begin when he no longer knew my name? When he was so altered by illness that I was afraid of him? Or perhaps the day I peeled an orange for him and he grabbed my hand by mistake and tried to bite my fingers instead?
He spent some time on a psychiatric ward because he was suffering a psychotic episode – a side effect of early onset Alzheimer’s. He lived on the psychiatric ward for many months, perplexing the other residents, because in a bitter bit of bureaucratic irony, he was too young for the dementia ward. I brought him ice creams every day which he devoured, unselfconsciously, like a baby.
At home, I was teaching my baby to eat from a spoon and now learning myself, the bleak art of spoon-feeding an adult. I detested feeding my father
At home, I was teaching my baby to eat from a spoon and now learning myself, the bleak art of spoon-feeding an adult. I detested feeding my father. The food was disgusting, the whole process a cruel parody of nourishing. My handsome, refined father, now gobbled the grey, hospital food off my proffered spoon and inside I howled with the injustice of it all.
This man taught me to cook. I remember him showing me how to eat a langoustine on holiday, pinching the head and sucking the insides out with mock, cannibalistic relish. He devoured lobster with impressive precision, determined not to let a single morsel evade him and dedicated himself to rich chocolate desserts.
Now as the months and then years passed, his decline could be monitored as much by his waning ability to communicate and move, as by the consistency of his meals. On the wall of the kitchen of the home where he lived, after we could no longer bear to take care of him, was a table of textures. The stages of dying. Stage one was the uniform and deeply unappetising mounds of mash doled out with an ice cream scoop, meat, gravy and sodden veg, familiar to anyone who’s been in hospital. Stage two looked like pre-masticated version of stage one. Stage three was baby food. Stage four was the tube but I didn’t know that then. The only redemption of my father’s dying was that it was my first deathbed so I did not know what was coming. The next time I will know, I will recognise each new layer of decline for what it is: dying. Dying, dying, dying, dead.
Towards the end his body resisted the nourishment. We fed him and he continued to waste in the bed. I spooned a substance called Ensure into his dying head and wondered at the whole sorry industry of food for the barely living, the pleasure of eating no longer a factor at all merely the dogged (and sometimes baffling in the face of such suffering) prolonging of life.
'I’ll make a ham,' my husband said because I am married to a male, ginger, bearded Nigella Lawson – and because that is what we do in times of death
In his last days, he wasn’t supine, so much as perched, raw and unpeeled on a bed. His whole body contracted into a permanent claw. He no longer saw. His eyes were open and staring but coated with a dusty film. He never blinked. His mouth was a horror, it cleaved his face, a dark fissure down which time and love and hope and sweetness drained.
I sat in the death room listening to the grinding of an industrial air freshener and cast about for something to eat. We bitched about the shit biscuits.
“We should have brought better snacks to this deathbed,” I quipped to my mother. Even a change of clothes would’ve been good as we were marooned in that room for a day and a half.
When it was at last over, I rang my husband.
“I’ll make a ham,” he said because I am married to a male, ginger, bearded Nigella Lawson – and because that is what we do in times of death.
For the next three days, as we planned the funeral we were surrounded by the kind of food that attends every major life event, egg sandwiches, potato salad, cold cuts, smoked salmon, cheese, cake and biscuits all appeared by way of friends and family. It was a feast of carbs and comfort but for me it looked like the congealing dining table of the Mary Celeste. I’d finally lost my appetite. I drank coffee until two most days and then switched to wine.
After the service we gathered at a buffet for more of the same. Someone filled a plate for me and ordered me to eat.
Grief does funny things to your body. In the months since his death, I have lost my memory. People often joke when they forget something “that’s the Alzheimer’s” but for me it seems like a very real possibility. My dad got it in his fifties. By that reckoning, I only have 20 good years left. Now I try to call up what happened yesterday and there is nothing there.
I also forgot just what solace can be found in comfort eating. The practice has been pilloried of late but comfort eating can be medicine, especially for a malaise of the soul. And now of course it is the season, so accommodating when the season matches your mood. My soul-chill began in summer and every beautiful day seemed to mock me, now we’re all moaning together! Moaning about the return of tights and dark nights and disappointing second series’ (I’m looking at you Dr. Foster) and my grief seems more at home here, under a blanket with a bowl of something steaming and warming.
Serves 10 (generously)
- 4 large tablespoons rapeseed oil per batch of lamb
- 2kg lamb shoulder, trimmed and cubed
- 6 onions, diced
- 600g soft prunes
- 4 teaspoons juniper berries, crushed
- 1.5 litres red wine
- Juice and zest of 2 oranges
- Large handful of parsley, chopped
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Mashed potato and roast carrots, to serve
- Heat the oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the lamb cubes in batches, season with a little salt and pepper and cook until browned all over. Transfer the browned meat to a dish as you go. When all the meat has been browned, set it aside.
- Add the onions to the pan and cook them in the remaining oil and lamb juices until they are softened.
- Return the browned meat cubes to the pan, add the prunes, juniper berries, wine and orange juice and zest and give it all a good stir. Increase the heat and bring to the boil. Cover and simmer for about 2 hours 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.
- When it’s ready the lamb should be tender and the sauce thickened. The prunes should have broken down.
- Check the seasoning and stir the parsley through just before serving. Serve with mashed potato and roast carrots.
Sophie's book, Recipes For A Nervous Breakdown and How To Cook Yourself Sane is out now.