As he deals with the sadness of caring for his extremely ill pet cat, Simone, Murray Chalmers has lost interest in food, although he knows that passion will return.
Whenever I write this column my beloved cat Simone is usually jumping over the keyboard or rubbing against the screen so I can’t see much of what I’ve written. If she’s particularly playful she will often erase whole chunks of text with the precision of the most ruthless editor.
Maybe she’s trying to tell me that my verbosity needs to be tempered but her hapless interventions have become a ritual of sorts – I’m late for the deadline and sit typing like a maniac while Simone wants to be credited as co-author for the re-writes which, due to her rather unfocused typing technique, are often unintelligible.
David Bowie used a cut-up technique for some of his best lyrics but, so far, Simone hasn’t managed to channel her inner Diamond Dog or even Platinum Puss to come up with any words of durability or poetic joy. But then, perhaps, neither have I…
This column is very different. As I type this my little pal lies slumped in the hall, stupefied by the effects of the very strong steroids she is now on, masking a pain that would otherwise be unendurable.
I’m crying as I write these words but, on the last day of 2020, Simone was diagnosed with terminal cancer of the colon and, as if that wasn’t enough, acute kidney disease.
She has three weeks to live, possibly less, and all that can be done for her is for me to give palliative care at home and envelope her in love.
I exist right now in a haze of tears, pain, sadness and anger, all emotions that most of us will recognise when we lose a loved one. At the moment I can’t see through the pain, to the degree that I have had to ask my doctor for a short course of sleeping pills.
I don’t dare close my eyes lest Simone slip away and me not be there holding her. To love someone – be it a human or a pet – requires a form of submission in that you must open yourself to real joy and, conversely, intense pain.
That is what I feel now, a sort of visceral gnawing at my heart and head, like they’re slowly being eaten away just like my four- legged angel is by the cancer that’s consuming her.
As with so many things it’s the eating habits that were the giveaway. From being a grande dame with a very healthy appetite she just slowed down and then one day she stopped.
On the advice of the vet I had been switching foods based on the initial diagnosis of pancreatitis, but all to no avail. Eventually, she was eating only soup and her weight started to plummet alarmingly. This heralded thrice-weekly visits to the vet and then, finally, the drive to Edinburgh for the more extensive tests that would reveal the devastating truth.
I actually can’t bear to think of waking up one day and not seeing her little face but that is what will happen very soon.
Looking in my kitchen today I see a staggering seven plates and bowls with different foods and drinks, many concealing the drugs that are giving me a few more weeks with my pal, and making sure she is not in pain. Much of the food is left untouched.
My life is currently trying each food in sequence, only to find it rejected – the bowls sitting for an hour while I try to coax her to eat. After an hour I clear most of them away. Sometimes she will surprise me by eating something she has previously declined and at moments like that my joy is incalculable.
I often take a photo and send it to friends and family. The photo is a cat eating but, to me, it’s so much more. I can’t even begin to describe the joy I get from seeing a deposit in her litter tray.
My own interest in food has withered away to the degree that I just don’t care. Today I forgot to eat until late afternoon because I was playing with Simone and she was responding so boisterously that it felt like – maybe – it was all just a mistake.
But then she slumped at my side and I remembered exactly where I was when the vet uttered the word “terminal”, and that’s the kind of thing that makes me cry again because I can’t bear to see this beautiful creature who has given me so much love just slip away.
I’m sure my interest in food will come back once this pain and hurt have lessened. There’s certainly enough of me to ensure that not eating for quite a few days isn’t going to reduce the fat supplies to zero anytime soon. And also, I love food with a passion – thinking about it, shopping for it, cooking it or having someone else cook it for me. This will return.
Right now, though, I think about food as subsistence and ballast – and even then I don’t really eat until the rumbling in my stomach could make Alexa open the fridge without me saying a word.
It’s very strange to suddenly not care about eating when so much of my life is based around food. I was always suspicious of people who spoke of food as just fuel because, to me, it seemed to be a wholly joyless and needlessly basic way of approaching one of life’s great pleasures.
But now I have joined them, albeit temporarily. This has reintroduced me to some bizarre things – such as the bliss of eating a whole packet of chocolate brownies for lunch – but it has also served as a warning that such wanton disregard for calories and general health isn’t sustainable in the long term.
Thus, after about a week of eating food I normally eschew – ready-made meals, home deliveries, cake as a starter, main course and pudding – I’m ready to tentatively try to bring some normality to my own January even if the world won’t listen to our general pleas for respite from global terror.
The one big recent discovery has been that we have a Chinese takeaway very near us and it’s good. I’ve lived in Fife for 16 years and drive past Little Moon on Boat Brae in Newport-on-Tay so often that I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never really noticed it much.
In truth its position on the curve of Boat Brae makes it a bit unobtrusive and crazy new parking rules on the street don’t help – but we’ve ordered from here three times recently and it’s always been good.
My favourite dishes so far are all vegetarian options, particularly the tofu. That’s not to negate the meat and fish dishes at all, it’s just more a reflection of my current eating habits. Portions are huge and the food arrives quickly and well packaged.
I think the sesame prawn toast is really the only thing that suffers from transportation because, with this, I want that searing smack of crispness from the oil, a rasping burn that only a tube of Bonjela can relieve. Little Moon is a great local find.
I’ve also been enjoying reading a few new cookbooks, although really just for the pleasure of reading rather than cooking. The first has been The Seafood Shack (£20) by Kirstie Scobie and Fenella Renwick, published by the Dundee-based Kitchen Press.
This charming book is an unpretentious volume of stories and recipes based around the shack, a tiny catering trailer in Ullapool – as such it combines personal stories of fishing history with tips on preparing different fish, and more than 80 recipes that look pretty fail-safe.
Their classic haddock wrap with lemon mayo and pesto looks delicious, as does the cod and chorizo stew.
A winner and a good traditional companion to Nathan Outlaw’s brilliantly inventive British Seafood (£14.99) which, strangely, seems to already be out of print, certainly online.
Another book that brings cheer to a grim January is Guerilla Tacos (£18.99) by Wesley Avila.
During the long, dark Scottish winters – this one especially – there are certain things that can be guaranteed to make the journey to spring a less tortuous one.
The first is a bottle of vitamin D, the second is a Sad lamp – seasonal affective disorder – and the third is a Mexican cookbook.
Guerilla Tacos is subtitled Recipes From the Streets of LA and it is this that attracted me. In a city synonymous with taco trucks, Guerilla Tacos has risen to the top, winning the accolade for best taco truck from LA Weekly – no mean feat for a business which started in 2012 with a $300 cart found in downtown LA and a hibachi grill.
This is a book with a very distinctive voice, bringing fresh invention to a food that is often presented in a reductive form here in the UK.
Wesley Avila writes: “A taco is a blank canvas. How do you want to paint it? Let your imagination run wild. Seared cauliflower with raisins, tuna poke with furikake, uni and habanero, beef basturma with a fried farm egg and burnt tomato salsa… corn tortillas go with everything.”
At a time when every day brings a new worry here in the UK – not least the effects of Brexit on our food industry and supplies reaching our shops – reading this book is like taking your mind on a trip to a place where the flavours, colours and textures of this vibrant cuisine remind us that there’s a big wide world out there. It’s also a great reminder of how we must value every day.
(Incidentally, furikake is a Japanese condiment easily found online while Uni is sea urchin – I confess I had to look it up too.) Viva La Vida!
Little Moon 1 Boat Brae, Newport on Tay, Fife. DD6 8EX. Tel 01382 698100