Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Taste of the Kingdom

This piece first appeared in Zadok Perspectives No. 114 (Autumn 2012). The Summer edition is out now, with my reflection on learning to live with enough.


A few months ago, my husband and I had that rare and precious thing: the spontaneous offer of a babysitter. We decided to go out for dinner. We lucked upon the last table at a lively restaurant and shared a fantastic meal, with wine to match each course.

As the evening drew to a close, I sat there turning my glass in my hand and reflecting on how well we have eaten over the years. Before we had children, we dined out several times a week. Since then, we have visited Europe twice with young kids and eaten our way around Italy, Germany and even, surprisingly deliciously, Great Britain, while at home we buy nectarines, mangoes, avocadoes and all sorts of other foods that neither of us had much as children; they were far too expensive back then.

Flooded with gratitude, I said to my husband, “I have had so many good things to eat in my lifetime, it really wouldn’t matter if I never ate another decent meal again.”

As is the way of fate, a couple of days after I made this claim I went to a natural therapist to try and tackle years of fatigue and constant illness, and in particular the development of debilitating arthritis; and, as I wrote in last quarter’s Zadok Perspectives, I was immediately placed on a very restrictive diet for four months (no sugar, gluten, fruit, dairy, alcohol or caffeine), with the additional caution that I should strictly limit my intake of these foods for the rest of my life.

The timing was impeccable. I had just made a big claim about food; here was my opportunity to test it. In any case, I was so desperate to feel better that I quickly adopted, and have largely stuck to, the diet; but I soon found myself wondering what to do about eating with others. How would we celebrate a birthday if I couldn’t eat cake? What would we have for a friendly afternoon tea if I wasn’t eating scones? Who would come for dinner if I didn’t make dessert or pour out the wine?

Clearly, hospitality wasn’t going to work if the sweetest thing on offer was a carrot stick. On reflection, however, I realised that the restrictive diet was only about eating. I could still cook whatever I liked; whether or not I ate the food was a separate issue. So I stuck to my usual pattern of whipping up banana loaves on Mondays, when Grandpa comes to visit; baking cakes on birthdays and grumpy days; and making cookies to take to friends.

I thought I might resent cooking food that I could not eat myself, but I also thought it would be a good test of my generosity. To my surprise, however, far from resenting the situation, I have discovered that I still love to make special things. Previously, I hadn’t realised just how much the act of preparing and offering food gives me pleasure; I had thought a great deal of the pleasure was in the eating. But seeing friends and family savour and relish what I have cooked, and watching them grow expansive after the second glass of wine, makes me tremendously happy; and, as my taste buds shift to a more savoury palate, my desire to eat the food myself grows less and less.

It’s the opposite of most advertising messages, which encourage us to satisfy ourselves and make ourselves happy because, we’re told, we’re worth it. Instead, as I chomp my way through yet another handful of nuts or celery sticks, or perhaps crunch into some rice crackers which are, I admit, growing rather tiresome, I recall that others are worth it; and in seeing them respond to the loving care that is communicated through a slice of cake or a basket of scones or perhaps a pot of soup I cannot eat, I find myself expansively happy and deeply satisfied, having never even taken a bite.

PS - For those who are curious, a year or so later I am now drinking wine (you gotta live) and caffeine (which helped me limp through the debilitating fatigue I experienced during a month of eating gluten prior to a test for coeliac disease). I aim to wean myself off caffeine again when things have settled down. I still eat very little cane sugar, fruit, gluten and cow's milk.

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