In her 1983 autobiographical novel Heartburn, Nora Ephron chews over the miscellaneous foods which accompany us through the maelstrom of life’s most unsettling occasions. Rachel, a thinly disguised version of the author, is heavily pregnant when she discovers that her husband is having an affair with the appropriately named, bland, white, Thelma Rice. As a food writer, avid dinner party attendee and wife, food is Rachel’s guiding force. It sculpts her memories, it is her livelihood, her therapy and the most pleasurable escapism from the closing walls of her marriage. Food is used to entice and repel men in equal measures, from the man in Boston who teaches her to cook mushrooms, to the man who teaches her to make scrambled eggs with sour cream. Throughout the book, Rachel busies herself with perfecting a recipe for a vinaigrette, a recipe which is adored by her cheating husband and which she refuses to hand over, for fear of this being the final thread holding them together.
When she finally succumbs to passing it over, I felt my eyes burn with tears. There’s a comfort to the predictability of chemical reactions and routines, emulsifications, thickenings and brownings, which the reader cannot fail to identify with. “It’s a sure thing in a world where nothing is sure,” Ephron writes, “It has a mathematical certainty in a world where those of us who long for some kind of certainty are forced to settle for crossword puzzles.”
In the novel’s most famous passage, Ephron praises the humble potato as the perfect antidote to the trials of love. “Whenever I fall in love, I begin with potatoes. Sometimes meat and potatoes and sometimes fish and potatoes, but always potatoes. I have made a lot of mistakes falling in love, and regretted most of them, but never the potatoes that went with them.” Later, when a relationship turns sour Ephron observes that, “In the end, I always want potatoes. Mashed potatoes. Nothing like mashed potatoes when you’re feeling blue. Nothing like getting into bed with a bowl of hot mashed potatoes already loaded with butter, and methodically adding a thin cold slice of butter to every forkful […] You can always get someone to make the mashed potatoes for you, but let’s face it: the reason you’re blue is that there isn’t anyone to make them for you.” It speaks directly to the heart of that all-consuming bed-binding grief when you’re incapable of wrestling with even the simplest of recipes. Whilst there is certainly comic value to the food writer’s awkward execution of the novel and incessant paralleling of life with food, the realism of the potato passage tangibly stings.
I’m nothing like Ephron. I have a fraught relationship with food, often lacking the creative or physical energy to think through the logistics of cooking and cleaning between work and cultural appointments (read: also work). With mounting pressures, food becomes an inconvenient footnote in daily life; dry toast on the bus for breakfast, whole packs of Pink Lady apples for lunch and the stale assistance of a prepackaged meal deal picking up the pieces of my dinnertime disorganisation. I’ll flirt with the idea of inventive culinary ventures, flicking through the cookbooks at my day job, folding the pages of the cookbooks at home and scribbling notes to my future self in the margins. Unlike Ephron’s, my partner excels in the kitchen. As a fellow freelancer who works as a part-time chef, many of the meals he cooks are inspired by the various ad-hoc places he’s worked at; vegan Mexican pop-ups, Carribean restaurants, fast-food steak shacks and sheds serving gourmet crab.
Like my partner, I had my fair share of the food industry as a festival-obsessed teen, working the rounds of food trucks in my first Summer of university; bouncing between Boomtown, Field Day, Latitude and The Chelsea Flower Show in a cloud of sleep deprivation and Purdeys, serving savoury flapjacks and falafel wraps with bleary eyes. On one particular shift, delirious from a season of work and a lack of legally required rest-breaks (why does the hospitality industry still think they’re excused from these?) the food shack next to us over-ordered their avocado delivery, leaving their surplus delicately balanced next to the industrial waste. I sourced a cardboard box and foraged a bounty of defrosted pitta bread and as many overripe avocados as I could feasibly carry. On the bus back home, they smacked against their container like rustic marbles ready to detonate into a posh green pulp.
As much as I’d like to imagine myself, like real-life Ephron, necking oysters at a sit-down meal before venturing to the next event on my cultural checklist, as a money-conscious writer, where I buy my meal deals is an important part of every play, film, gig, exhibition and lecture. This includes:
- Speeding ’round the Sainsburys opposite Waterloo in the half-hour window after my shift ends and the early evening production begins at the Old Vic.
- Those mini cheddars (main course) and yogurt raisins (dessert) which I’ve concealed in the inside pocket of my anorak on the way into the cinema.
- Those hot shots you can buy from Pret which I inhale before a job interview in the hopes that the holy elixir will ignite dormant neurons in my anxiety-muddled brain and land me a salary.
- The pretzels I’ve snuck into the contemporary classical ensemble’s performance, wherein, I learn the art of sucking baked goods to minimise the audible crunch which, when mistimed, perforates butter-smooth glissandos.
Regardless of whether or not I’ve exercised its culinary wisdom, Ephron’s book taught me a great deal about living, loving and lunching. This week, I had the pleasure of watching Kate Tempest on her home turf, following the launch of her third solo studio album, The Book of Traps and Lessons. I finished my shift and took the first train to Catford’s Broadway Theatre, close to Tempest’s birthplace of Brockley in South East London. A multidisciplinary artist, Tempest looked noticeably more confident than when I’d last seen her reading from her confessional poetry collection, Running Upon The Wires (Picador), which charted the denouement of a relationship and the discovery of new love. On the bus home, I felt exhausted, elated and thoroughly ravenous, cradling a stomach full of white wine and almonds (my emergency snack food, bulk-bought, lives at the bottom of my bag in a tupperware box). It may not have been creamed spuds, but I ate my portion of pre-cooked butternut squash over the hob, adoringly. Whether its potatoes, parsnips or pasta in the pan, there is no gesture of love sweeter than that portion of food waiting for your return, merrily simmering.