by Eli Davies
For a couple of months in the spring-summer of 2017, unless somebody physically puts a plate of food down in front of me, I don’t really eat; mostly what I consume is cups of tea, cans of 7Up, cigarettes and coffee (beer and crisps if in the pub).
When I do manage to feed myself, cooking is impossible. I eat food that requires no preparation, no thought, exertion or decision. Readymade soup, crackers, toast. Cooking has too many associations. It connects me to a different version of myself; I am not that person now and I don’t even want to think about her. When I begin to feel pleasure in how things taste again, I buy pots of olives, cold cuts, bags of salad and cheese. But still, no cooking. Occasionally, if none of these treats are to hand, I’ll have a quick look in the cupboard and the fridge and I might boil a couple of handfuls of pasta which I eat with some grated cheese if I have it, some chopped up tomatoes if I have them, a bit of salt and pepper. This feels like nursery food.
The day that I cook properly for myself again is a milestone. I have a mild hangover, a predicament which follows me through the summer, the kind of dim hangover that never quite goes away and is constantly being topped up with three or four pints in the pub. I’m flat-sitting for friends and I get up and switch on the TV, flick through the channels. Jamie’s 15 Minute Meals is on and he’s making a steak sandwich with pan roasted new potatoes and mixed leaves. It looks incredible and when the programme is finished I decide that I absolutely must have this. I go down to Tesco Express and assemble a rough approximation of the ingredients. I come back to the flat and cook while listening to Jessa Crispin’s podcast “Why Heterosexuality is a fucking nightmare” which someone has recommended on twitter. Though the hum of sadness remains, all this makes me feel good, nourished. The food is tasty, the podcast is sharp, clever, funny, consoling.
In late 2017, I am reunited with what remains of my kitchen equipment from my former home – a hand blender, a casserole, a slotted spoon, a brilliantly sharp cooks knife and a big granite pestle and mortar. By this time I have started to cook and eat almost as before but these things are all charged with memory and I don’t want to deal with them. I am sentimental like this, I can tell a story about almost every object I own, where I bought it, what was happening on the day that I bought it, the conversations and considerations behind the decision to buy it and the life events it features in subsequently. This means that every time I move house, even when it’s in the happiest of circumstances – which my last move very definitely was not – the processes of sorting, packing, decision-making are enormously, exhaustingly emotional.
Initially I don’t use these bits of cooking paraphernalia (apart from the knife, which is handy for cutting garlic, cucumber, onions and the other various bits and pieces I use in my salads and sauces). They belong to a finished chapter of my life, one of easy, settled domesticity. Gradually, though, I begin to use the casserole again. It’s bright orange and I can picture it so clearly in my former life – on worktops, in cupboards, on draining boards, and stoves – but it’s good for making bolognese, curry, stew. And so i make it a part of my cooking life again. And it’s fine. No big deal.
This evening, another milestone arrives. Restless after a day of interrupted and never quite completed bits of work, I need to busy myself with something active but mindless and so I decide to make soup. For me there’s a kind of pure homeliness to this type of cookery that I’ve not felt plugged into for some time; a cosy and settled investment required in all the chopping, boiling and blending. I haven’t made soup since Before and it’s not something I’ve really missed or felt drawn to. But it’s the weather for warming food, I have half a squash in the fridge that needs using up and it feels like the kind of activity I need. So I go into the kitchen, cut up the squash and put it in the oven with some garlic and spices. I chop and fry an onion (in the casserole) and make up some stock.
Like with my steak sandwich turning point, as I do all this I’m listening to some smart, consoling radio, this time in the form of the T. S Eliot prize poetry readings from Sunday night. As I stir the onions, Ocean Vuong is reading his poem “Some Day I’ll Love Ocean Vuong”, which is inspired by Frank O’Hara and offers advice, solace, and insight. One line stands out for me: “Remember, loneliness is still time spent with the world.” It strikes a chord and I tell myself to go back and listen again later, to note it down, which I do. I take the squash out of the oven, get the jug of stock from by the kettle and chuck them in the pot with the onion. I give it all a stir and open the cupboard. Then I take out the blender, the last remaining untouched kitchen utensil from my former kitchen, and I make some soup.