Enough

Other people’s words about … running

When it was light enough to run, I set out on the path that circles Lake Burley-Griffin. The last time I’d run there, I had mucked up that marathon. The temperature hovered at zero: my ungloved hands were painfully cold, and my throat burned on each inhalation. Heavy banks of mist rose from the water; garnet-coloured leaves caught the first morning sunlight; galahs dug for seeds in grasslands rigid with frost; yellow poplars blazed alongside conifers and eucalypts I couldn’t name; hot-air balloons floated from the horizon at the opposite bank. I ran to stay warm and I ran to buoy my mood and I ran to stay a part of this glorious composition. I ran too because once I’d committed to the loop, I had no other way of getting back to my car.

From ‘The Long Run’
by Catriona Menzies-Pike

Two weeks ago, feeling sore and stiff and out of sorts and achey, I googled ‘hip flexor stretches for runners’ (or some such other, similar, innocuous phrase) and downloaded a set of five stretches that I vowed to do daily, in an effort to loosen up my nearly-fifty-year-old, sedentary worker’s body.

That, at least, was the plan. But one of those five daily stretches was a kind of yoga squat: a pose where you bend your knees from a standing position and lower yourself down to a straight-backed crouch — keeping the soles of your feet flat on the ground and placing your arms between your knees, hands in prayer position — and then stay there, in that deep, stationary squat, for a minute or two. I did this comfortably enough (though somewhat awkwardly) on Day One. On Day Two, I felt sore afterwards; and then I made myself far, far sorer by going for a run despite that post-stretch soreness. And I’ve been sore ever since — so sore, in fact, that my physiotherapist tells me I need to lay off from running for now. Not because this is a running injury (it’s not, technically, since I didn’t get it while I was running), but because running exacerbates it.

So here I am, not running, for the first time since I took up running again back in 2017, at the age of forty-seven.

It is enough:
(1) There are pots of tea to brew …

Strangely enough, I don’t mind at all. I thought I would mind, and in a pre-pandemic life I probably would have. But today? Right now? I don’t.

Because if there is one thing I am grateful for, in this strange, post-pandemic world, it is that living in a lockdown has reminded me to slow down: to accept my life for what it is rather than for what I thought it might be. (Or could be. Or should be.) I am healthy, and so are my family and friends. I have a job, and a roof over my head, and a bed to sleep in. I have books to read, and pots of tea to brew, and cakes to bake, and beautiful bowls to eat from, and beaches to walk on (if not, for now, to run on).

That is what I have, and it is enough. It is truly enough.

It is enough:
(2) … and beautiful bowls to eat from.

When I read Catriona Menzies-Pike’s words in the passage above — I ran to stay warm and I ran to buoy my mood and I ran to stay a part of this glorious composition — I had to blink away tears. Those are the reasons I run, too. They are the reasons I will run again, one day sooner or later.

But still, what I have right now, though it isn’t that, is enough. It is another loop, though not of the running kind, and I am committed to it. And it is, simply, enough.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Snatched phrases: on cake

‘This is bread in the way that banana bread is bread.
It’s not really. It’s cake.’

From ‘The Little Library Cookbook’
by Kate Young

 

I loved the recipe notes I’ve quoted above, which accompany a recipe for a ‘fruity nutbread’, in Kate Young‘s literature-inspired cookbook. That’s my kind of bread! (Cake?)

(So of course I had to make the recipe … )

The tea shop of heaven

Other people’s words about … coffee shops

Gerry sat down in an empty seat by the window and Stella went to the counter. Coffee places were so noisy. This one sounded like they were making the ‘Titanic’ rather than cups of coffee — the grinder going at maximum volume, screaming on and on — making enough coffee grounds for the whole of Europe while another guy was shooting steam through milk with supersonic hissing. A girl unpacked a dishwasher, clacking plates and saucers into piles. A third barista was banging the metal coffee-holder against the rim of the stainless steel bar to empty it — but doing it with such venom and volume that Gerry jumped at every strike. Talking was impossible. It was so bad he couldn’t even hear if there was muzak or not. And still the grinder went on and on trying to reduce a vessel of brown-black beans to dust. Stella had to yell her order.

Gerry looked out on to the square. Pigeons pecked and waddled after crumbs in between the green café tables and chairs. Stella eventually came to the table.

‘In the coffee shops of heaven they will not grind coffee beans,’ she said. ‘But coffee will be available.’

from ‘Midwinter Break’
by Bernard MacLaverty

Do you know the kind of coffee shop Bernard MacLaverty describes in the passage above? I do. I had to smile when I read his words.

I took the picture below on my birthday a couple of months ago, after I’d taken myself off for a bike ride to my favourite bakery in Aldinga, a place somewhat unlike the one in the description above. I sat down on one of the stools on the verandah and sipped at a cup of tea. It was a dull, cold, end-of-winter day, but the coffee beans ground away quietly in the background, and the customers’ laughter was genuine, and the tea was (weak, but) hot.

