Well, these have been some months. An uncharted and unsettling world, experienced from the enduring familiarity of home. In June last year we finally left the flat. Walked down the street. Saw the hand-drawn declarations of support for the NHS with our own eyes. Learned to stick together and keep our distance. We have been fortune to see the sea; spring-cleaning for the soul. We have been able to spend time with our families without the glare of screens.
Still, a year on, most of life has remained within these walls. I thought I would turn to our bookshelves to travel, explore. I tried Robert MacFarlane’s ‘Mountains of the Mind’. Wonderful, sweeping, but too vast and distant for my current reality. I started novels of heartbreak, but found myself reluctant to pick them up after a day of work and news overload. I have learned that in this current life, I seek to stay safe, cocooned. I return to favourites (Tolkien, Atwood, Barbery). And I read about food.
In the Spring, I read Tamar Adler’s ‘An Everlasting Meal’. The title hints at her approach: that the remnants of one meal form the foundation of the next. And as you learn how to cook not just for a night but for a life, you find a more wholesome way of being. Adler gently showed me where, despite the meal planning, scrap composting… there were many small ways we could be stewarding the contents of our cupboards and fridge better. So the ends of chard and lettuce are now regrown in ramekins of water on the windowsill, enabling us to cut again for a fresh salad*. The garlic which infused olive oil to transform three-day-old slices into garlic bread became the basis for pasta sauce the following day. I learned to taste the brine left in a jar of olives and integrate it into salad dressing. This book isn’t so much about recipes as it is about providing enough knowledge and inspiration to figure it out yourself. There were moments when I found the possibilities overwhelming. This could result in inaction (as overwhelm often can on sustainable living journeys). So I remind myself, it’s not about doing everything at once. Spoon by spoon, jar by jar.
In the Summer, I picked up ‘Rhubarb Rhubarb’, lay in the hammock reading exchanges between two friends, a gardener and a cook. Generous with their ideas, picking each’s brains on dahlias, lemon cake and kitchen gardens. And now sharing them with us too.
In the Autumn, I turned to ‘In The Kitchen: essays on food and life’. I was brought there by Ella Risbridger’s essay on kitchen love (as I read everything I can of hers) and welcomed the introduction to other writers. Rebecca Liu’s essay on London tube adverts was like a haunting, once part of weekly life, absent for the foreseeable. The book made me think not of returning underground, but of heading to the kitchen and trying a new butternut squash lasagne recipe.
In the Winter, I cosied up with ‘Home Cooking’. Laurie Colwin’s essays drew out-loud laughter and made me contemplate broccoli pasta (but not quite enough to try it yet). I’m not sure that I’ve quite reached agreement with her assertion that: “I love to eat out, but even more, I love to eat in.” But her book, over thirty years old, carries warmth and stories which steadied me through the cold and into the promise of seasons change.
For us, food has been a comfort. I stopped listening to podcasts about how the world works, seeking stories of the table. Splendid. Communal. Home cooking. And yet I am acutely aware that food is not comfort for so many. It is absence. It is unequal. It is political. It is battleground. And it is also preservation, as Nada Bakri writes, of culture when the pandemic enforces separation. It is what gets us from one day to the next.
Now it is Spring. There is a warmer breath in the air, a quiet hope of change. I cannot recall every paragraph read or meal made during this locked down year. But as I look back, I see the role they played in keeping me rooted. In keeping me home.
* refresh the water every couple of days. I pour the older water onto houseplants.
If you are able to, this is an important time to support your local food bank (here you can find UK based ones). If you like the sound of any of the books mentioned, you can check out them out on Bookshop, which supports independent booksellers. I get a small cut from each sale, and will be donating money from this post to The Trussell Trust, which works to end hunger in the UK.