One of the losses of anorexia is that meals we used to enjoy together as a family are now minefields to be navigated. Family meals are part of the fabric of all our lives, when work, school, college and even the Internet are set aside to spend time together eating, talking and laughing. Before anorexia, I operated a strict regime of no television, no phones, no swinging on chairs and no music while at the table. Water to drink, at weekends wine for the adults. A time to be together, to eat together and discuss the day. We had favourite meals, which when given as the answer as what is for tea, resulted in cheers. We had ritual meals, for certain times of the week. The following are just some of the victims of Ed.
Sunday Morning Pancakes with Bacon and Maple Syrup
Made to the same recipe each week, with the page in the book now splattered in batter and covered in scribbles for increases in quantities after a mass sleep over. Thick fluffy pancakes, with butter melted into them as they left the griddle, accompanied by crisp smoked bacon and pure maple syrup, best eaten with fresh orange juice and coffee or hot chocolate for children. In the years of my bitter marriage break up, Sunday morning breakfasts were the weekly rescue buoy, bobbing in the sea of misery. Their father S and I were often red-eyed and shattered, but I whisked batter, grilled bacon and brewed coffee, as well as frothing milk for hot chocolate. In a house filled with conflict, the deliciousness of pancakes was an issue on which we could all agree. In our new house, the tradition continued, firstly to reassure the children that life was the same and then because it was just what we did on Sundays. L took over the pancake making at some stage, initially still an enthusiastic consumer, although never more so than J who holds the all comers record for pancake eating. But over a time, L suggested other things, perhaps fruit and yogurt, or said she wasn’t really in the mood for pancakes, all signs I missed. Pancakes are now something K and I sometimes have on a birthday or at Christmas. They have vanished from Christmas mornings for the first time this year. We made muffins at a suggestions of L’s, but she still didn’t eat them, staying with Special K and fruit.
Toad in the Hole
This is a Brit thing – sausages roasted in a Yorkshire Pudding batter. I first started cooking this when on my first period of maternity leave. Before J was old enough to eat solids, it seemed a proper family meal, never a recipe to be cooked alone, but to be made in vast quantities. I would sear the best quality sausages in blazing hot oil, while an oven heated to its highest setting, then pour in the batter, watching it splutter and crackle. Forty minutes later, a masterpiece emerged, with puffed crispy edges, concealing a moist light interior, with crispy sausages nestled in each fold. Served with thick onion gravy, roast leeks or peas, it warmed us in winter months – a dish of which I was hugely proud. It was a dish which said Proper Mother, food which embraces as well as feeding and over which J and L would argue about who had the leftovers. To L it is now terrifying: she dissects the sausages, picks at the crispy edges and pours gravy to ensure the minimum reaches her plate.
K, L and I love baking. We pore over recipes, decide on a cake, or cupcakes, or biscuits or brownies and then we measure, mix, melt and produce our masterpieces, which we eat with cups of tea. This is a special treat on a rainy holiday, often having to guess at weights, but still resulting in a round table feast, with our pot of tea. Now, this is a tense challenge. L still loves to bake but I have watched her produce brownies and chocolate cake in a single session without a morsel passing her lips. K has arrived, to beg to share in the licking out the bowl ritual to find herself disconcerted and being handed the bowl without a fight. Last year, L cooked carrot cake for a visiting friend and K came into the kitchen, while L was out to declare the issue of whether L would have any as “the carrot cake shaped elephant in the room.” L does now eat the cake she bakes, but it is a slice and a slice only, there is no joy in the eating of it, no picking at the edges as she passes through. The kitchen; no licking of icing or finger mopping of crumbs. It is cake eating as a duty not a pleasure, the very worst kind.
Another ritual meal, for a Sunday evening, to gather us all together again before work and school begin. Roast Lamb is a favourite, as well as roast chicken, although there is always the dilemma of one chicken or two when cooking for five. Or six, sometimes, as I often invited S to dinner, to give the children the added pleasure of dinner with both parents, even if this did result in C and I exchanging pained looks, drinking wine and trying to avoid chewing the glass as S talked endlessly and loudly over everyone else. K was always a reluctant roast dinner eater, receiving taunts from her father as to why she wasn’t eating this wonderful food, because “your mother is the best cook in the world and I should know”, implying with a sneer that he’d had more of my hot dinners than C had….. More wine, more gritted teeth. C and I would clear up, with a slight sway. But the food didn’t cause any tension back then. I would smile at L and J and their equal appetite for green vegetables and roast potatoes, as well as steamed sponge or summer fruit crumble. Just those words – roast dinner – now strike a chill in the room for all of us. A complex cooking task, which ends in misery. Even S stays away, which at least allows C to carry on earning the hot dinner points.
A few years ago, we went to Ireland in the summer, to West Cork. We decided on an ambitious walk, to the top of Knockboy, the highest mountain in the area, a round walk of at least ten miles. We walked up, and up, and up, and up. And up. We got lost in marshy bogland. We climbed over barbed wire fences and got stuck. Eventually we found the top. The wind was so fierce, we could hardly hear each other, apart from our excited squeals at the incredible sight of the Ring of Kerry and Beara Mountains below us. We walked down, and down. C and I argued about the route and he marched off. I tripped and scared myself, but left the kids shrieking with laughter. On the final descent, K lay down on the track and declared she would rather die here than take another step. The thought sustaining me the whole descent was what I would cook when we finally got home, thinking about the ingredients in the fridge in our holiday home. This recipe, constructed from exhaustion, hunger and opportunity remains with us still. Back at the house, after soothing every aching limb in a hot shower, C and I drank white wine, to anaesthetise our muscles and I pan fried chicken breasts with garlic in a butter and olive oil mix. I added fresh thyme and basil, glugged in white wine, and let the chicken tenderise while new potatoes were roasted in the oven. When the potatoes and vegetables were ready, I added a dollop of thick cream and a splodge of pesto. The meal was eaten in silence, with voices only returning towards the end, when we marvelled about our day. Followed by lumps of the mega chocolate bars, with a tot of Irish whiskey, we played cards and laughed.
Today, I removed chicken breasts from the freezer and checked the fridge for pesto and creme fraiche. It felt less like a meal, more of a grudge match. L came home from a day with her father and asked what was for tea. I told her, and added that we were having crumble as well. There was a silence, which I met with a “bothered?” face. In the war zone of an eating disorder, meals are battles and ordeals. We recover from them rather than them providing us with a therapeutic space in which to unwind. This is the frontline; it has taken our family history and perverted and twisted it and this is just one more war crime for which I will never forgive Ed.