The one certainty in life is death, yet in its nature, death is the most uncertain thing we face as human beings. We all remember that moment when we are first confronted with the truth of that reality and it becomes palpable for us. Although I experienced deaths in my own family as a child I remember being more affected seeing my mother grieve than through my own real sense of loss. Strangely or maybe not so strangely it has been through witnessing and participating in animal slaughtering that I first started to contemplate the transience of life: what is here today can just as easily be gone tomorrow.
I have always maintained that if you eat meat, then you should acknowledge and understand that fleeting moment when animal becomes commodity; however this is easier said than done. I, as an omnivore, have tried to expose myself to this reality through watching a cow being slaughtered in a very humane slaughterhouse in Italy, then by killing and preparing a chicken myself on an organic farm and then again by watching a Karmina (a traditional pig slaughtering ceremony) in Slovakia. Each time I cried, no, I sobbed, not because I pitied the animal but because the transition from life to death was so sudden and final. One minute they were alive, then they were dead – one from, or rather in, my own hand. In that same moment I felt an immense sense of power as a human being. We were in a position to decide whether something lives or dies whilst simultaneously feeling that we are not so different from those animals; life could be over – just like that, with the flick of a blade or the piercing of a bullet. We are so powerful, and yet at the same time completely powerless.
Loss (of a life, a love or an identity) is the unexpected and unwelcome harbinger of our misery and mourning, and it is through the company we choose to keep and the foods we choose to eat (or not) that our pain manifests itself. I personally lurch between the two extremes. In moments of grief, a day spent under my duvet with half a season of The Walking Dead, not having the will to make the 10 steps to the kitchen is more beneficial to me in (not) dealing with my pain than spending the whole day in the kitchen making cakes or a six hour curry and inviting half the neighbourhood to help devour the fruits of my labour.
It’s so easy to share the happy moments in life with those around us. Think of all the parties, weddings, birthdays and festivals that you have celebrated or been invited to. Wasn’t food (traditional and not so traditional alike) an integral part of all of these festivities? From the humble cake at a birthday party to the challah bread served during Rosh Hashanah. food, as Nigella says, ‘is the vital way we celebrate anything that matters. It’s how we mark the connections between us; how we celebrate life.’
Although a shared human emotion, sorrow does not inspire conviviality as joy does, and is often accompanied by a side of powerlessness and fragility. Bereavement and heartache are internalised and the way we deal with these emotions is much more personal. This is why there is a lot less tradition and ritual with food when it comes to dealing with the various losses we encounter throughout life, aside from funerals in some cultures.
Individual dietary choices in one way or another reflect how we approach life, and maybe this is also true for our eating habits during times of loss. When asking friends and family members what they ate after the most difficult moments in their lives (including deaths, illnesses, miscarriages and even heartbreaks) few were able to tell me specific dishes but they all remembered their reactions. Some gorged themselves to consciously or unconsciously fill an emotional emptiness with a physical heaviness to lull and stupefy an agitated mind. For others, eating was a way to keep going and give death the finger – eating, an act of the living and for them, one way of not dying with the dead. A handful lost their appetites, absorbed in their own anguish. The rest sought out the familiar: whether in the company they chose to share that meal with, often as a form of friendly distraction, or the well-known dish they choose to eat that assuaged (at least for a moment) their pain. This was me.
I don’t remember exactly what I ate, and I have since asked my chef and companion what it was he cooked for me, but he doesn’t recall either. It was a Tuesday though, that I can tell you – my day off from work. I always remember Tuesdays; it’s the day that my two sisters and I were born, all in different years though. There was no elegance to the presentation aside from a silver tray. He cooked and we had a huge lunch in bed. I just remember a soup served in a glass and it had chunks of speck in it, which I couldn’t stomach. The speck only comes to mind, because it was a gift from someone special and we had a huge piece of it in the fridge which meant that it was all that we ate during that period. We shared a bottle of Almdudler, some rum and then a pot of tea. The ‘what’- the meal itself was not important, but the ‘who ‘and the ‘how’ are what stand out in my mind. I remember so clearly the feeling of being looked after and cared for by a loved one, and what better way to do this than through food?
There are those moments though when food is just too much, and tea I have found, (maybe because I’m British) soothes, warms and revitalises sometimes a lot better than any meal can. It is a liquid which flows outwards and is able to reach, and warm the coldest parts of our body and soul. An old classmate of my 15 year old sister died of cancer last week and the first thing my mum offered her was a shoulder to cry on and a cup of tea. In my family home, the deepest and most difficult heart-to-hearts often happen over a hot steaming mug at our kitchen table: the kitchen being the heart of the house. Friends and extended family have sat around it with us sobbing their hearts out, shouting words of anger, whispering secrets and sometimes just simply talking about everything and nothing at all.
Reactions to loss vary. We have no choice in how grief chooses to consume us; we are at its mercy. Some of us just have a chunk bitten off whilst others are eaten whole, regurgitated and left to put themselves back together. Some eat to nourish themselves, others drink tea for warmth but when all else fails, then a shot or two (or possibly more) of spirits (for the heart and soul) is probably the way to go.
Photos by Marco Cipolla