So when I read MacLaverty’s words, I found myself thinking that in the coffee shops of my heaven …

No, wait.

In my heaven, there will be tea shops, not coffee shops. They will sell loaves of sourdough, and slices of homemade everyday cake, and pots of tea made with malty assam tea leaves, left to brew so long that the tea turns toffee-brown.

And the baristas will pour the milk into my cup before they pour in the tea.

And fresh pots of tea will always be available.

And I’ll be able to drink cup after endless cup, because caffeine won’t have any effect on me …

How to live well

Other people’s words about … health and wellbeing

My Top 10 Tips for Health and Wellbeing

  • Listen to your body
  • Keep moving
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Read the small print
  • Eat out less; cook at home more
  • Reconnect with nature
  • Reduce your stress
  • Appreciate the simple things
  • Share the love
  • Be grateful

from ‘Feel Good Good
by Valli Little

I am fascinated by other people’s tips for living well. I like Valli Little’s suggestions above, which are simple and practical, and come from years of experience.

My own strategies for living well vary, depending on my mood, but here are my current top ten:

1. Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. And some cake.

2. Move — however you can, whatever your physical limitations.

3. Step outside.

4. Read books.

5. Spend time with people you love. Let them know you love them.

6. Know that happiness and sadness are like the clouds and the wind. They blow in. They blow out.

7. Practise gratitude for how things are. Don’t fret about how they could be.

8. Enjoy solitude. Know that you can survive loneliness.

9. Cultivate humility.

10. Find things …

… that make your heart sing.

Creating ephemera

Other people’s words about … cooking

I’ve decided I need to make things with my hands, it’s my new thing. Everything else is just so intangible and bullshit. I know that really when you get down to it, cooking produces ephemera just like all the other crap we all do … but at least for a moment there’s a thing, you know?

From ‘The Innocents
By Francesca Segal

I often wonder why food writing has become so popular in the last few years. There are so very many food blogs and cookbooks and cooking magazines. Equally, there are so very many people who read them (including me). Why?

One of the reasons, I think, is that food photography is beautiful. Food photographs make use of beautiful props, gorgeous landscapes, natural light. They woo you. Though what they ostensibly promise you is a tasty meal, underneath they promise you something else entirely. If you make this recipe, they murmur to you, you, too, will have produced something beautiful. You, too, can lead a beautiful life.

(Instagram Syndrome, anyone?)

So Segal is right, in the passage I’ve quoted above: cooking produces ephemera, essentially. And yet — and yet — it doesn’t feel that way. When you look at a food photograph; when you tell yourself you’ll make it; when you go out and buy the ingredients and come home and spend a couple of hours cooking it; when you dish it up on the table and eat it with your loved ones — when you do all this, you feel like what you have in front of you is a thing, as Segal puts it: a thing that you made.

Even if, in the end, all you do is read the damn recipe and look at the damn photographs — still, that promise gusts through you. You might make this recipe. You might produce something beautiful. You might just make something.

I’ve spoken about my love of baking before. I’m sure I’m as sucked in by the ephemera industry as anyone else, but still, I keep going back for more. There’s always another cake to make, right? And the next one you make might even turn out to look as beautiful as it did in the photograph you spent so many hours drooling and dreaming over …

My own food photographs, as the pictures in this post amply illustrate, lack all the qualities that good food photographs require. Still, in case you should want to join the ephemera celebration, here’s a list of some of my (current) favourite food blogs:

delightful crumb
(for thoughtful words and beautiful recipes from Stacy in California)
oh, ladycakes
(for meticulously photographed vegan baking from Ashlae in Denver, Colorado)
ruby & cake
(for food with a lovely and quirky slant from Ruby in the Blue Mountains, Australia)
what should I eat for breakfast today
(for simple breakfast recipes from the wonderful, drily humorous Marta)
three little halves
(for gorgeous photos and illustrations from Aleksandra in New York)
Brooklyn supper
(from Elizabeth and Brian in New York)
eat in my kitchen
(for simple, stylish recipes from Mieke in Berlin)
the alimental sage
(for sporadic but lovely recipes from Camilla in Melbourne, Australia)
dagforever
(for tasty recipes and hilarious commentary
from my French, bench-loving friend Anne in Perth)

Happy cooking (and dreaming), everyone! Rebecca xo

What, then, is this?

Other people’s words about … therapy

Sometimes I wonder why I come here [to see my psychoanalyst] when the coming is so iterative, so forced. Having to come here sometimes feels like the biggest problem I have. I feel like a lonely man visiting a brothel, the money changing hands, paying for understanding as some people pay for love. And just as that is not love, so this cannot be understanding. What, then, is it?

from ‘Aftermath
by Rachel Cusk

As I’ve mentioned here before, I spent several years in and out of therapy, being treated for anorexia and its aftermath. I will be forever grateful to the therapists I saw during those years. They treated me with respect, patience, warmth and compassion. And they listened. Oh, they listened.

