Before I launch into this I need to make a point. I need to make it because I know for a fact people will get to the end of this and say “why should we listen to someone who clearly has an eating disorder?” So, read this and take it in. I suspect you’ll want to come back to it again at the end:
If you break your leg you don’t forget how to walk. Whilst it’s healing you simply can’t walk, your leg is broken, but you still know that you can when it’s healed. The same is true of my situation. Factually speaking I know I can eat, and that all I am about to say (or have said) applies to me. However, my mind is broken, and for the time being I simply can’t. In time, hopefully, that will change. A broken leg can be seen with an x-ray, a broken mind can’t, but it doesn’t make it any less real.
My grandparents lived to a really good age. My nan was 87 when she passed away of complications arising from dementia. Up until her dementia diagnosis she had been fit & healthy throughout. My grandad was 94 and, aside from the fact that he’d developed an extremely rare muscle wasting illness later in life, had lived a long & healthy existence. Both were happy, both were fit, both were healthy. I’ve deliberately used that last word a few times because it’s key. Healthy. They got to those ages in the days before social media, before the internet was a thing, before even personal computers were around. Hell, computers weren’t even dreamt of as they were growing up, playing in the fields and streams of rural Gloucestershire. In fact, it wasn’t until 1956 that televisions were even rising in popularity in the homes of the UK, so I doubt that either of them were influenced by anything coming from that medium.
Growing up for that generation was very different to what we know today. It had an innocence about it, yet at the same time it was about survival. Coming out of the first world war it was inevitable that times were hard. People lived off the land and you grew what you ate, you raised & killed what you cooked. Rolling into the second world war this was even more important as the stranglehold of rationing kicked in. I guess there were parallels of how it was back when we lived in caves. The survival mentality. The hunter gather. Don’t worry, I’m not about to go too leftfield on people here, I’m just drawing on comparisons on how things might have evolved back then. But I imagine that’s how it could have been. Self sufficiency would have very much been the key to things. It wouldn’t have necessarily impacted on the delights coming out of the kitchen though, people were exceptionally creative in the days when my grandparents were growing up.
I picked up a set of WI cookery books recently, some really old ones. There were some amazing recipes for old classics like spotted dick, plum puddings, suet puddings, steak & kidney pies and so on, all dating back to the days when “times were hard.” These would have been the sorts of things that adorned the tables of my grandparents, and I know they did because I still remember having them on my visits to them as a child. Those traditions didn’t die as they grew older. I have clear memories of those visits, of my grandparents house in a quiet hamlet of a village nestled between Gloucester and the Forest Of Dean. What I remember most is that grandad had a massive orchard with many apple & plum trees, further apple trees on the lawned gardens, a greenhouse that housed big juicy tomatoes, cucumbers & lettuces, a vegetable patch behind his workshed that had carrots, beetroots, potatoes, marrows, radishes and courgettes. Across the lawned gardens was another larger vegetable patch. Here he grew runner beans, broad beans, peas, sweetcorn, celery, onions. You know what? Over all those veg patches, if it could be grown he damn well grew it! Whatever was in season he would have it growing over those patches and he took care of them throughout, forever keeping them weed-free and the pesky crows & pigeons at bay. There was no need to go to the supermarkets for any of this stuff, that was for sure. Fresh veg adorned the plates of my grandparents table every time.
For all grandad’s endeavours, nan was equally as devoted to using the efforts of his toils in the kitchen. Whilst a lot were used as part of the meals as they were, much were used in vegetable pies, in salads, in stews (her stews were absolutely legendary, as were the dumplings that accompanied them) and many pickles & jams. It wasn’t just main meals however. Puddings & cakes were her absolute starring commodities. Her chocolate cakes were incredible, rich in chocolate, sponges done to absolute heavenly perfection. But it didn’t stop there. Her pastry on whatever pie she did was always on point, the fillings whether sweet or savoury were bang on, her gateaux were to die for, trifles thick with fruit, thick yellow custard, the best full fat cream and sprinkled with hundreds & thousands. And sherry, you could always taste the sherry. My 10 year old self used to believe he was having a crafty drink, somehow.
At tea time there were her scones with lashings of home made strawberry jam, jam tarts, raspberry flans, home made teacakes. Salads were served buffet style. Cold meats were laid out and large slices of ham with fat still on. And here we go with the point of all this.
You see, there was an honesty about all this. Nobody ever told them what was right or wrong. Nobody ever said this was bad for you or that was too little or too much. Instinct was enough. Listening to what their “self” was telling them was all that was ever needed. There was no pressure, there was no expert, there was no instagram picture to aspire to. I can remember (pretty much) what my grandad used to have in a typical day. He would have a full bowl of cornflakes with full fat milk and a banana cut up over it for breakfast followed by a couple of slices of toast & butter. He’d have a cup of tea around mid morning, always with a couple of rich tea biscuits, often with something like a lardy cake or a cream cake of some description. During the week lunch would typically be a couple of rounds of sandwiches, typically stuffed with ham (we’re talking thick ham, fat still on) with salad & loads of mustard. The bread would be thick with butter. This wasn’t shop bread, no, this was slice-your-own bread. Doorstep pieces. A packet of crisps. Something like a “Club” biscuit. An apple. Evening meal (or tea as we call it down this way) would be something like chicken or lamb, beef on a rare occasion, with potatoes (boiled AND roasted), green beans, carrots, cabbage & peas. Loads of gravy that was thickened with cornflour and the meat juices. Possibly a Yorkshire pudding. Good portions, not OTT, but enough to fill you. If there was too much on the plate you stopped eating. The dog would always welcome the leftovers. Pudding had to be considered after all. Apple pie or apple crumble. Or some other pie/crumble. ALWAYS with thick custard or ice cream. There might be a sandwich or packet of crisps for supper (or both). But it wasn’t always like that. Weekend breakfasts were fry ups. Eggs, bacon, sausages, fried bread, mushrooms – the works. And you know what? Often cakes would come out at random times. It was perfectly ok to have cake. Whenever you wanted. It’s ok. If you’re out and busy, if you’re expending energy and your body is telling you that you need something, why would it not be ok? And why the HELL do you need to look on the back of a packet at the numbers or contents?!
