The universal experience of a year spent eating.
Something horrible happened. Horrible things happen all the time to everyone, but it’s still a shock how one phone call can obliterate your future and slam you into a dreadful present tense. I was taken in, I was cared for, and somehow I lost time — days. Vaguely I can recall moments where I wandered into my friend’s kitchen to make a cup of tea, only to find myself 20 minutes later in a puddle on her floor. Or I would wake up mid-panic attack, not quite sure where or when I was.
- Life Is Meals by James and Kay Salter. 464 pages. Knopf. $22.50.
In those first few days, the only times I was grounded and sure of my surroundings were those moments when I had food as an anchor. Without it, I flew around in my own head and often found myself in dark places. I would come to as friends pressed into my hands macaroons, peanut butter cookies, pretzels dipped in mustard. “Eat this.” Beers, glasses of wine, whiskey. Kale lentil soup alongside cheese and crackers. There was a hamburger with blue cheese, a black bean dip with margaritas. Friends plated pot roast and wrapped my fingers around utensils. A friend who knows me eerily well tells the cook: “Later, she will say it was the pot roast that saved her life.”
It was the pot roast that saved my life.
As I came out of the crazier parts of grief, when I knew where I was at all times, a friend took me to the bookstore. The fiction all appeared to be lying to me, and my friend was blocking the one novel I wanted to read, Washington Square. “No, you’re not reading a crazy spinster book right now. Let’s go to nonfiction.” I wobbled down the stairs, and here is where I started to be soothed by the presence of books, rather than oppressed. Here were books full of facts. Declarative sentences. Some of them had bullet pointed lists and graphs. Some of them talked about faraway places, and just seeing the town names — Riga, Baden-Baden, Cairo, Phuket — reignited a glimmer in me. Right. I could go to these places. They exist in the world. I pulled down a stack of books and fished out my wallet.
At home, alone, after my friends stood out on the cold sidewalk after placing me in a cab and waved until the car disappeared from their sight, I started sleeping with James and Kay Salter’s Life is Meals in my bed. I no longer had these friends to set food down in front of me. I had to sustain my own life. After a lifetime of cooking, eating, traveling, and reading, the Salters compiled a Book of Days, a calendar of seasonal anecdotes and facts culled from their research and experience. Each day, a new story that struck their fancy or came to mind when they saw apricots had suddenly flooded the market. One day there are no apricots. The next, there is abundance. Added together, it does make a life. As I was trying to put mine back together, food seemed like an OK enough organizing principle, a way to find myself not just in time and place but in history. These dried figs I always pass up at the market, I could boil them in sugar and scotch, and the Salters would tell me how. It was something that could be done.
And just the physical presence of Life is Meals was so soothing. With just one day coming after another, I would flip through it to remind myself that time passes. We are at “Irma Rombauer” now, but soon we will be at “Madame Bovary.” It has wee little watercolors that I would fall into, men in tailcoats serving steaming plates of something or other. Castles and half-eaten apples. A bowl of mussels. Which I could recreate, if only I could stand the thought of actually walking out my door. But I wasn’t quite ready. I needed to steel myself with some verifiable knowledge first.
April 26: “Earl Grey is black tea, oddly enough, scented with the oil of an inedible but fragrant citrus fruit, the bergamot orange, grown almost exclusively in Calabria, in the south of Italy.”
September 7: “The result of planting apple seeds is a series of trees whose fruit is unpredictable.”
May 30: “The pretzel is said to have been invented almost fourteen hundred years ago in a monastery in southern France where a monk frugally twisted leftover scraps of dough into a shape like that of arms folded in prayer, with the three openings representing the Trinity.”
I tried to flip past the introduction, where James and Kay explain their fabulous lives to the reader. My life was not fabulous when reading it; I couldn’t envision a future anymore where it might be; and any description of their happy, cozy life together threatened to force me back into bed, my only nutrient coming from the milk in my overly strong tea. I had been wearing the same sweater for god knows how long, and I did not want to have to envision a dinner party with Alice Waters. I also had to skip over certain days, like January 26’s account of dinner at Jason Epstein’s house, October 8’s ode to the Salters’ first trip to France together, May 23’s journey using the Michelin guide to find dinner. I’d quickly turn the page, envy creeping around my skull, trying to find a fact to tamp it down. “The Emperor Vitellius spent more than the equivalent of ten million dollars on his table during his brief reign of less than a year and is said to have habitually eaten a hundred dozen oysters at a sitting.” Yes, there we are.
Eventually I did not have to turn the page. Because the pot roast didn’t just save my life, it allowed me to remember the fraternity of eating and pulled me out of the self-indulgence that loneliness often is. There were many dinners alone in my past, yes: a beautifully rare steak presented with a fried egg on top in Buenos Aires, eaten three days after being dumped. A cheese course with black walnuts in West Ireland, so alone I was the only one in the off-season restaurant. But there were also those sustaining nights. I could think back into my past, in carefully chosen regions, without the outpouring of pain. Dinner at Schwa with Honeybee, laughing while trying to coax her to eat the sweetbreads. Meatloaf in Jessica’s living room. Tables full of friends in my various homes, where any culinary missteps on my part are smoothed over with wine and conversation. My homes have never been snug, warm bungalows in the mountains, but they have been warmed with long roasting ovens and plenty of bodies. Despite the endless gloom the Berlin winter promised to bring me for the next four months, I could trust my apartment here would be warmed in the same way again.
On February 13, the Salters quote from The Importance of Being Earnest: “When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me. Indeed, when I am in really great trouble, as anyone who knows me intimately will tell you, I refuse everything except food and drink. At the present moment I am eating muffins because I am unhappy. Besides, I am particularly fond of muffins.”
I do not eat muffins when I am unhappy; I eat meat. I pulled on my shoes when I could think far enough into the future to at least picture dinner and went to the butcher to buy two and a half pounds of oxtail. I braised them for four hours in crushed tomatoes and Guinness, and whipped up mashed potatoes with heavy cream and scallions. They were eaten with a friend that first night, but the next morning I stumbled to the fridge, pulled out the oxtails, and started pulling the meat off the bones with my fingers. I chewed silently and watched the crows in my courtyard. September 30 tells me that “You can eat alone, which is a little depressing...” But for the first time in a long time, it wasn’t. I made this. I was sustaining my own life. I had hope that in the future, while horrible things will certainly happen again, fabulous things will, too. • 17 November 2010
Jessa Crispin is editor and founder of Bookslut.com. She currently resides in Berlin, but spent many years in Chicago.