Food is in the heart…why prescribing diets is NOT the way forward
I can smell it now. The bacon crisping in the frying pan, its savoury aroma curling through from the kitchen. The crackling of eggs frying in hot fat, crisping up around the edges and staying deliciously runny and yellow in the middle. The oozy, shiny fried bread waiting to mop up the yolk, fried in the bacon fat.
This was love. This was my Nan’s kitchen. This was the scene of my first ever food battle, the one that raged around me but that I was completely unaware of for decades. The two women I loved most in the world, my Mum and my Nan, both in competition over when, what and how I should eat. Nan, who showed love through the constant supply of scones, vol-au-vents and cakes argued that I was a growing girl and that adding a spoonful of sugar to my coffee, which I was drinking from a stupidly early age, was perfectly acceptable. I grew.
One of Mum’s worst nightmares for me was that I became fat, despite there being a clear predisposition towards weight gain on her side of the family, showed her love and concern by trying to mitigate the effects of a week at Nan’s by rationing biscuits when I got home. The scene was already set; Nan fed me because I was her special girl, and to this day, the tastes I try to recreate are from my childhood, from that time when I felt special. Bacon and eggs, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, Grandad’s freshly picked runner beans. Cheese and crackers. Mum’s Sunday roasts and fruit cake. I even try to recreate the vol-au-vent fillings of my childhood. The Shippam’s factory in Chichester made a chicken pie filling and Nan would pick dented cans up cheap from the factory shop and bake me vol-au-vents filled to the brim with the stuff, which I would eat until I was on the verge of being sick. I loved those little savoury pies, they were creamy and crispy and buttery and she made them because she knew I loved them. I’ve tried to find the right filling since — it doesn’t exist any more. The factory is no more.
You could say that food has always been close to my heart. Memories for me are inexorably linked either to a taste, a smell or to music. When I overeat, and I do it more than I should, it’s to replace something I’m missing. It’s to make me feel something, to comfort, to take me back to a happier time. I remember eating Campbell’s meatballs on a Saturday night as a kid, and watching Metal Mickey on TV. I remember sausages and mash with beans while Dad watched Grandstand, listening to the man on TV calling out the football results in his clipped voice ‘Forfar Four, East Fife Five’. Findus Crispy pancakes and mashed potato. Campbell’s meatballs taste rank to me now, although I looked forward to them as a child — and the only way to eat a Crispy Pancake is deep fried but I don’t own a deep fat fryer.
I vividly remember eating ready salted Hula Hoops off of my fingers one by one as a child. Hula Hoops taste different now, too. There’s less fat or something. I drank slightly warm Coke from a glass bottle on hot days. Dad bought us square vanilla ice cream cones that came in paper wrappers when we went to the beach. I adored the full fat milk we had with that little plug of cream that I’d fight my brother and sister for when we had our cereal in the morning. Summer was the taste of strawberries picked from the abandoned pick your own field near our house, warm from the sunshine. Blackberries were collected in Mum’s old ice cream tubs, with stained fingers, and we’d pull a face getting the sour ones. Dad would take us walking on the South Downs and bring us back full of sugary berries with purple tongues.
I have only ever bought blackberries in a supermarket once, they were tasteless. Blackberries need to be wild, to be picked from a bush and eaten fresh.
I was a skinny child. I grew into a fat adult. It’s nobody’s fault. Food became something I would self-medicate with. When I was feeling sad, a sharing bag of Maltesers soothed away the hurt of being dumped by yet another boyfriend. The McDonald’s thick shake I slurped after being dumped by the then love of my life at 16 is probably more memorable than he was, it was the first one I’d had and I will forever think of the day my heart broke in terms of a thick shake and Always by Atlantic Starr. The thick, cold soothing numbness of the drink — if you can call it that — failed to placate my teenage heart for long. But it helped while I was slurping it.
I remember Magnums and Mars Bar Ice Creams from the summer of 1989. And Back to Life by Soul II Soul. Felixstowe beach, my then boyfriend (who I’d eventually marry) and a feeling of freedom, that life was good and I had everything to come. I was 18. I was also dieting during the week, eating anything I wanted at the weekend and had no idea that I wasn’t fat at all.
Hate myself food
I didn’t hate myself physically until I was 26/7. I was using food to hurt myself with and it wasn’t nice food.It was dirty pork pies and sausage rolls, TUC cheese sandwiches, crisps and junk. I ate them from the bottom drawer in my desk, to distract myself. I also stuffed them in because because the fat, salt and sugar gave my dopamine receptors a hit while I sat in an office being bullied and undermined and asked about what I weighed by women who saw my pain starting to manifest as extra fat on my body and thought it was perfectly acceptable to make it hurt even more. I went home and listened to Alanis Morissette Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (usually That I Would be Good would be the one that set me off) and cried. My then boyfriend didn’t understand my hurt and accused me of hiding an eating disorder. I wasn’t aware that I’d even developed one until I read a book and recognised myself in its pages. I cried a lot at that time in my life. I gained a lot of weight and I’ve never lost it.
I hate myself foods
To this day, if I’m overeating pork pies, sausage rolls and TUC sandwiches you need to ask me if I’m OK. They are my ‘I hate myself’ foods. My body, my taste buds and my mind knows they are not going to taste good but I’ll eat them anyway because I’m not feeling worthy of happy foods.
Calories are not the answer
I could go on and on about food and memories. What I’m really saying is that prescribing weight loss, telling us all to lose five pounds, geeing the British public up to get slimmer and avoid COVID-19 (because it’s that easy) will not work for most of us. I’m not fat because I eat a few extra crisps or enjoy chocolate biscuits with my tea. I’m fat because for much of the time, the hug I get from the combination of carbs, fat and sugar that’s on my plate is more important to me than how much I weigh.
A sparkly sticker from Slimming World will never feel as good as having someone bake you a cake because they love you. One of the loveliest things anyone did for me in lockdown was when a fabulous friend dropped off a rescue parcel of delicious spiced rum and Mr Kipling Unicorn Slices. She cared. I’ve looked for those damn cakes since and can’t find them but they will always taste of friendship to me.
Food is the good times
Food is amazing. It comforts, it soothes and it reminds you of the good times. We bake cakes to celebrate. When someone is ill, we make them chicken soup and toast. We remember our Mum’s mince pie recipe — well in my case it’s her sausage rolls that taste so good but repeat on you for the entire 12 days of Christmas. Trying to reduce food down to a calorie count on a menu, a joyless Slimming World recipe, or mere fuel just won’t work in the same way that telling a music lover that their favourite piece of music, a Chopin Notturne or Muse playing Newborn live at Glastonbury is just a succession of notes on a piano and/or chords on a guitar. There may be some accuracy in that but there’s so much more to it.
Food is in your heart, your mind, your soul and you can’t change that, no matter how hard you try.