When the main character of my new novel Sonata for Miriam, Adam, goes to meet Cecilia, the woman he has never stopped loving but hasn’t seen for almost twenty years, he arrives at the barren island in the Baltic Sea where she lives with an offering of food. And Cecilia responds as he hopes, I think:
You had bought things I hadn’t eaten since that summer. Delicacies I had never bothered to search for after you left. I wondered how you could have remembered, but as I held the packages and jars in my hands I remembered too. My favourite blueberry jam, black Finnish rye bread. The finest coffee. Bottles of vintage wine. Cheeses. Even a little box of delicate fresh figs. And a bag of handmade chocolates from that small shop in Östermalm. I weighed the packages in my hands as I slowly removed them from the bags. And I knew they were gifts of love.
Food can be so much more than nourishment. It shouldn’t be a replacement for love, but it can be a way of expressing love, I think. A good meal can open doors, initiate communication and build intimacy.
I took to literature in the same way I took to food. And at about the same time in my life, too, I think. I have been told I was a poor eater as a small child. It’s hard to believe now. Nor could I read when I started school at seven. I was a late developer in both respects.
But from then on I caught up quickly. Food and literature entered my life and I embraced them both with passion.
My mother was an erratic and unwilling cook, but an excellent reader. She was artistic and sensitive and not very well equipped to manage a home on a very small budget. I think she was the kind of woman who should have nibbled dainty delicatessen watching a tropical sunset. Instead, she had to wander off to the local co-op food store in the hastily built suburb south of Stockholm where we lived and buy what she could afford, which wasn’t much. Weekdays she would make semolina pudding or rice pudding or macaroni pudding. Starch. On Fridays I used to accompany her to the store, though, because Fridays were special. A little more money was available for the weekend shopping and we would buy meat. Meat was mince, generally. Or on rare occasions sausages (my mother resented them, called them rubbish food, but I loved them, as did my father). VERY rarely steak. And VERY, VERY rarely chicken. We had never heard of lamb. We would also have dessert on Saturdays. Sometimes this was banana ice cream that my mother made in the small ice container in the fridge. It came out hard and icy, but was considered a delicacy. But more often it was canned fruit salad, which invariably brought about a fight between my brother and me over the solitary pale pink cherry that swam amongst the rest of the pale green and yellow fruit pieces.
In the mid 50s the store began to sell children’s books from a stand by the check out. And it happened that instead of mince, my mother would buy a book. And then we would hurry back home, rip off the transparent cover and she would begin to read to my brother and me. I distinctly remember that she once read an entire book in one go, and we all forgot about dinner. I think my mother would gladly have spent all afternoons reading and forgetting about dinner.
Not me. I rebelled against the notion that food was a necessary evil. We always had the food we needed to grow up reasonably healthy, but there was rarely anything extra, not even later when my mother could afford a little more. And cooking was never associated with pleasure. Nor was eating, really.
Books were taken seriously when I grew up. And in another way, so was food. There was a sense that neither could be taken for granted. Perhaps that is why it is so important to me to keep a well stocked pantry. And to own books. Back then, our pantry was often empty, but we all read, thanks to the library. My father read to improve himself. My mother read to remove herself. Both longed for another life, I think, but approached their longing in entirely different ways. My father’s yearning for more education made a deep impression on me. As did my mother’s escape into literature. I grew up with the sense that literature could change your life, temporarily as well as long term.
And books came to represent just that: the strive for, and the dream of something else, something better. The idea that what was lacking in our real lives, we could find in books. So, while my body grew up on a bland diet of starch, pale margarine and cod live oil, my soul was nurtured by the fabulous picnic baskets of the Famous Five in Enid Blyton’s books : meat pies (I had no idea what a meat pie was, but it sounded good), chunks of cheddar cheese (it would take me till I was about 25 to taste a cheddar cheese) and lemonade (drinks at home were milk or water). Later there were indulgent outdoor lunches with the Larkin family of The Darling Buds of May by H. E. Bates. I loved their company and their attitude to eating. And when the Ramsay family sat down to the beuf en daube in Virginia Wolf’s To the Lighthouse I was there, too, and I agreed with Mr. Ramsay that it was a triumph.
Today I cook for a reduced family. Two of our three sons have left home. But I often find that I still cook for them, too. As well as unexpected extras. There was a time when I could never be sure how many we would be for dinner, and I also had to adapt my cooking for a range of tastes and requirements. For some years our dinners needed to cater for: one constant slimmer (me), one sensitive stomach (my husband), one bodybuilder (my son Max), one vegetarian (my son Felix). My youngest son André was at the Jewish school at the time and when he added a request for Kosher food I came close to giving up. But strangely, the challenge gave us a different, more relaxed way of eating. Not the one plate per person meals that my mother used to make, but bowls of different things that can be combined to suit a range of needs and tastes.
For me, cooking for loved ones is to turn my love into smells and flavors. Give it physical form. And perhaps writing is another way of doing the same.