My allotment now has a utilitarian quality to it, the gates are metal, the fence discourages trespass. All I’ve got is oca, buried deep, and strawberries in leaf and shoots of garlic, pale and poking up. But there are moments when I experience a kind of non-being state, even now with the ground hard and the pools of ditch water; my mind stops chuntering through its list of grievances or worries. That tastes better than the vegetables. The soil under the fingernails, the body being worked, a kind of space opening up – that’s really why I do it. And because it means there’s somewhere nice to put my butter.
I am emerging from a period of intense focus/paranoia about food in general. This thankfully rarely filters through into my gardening activities. I tend to grow that which is easy and gives me most pleasure. I’m not going to start growing cauliflower because it’s hard. I will grow potatoes because they’re easy. And tomatoes too, even though I will rarely if ever eat them. But other people will, friends, family, Joe. Nightshades I ‘can’t eat’ but I’ve forgotten now why. I thought I couldn’t eat mushrooms either but apparently I can because they’re not part of the nightshade family, but I’m not going to grow mushrooms (although I could because they grow in used coffee grounds and I get tons from Waitrose).
Can you already feel the spiraling panic that this level of food-patrolling creates? It reminds me of someone I shared a flat with many years ago when I was in my second year of drama school. Let’s call her Ruth. Ruth was thin; she liked to remain within a tight band of seven to seven and a half stone ideally. Everything about her attitude towards food upset and enraged me. I spent a lot of my second year at drama school sweating and wearing dark brown clothes that hid the underarm ‘LPs’ (sweat patches) I sported. This was due to huge amounts of period (as in country not menstrual) dancing and Laban and bacon sandwiches.
Ruth lived on brown rice, cooked apples and herbal tea and prescribed to the yin and yang school of eating. “Thanks, gosh that’s heaps!” was her regular exclamation when I had left the bag in too long of one of her Yogi ‘chocolate’ tea sachets. Thanks, that’s heaps! became a kind of watchword for me. She wouldn’t even go off-piste for a party she was giving. Everyone had to eat what she was eating, which was basically an enormous bowl of apple puree. This struck me as aggressively un-fun. She also told me that she would go to friends’ houses with her own food, because she didn’t eat wheat. Can I just say now that there was actually nothing wrong with her: she chose to do this.
Of course this was entirely up to her. She was a nice Quaker and I like Quakers. But I used to cook with my coat on and feel embarrassed about buying cheese. I would offer up some reason why it was just this once, and we’d have detailed discussions about why dairy was mucus-forming.
I was actually quite lonely at the time. Although I was busy, I didn’t know anyone in the Finchley Road area and my evenings were spent shelf-stacking at Habitat and spotting Pinochet in Waitrose striding about in his hulking black coat (he was living in a safe house nearby). I wasn’t that interested in macrobiotics and feng shui – but I could have done with a friend.
So now when I see a nutritionist to help me with the symptoms of Crohn’s disease, I am thrown back into the thanks, gosh that’s heaps! world of self-denial and food as enemy/cure. Pretty much everything health-wise you are experiencing can now be ameliorated by drinking apple cider vinegar, sucking out the bone marrow from a grass-fed carcass and cutting out nutmeg.
I would just like to say, from the perspective of someone who was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease 25 years ago, that if it was simply down to food and supplements I would have healed myself many many years ago. I am not healed. I love food: food is everything to me. Perhaps this is the problem.
Food is pleasure, it is there always, as succour, balm. It is the most creative thing you can do in a day, other than flying on the trapeze, painting a portrait, writing a poem, or loving someone. It is what makes me feel alive. It is part of what I love about the allotment too – food is part of that moment when I stare ahead and feel the muscles settling under my skin, feel the warmth of my breath inside nylon and think ‘tea’. Opposite me is Kieran my Irish neighbour, and both he and his daughter position themselves in their chairs after a few hours hoeing and digging and eat crisps. They have a shed full of crisps. Crisps and hoeing; what a combination.
This is not to take away from Ruth and her ilk – there can be great joy in a bowl of mashed apple. But it’s not that, it’s something else. It’s that however many diets (sorry, protocols) I go on, I know that inside me is a hoeing crisp eater wanting to get out. A sweating bacon sarnie muncher. A builder’s tea drinker. I am not from Japan and I don’t want to live on seaweed. I want to embrace pleasure and eat my fill. I want to eat heaps.