Wednesday, 14 November 2012
The Last Lamb Shanks OR The Saddest Food Blogger In The World
A week ago today, my fiance called it all off.
It wasn’t a total surprise. It was a long and difficult relationship, and this wasn't its first iteration. We’d been struggling. I didn’t think we were finished trying. He did. Anyway, on that day it felt like a total surprise. I guess it always is when something finally ends.
Earlier that afternoon I’d gotten off work with a few hours to spare. It was freezing cold and raining and the most November-miserable day imaginable. Before going home, I decided that today would be a great day for cooking lamb shanks. Old fashioned, rich, slow-cooked, nourishing and comforting. I hadn’t ever made them before, but in my head it was a perfect wintery wet day dinner. I did a bit of googling, synthesized some idea of a recipe in my mind, and headed out to the shops. I trotted around to the butcher, the wine merchant, and the grocer, (Yes, I live in Quainty McYuppieville) joyfully and recklessly slinging ingredients into my bag. I may even have been humming. I felt like a very competent little housewife with a serious case of the warm fuzzies already, and I hadn’t even opened the wine yet.
I got home and started chopping and mixing and cooking and tasting, full of love and hope. Sure, things had been tough. Sure, there was work to do. But we loved each other so much. We had couples therapy scheduled later that night, and I knew when we came home from that, these lamb shanks would be a metaphor for all the good things we still had going for us, for a future full of warmth and deliciousness and good smells. When he tasted these lamb shanks, he’d be inspired to do whatever it took to get us to that future. I was supremely proud of myself, envisioning how much praise and affection I would get from my man when he got home and tasted what I had wrought. I put the casserole into the oven with a self-satisfied glow. Now it just had to cook for three hours.
Well, in those three hours, my world fell apart. After some very, very, very, very unpleasant scenes, which I will spare us all, he reheated some lamb shanks. By all reports they were incredible. I couldn’t eat. In what I think was an attempt at humour, he asked if he could have the recipe.
In the fog of red wine and snotty crying and passive aggression that followed, I typed this up:
The Last Lamb Shanks
(Adapted from this less emotional recipe)
4 lamb shanks
Fresh ground salt and pepper
Glug olive oil
2 bay leaves
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 large onion (sliced)
4 stalks celery (roughly chopped)
2 large carrots (sliced into ¼ inch rounds)
8 cloves garlic (minced)
2 bottles of red wine (one for the recipe, one for you)
2 cups beef stock
3 tbsp soft brown sugar
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
Season the lamb shanks with huge amounts of salt and pepper and sprinkle all over with flour. Brown them in the oil in a frying pan over medium high heat until well browned and sealed. Think about the past. Open one of the bottles of wine, and pour a large glass.
Move the shanks to a large casserole dish and forget about them for a while. Forget the past for a while, too. If you are having trouble, pour another glass of wine and neck it.
Put all the veg and bay leaves and rosemary into the pan you were browning the lamb shanks in, and consider all of your possible failings and how they have led you to this sorry state of affairs. Remember to include things that you did by accident and things that you did long ago when you were young and f*cked up. Wonder if having been omniscient would have changed things. Give up, because there are no rhetorical questions in this recipe.
Check if the onions and stuff are caramelizing. If they are then pour in the whole bottle of wine you haven’t opened yet. Resist saving some for yourself. You already have a bottle. If you really want a drink, pour another glass from that first bottle. If you run out, the off-license is open until ten.
Add the beef stock, sugar and vinegar. Let it all boil gently for a few minutes to think about its sins. Think about your sins. Drink.
Is there any wine left in the first bottle? Drink it. You should probably go to the liquor store. Because this shit has to cook for three hours and that’s a long time. Despair a little bit. Stir the stuff in the pan for a very long time but not as long as the years you have invested in this relationship. Don’t think about that if you can help it. If you can’t help it then drink the rest of the first bottle or if it’s already gone, come back from the off-license with a new one and open it. Drink.
Are you back?
Okay, pour all this stuff over the lamb shanks in the casserole dish.
Put it in the oven at 160c and cook that shit for three hours, turning occasionally.When the meat falls off the bone, your relationship and the lamb shanks are finished.
Okay, it was dark, but it made me laugh a little bit. I couldn’t believe that I was laughing in one of the worst moments of my life.
The next few days were a blur of vodka and cigarettes and apartment hunting and relationship autopsies and moving all your shit around in your new ex’s car in black plastic bags and crying very quietly in your new rented room and all the other usual grotesque fug of a break-up. I didn’t eat. Couldn’t eat. Was not interested in eating.
Eventually I had to eat. Lightheadedness, irritability and headaches all add depth and authenticity to the broken-hearted experience, but eventually the body rebels and tells you to get a grip and put some food into it before it gives you something to REALLY cry about. I went and got some food. Stupid, tasteless, crappy cheap food that I didn’t have to waste any time preparing. (I had a very busy schedule of misery planned, you see.) I shoveled it into my mouth resentfully, choking it down, with a hateful kind of pentameter chanting in my head:
Get IT in YOUR face YOU useLESS butt-HEAD
Eat THE stooPID food. (YOU will DIE aLONE)
And so on. Rinse/repeat every meal. That’s kind of how it's been all week, up until now. My friends (and therapist, natch) have all been amazing. They all have variations of the same great advice, that advice that you generally hear after breakups. One friend stated it particularly well:
“I wonder what you could accomplish if you redirected that passion into caring for yourself...you need to give yourself the love that you’ve been giving to other people, and you need to give yourself the space to learn how to do that.”
Which, yeah, makes a lot of sense. But to be honest, I just couldn’t think of HOW, practically, you’re supposed to go about that. I can’t just order myself to love myself. I could sit in front of the mirror and declare my undying devotion and adoration for myself, but I would feel stupid. I can’t sit beside myself on the couch and hold myself close, whispering sweet nothings into my own ear. The more I thought about it, the creepier and more insane and useless it all started to feel.
And then, a little voice said: food.
To which I said: shut up. Haven’t I already made it clear that I am not a comfort eater? That sadness makes my stomach crunch up into an angry bald ferret, twisting itself over and over with fury, biting its tail and spitting bile through its jagged little yellow teeth? I don’t WANT food, stupid. Food won’t make me feel loved. And just because I am turning thirty next month doesn’t make me Bridget Jones. So shut up.
And the little voice said: food. Just think about it, okay? And no one has mentioned your age, or Bridget Jones. Anyway, she was eight years older than you.
Which was nice to hear and made me feel a little better.
So I did think about it.
I thought about how I’ve always made a joke about how much I hate cooking for one, that there’s no fun in it. How I’ve sneered at “Cooking for One” books, smugly shaking my head, thinking: Sad.
When I have no one to cook for, I eat yogurt and potato chips and cereal from the box. Not a whole lot else, really. Toast sometimes.
I thought about the passion and joy that I’ve always brought to cooking for people that I love. The thrill of planning it, preparing it, and serving it. The love and forgiveness and hope for the future that I had poured into those f*cking lamb shanks last f*cking Wednesday.
And I didn’t even eat them.
How’s that for a metaphor, self? Got it?
Okay then. I’ll cook for me. That’s how I’ll show myself how much I love myself. Every night that I am home, for the next, say, six months, I will plan and cook and eat a proper dinner. With proper ingredients. And I will eat it.
And I every day I will write about it, because that’s what I do. And because my sister told me to, and my sister is smart.
Bon appetit, self.