Who is sitting there shaking their heads or tutting or counting calories? I am. I shouldn’t be. I have an illness. That’s why I am. Why are you? BECAUSE WE’VE BEEN CONDITIONED THAT WAY. But they weren’t. This was how it was for them. Go back over what I’ve written. They lived to 87 and 94. Apart from when they got very old, they were never ill (save for the odd cold). No heart attacks. No cancer. They weren’t fat. Fit & healthy. They were active. They didn’t sit in front of the TV all day, they got out and did stuff. They socialised (that doesn’t mean sit in the pub all day). They met with friends and went to places, they explored. They saw a bit of the country. They weren’t afraid to go back somewhere if they’d been there before. It was ok to go back, especially if they’d enjoyed it the first time.
Yes, we live in different times and things are not as simple as they were, but let me get to the point of where I want to with all this. I sit here day after day looking at the TV schedules and through social media and all I see are people telling us what we should or shouldn’t be eating. How much is too much. How little is too little. Why we should eat this and why we shouldn’t eat that. And as soon as we have that information someone else comes along and tells us the complete opposite. We have “experts” – people who are nutritionists, doctors, professors, food scientists, sports gurus, fitness coaches, lifestyle coaches. The list is endless. Each one trying to outdo the other in trying to get us all to live at an optimum. Jamie Oliver, a chef, is forever telling people that they are making bad food choices. First of all he was telling kids that eating turkey twizzlers was bad for them and got them removed from school menus. He has no right to do that, no right whatsoever. We should learn from our parents naturally what’s good & bad, and as parents it’s our duty to inform our kids and nurture them from birth. It’s definitely not up to some “chef” on the bloody TV. His biggest crime was actually in not saying “actually, they just taste like crap.” Further, maybe it’s time we just made a bit more time to do a bit more ourselves. It’s actually really satisfying to create, to bake, to prepare, to cook. There’s nothing better than to hear someone say “thank you, that was lush” or “you know that cake you made? It was incredible!” I mean it, if it bothers you that much, having control over what’s in your food CAN be down to you.
In truth, nobody has the right to look at your plate and tell you that you shouldn’t be eating what you are eating. Further, nobody has the right to look at you and tell you that you don’t look good (unless you’re at the doctors and it’s a health matter, of course.) Society is responsible for creating the issues we are facing, and society is each and every one of us. We’re guilty for looking at someone the wrong way if we don’t approve of the McDonald’s they’re eating. We’re guilty if we make some disparaging remark about the size they are. We’re guilty if we comment that someone has “put on a bit of timber.” Similarly, we’re guilty if we turn our back when someone is struggling. And as for the “experts”? They’re now the most guilty of them all. SHUT UP. The lot of you, just SHUT UP. We don’t need all these TV shows telling us what carbs are good, what carbs are bad and actually, no carbs are good at all. We don’t need to hear about the crash diet you go on for 15 days and then gradually reintroduce food again and we’re re-programmed. We don’t need Joe’s look good in 15 book. We don’t need the 5/2 diet. We don’t want to hear about Hopkins and her Fat Club (shoot me right now that I ever got involved.)
What we need to do is simple. Look at our grandparents, or, if we’re too young that the generation is too recent, look at their parents. I bet most of them lived to ripe old ages. I bet they left the fat on their ham. I bet they dipped bread in the meat juices of the Sunday roast of beef. I bet they didn’t give a stuff what the scales said. I bet most of them didn’t even have scales. It’s time to stop winding each other up. It’s time to “just be.” Listen to your body. As Ruby Tandoh said in her book “Eat Up!” – if you want a Creme Egg, have a Creme Egg. Have two. Stop judging everyone, stop judging yourselves. You need what you need. Your body is a machine, it needs food to operate, and y’know, it’s OK to enjoy it in the process. There is NO bad food. Eat what the hell you want to eat, just eat it until you know you don’t need to eat any more of it. Plain and simple. Like my grandparents, they knew when they’d had enough. They had what they wanted when they wanted it but never more than they knew was comfortable. Pretty simple really. Want a tub of Haagen Dazs peanut butter cookie dough choc chip with extra gooey whatever? Fill ya boots.
Hell, I have anorexia nervosa. If I can see all this I am DAMN sure that someone without an eating disorder can. But just remember what I said at the start. And if you don’t remember, and you think “hold on, what a hypocrite, why should I listen?” go and read it again. I’m broken. At the moment.
Point made. Experts. SHUT UP. And whilst we’re here, put something entertaining on TV. We don’t need to be dictated too. Actually, a bit more “Bake Off” a little less (none) “How Food Can Kill You.” Ps…I’m not dictating, I’m just saying what I see. Ignore all this if you like. I’m still struggling, but tomorrow my head says I can eat. And guess what? I’ll enjoy it.
Dedicated to Wally & Hilda Stait. They knew.