But I stayed in therapy too long, I think. I believed at the time that I was seeking a cure for my constant sense of malaise. That cure seemed terribly elusive. Now I think it was elusive because, subconsciously, I knew there wasn’t one. What I was really reaching out for was understanding, and that is not something I found in therapy sessions.

Therapy is a strange process. It is, as Rachel Cusk says in the passage above, a transaction of sorts. When that transaction starts to make you feel worse rather than better, when you feel lonelier leaving the therapist’s office than you did on arriving, it’s time to stop. It really is as simple as that, though it took me some time to figure this out.

Post-therapy, am I still seeking understanding? Yes, of course — just like everyone else. Have I found it? Not really. Perhaps no-one ever does. What I have found, though, is solace. I find solace in pots of tea, and walks along the beach, and wanders in the Scrub. I find it in cakes I bake, and books I’m reading, and camping trips I plan to go on. I find it in birdsong, and in leisurely bike rides, and in the company of my partner and my dog.

And I find solace in other people’s stories.

Tell me, then, where do you find solace?

A breakfast of clouds and chocolate

Other people’s words about … what works

Chocolate at breakfast has always seemed wrong to me somehow. It seemed too decadent and lusty, entirely out of place, like watching a sex scene on television when your parents are in the room. But I have now spent eight mornings eating chocolate granola for breakfast, and I have concluded –- with all due gratitude to [my husband] Brandon, my personal granola pusher –- that chocolate is, once and for all, perfectly acceptable at any time of day. I had been a doubter for so many years, but now, good lord, I get it. And I think this revelation might, quite possibly, be the cosmic purpose of our marriage.

From ‘All We Ever Really Want to Do
by Molly Wizenberg of Orangette blog

I came to Molly Wizenberg’s blog only recently, many years behind most people. There are so many cooking blogs out there in the internet-world now, and so many of them are so beautiful, that it is easy to feel overwhelmed, or bored, or cynical. Moreover, the idea of using a recipe to introduce a post that discusses a theme entirely unrelated to food — in other words, to discuss life — has become such a common approach amongst food bloggers that it seems to me to be verging on the clichéd. But Molly was one of the early bloggers to take this approach, and she writes well, which makes all the difference. I will be reading her blog again, I’m sure.

As for chocolate at breakfast — well, why not? A therapist I used to see once said to me, as I agonised over how to live my life better (or rather, how not to live it so very, very badly): Life is short. Do what works. Though I’ve left much of his counsel far behind, I think about these particular words of his from time to time. Life is short, indeed. If chocolate works, then eat it. Please.

(Alternatively, you could try cake. Cake never fails for me.)

Meanwhile, today is my first day of two weeks’ annual leave. I currently have two part-time jobs, so time away from both of them simultaneously can be hard to pull off. (It has only just occurred to me that I live between two houses, too — do you sense a theme here?) The next fortnight feels incredibly precious to me.

For some of that time, I plan to go camping in Yorke Peninsula again, with my partner and my dog. Autumn is in full swing now: our holiday there will be different from our last trip to Yorkes, back in February. There will be clouds; there will be rain; there will be wind. Now that the fire-ban season is over, we’ll light a fire at sunset and sit together by the flames, looking up at the sky as the stars come out. It will be too cold to swim, so we’ll walk miles down the beach and along the clifftops. We’ll sleep late into the morning and go to bed early at night. My partner will surf; my dog will play and sleep; and I will read.

I’ll read.

I’ll read.

Afterwards, we’ll come home grateful for heaters and hot showers, and ready — already — for our next camping trip, whenever that happens to be.

I don’t know if, like Molly, I’ll be eating chocolate for breakfast while we’re away. It doesn’t matter. Life is short, and these are the things that work for me. That’s why I do them.

All in all, it’s not such a bad way to live.

Of love and tomatoes

Other people’s words about … tomato sandwiches

I’d asked [my disabled friend] Jessie when a doctor had last looked at her. She couldn’t remember, so [while Jessie was staying with me] I went to my doctor, still Jock Ledingham’s wife, Una, at her practice, which was in their home in Ladbroke Square.

Una listened to me kindly, and then asked if anyone was nursing her. ‘Only me.’ There was an awkward pause, and then I added, hardly audible, ‘And I’m afraid I’m very bad at it.’ Lack of food and sleep made me start crying again.

‘I’m going to make you a tomato sandwich,’ she said. ‘All my family can manage a tomato sandwich whatever they are feeling like.’ She did, and I ate it, and felt much better.

from ‘Slipstream: A Memoir
by Elizabeth Jane Howard (p. 147)

When I was a child, my mother would sometimes make my sister and me tomato rolls for dinner instead of our usual cooked meal. This was a summertime-only ritual — she saved it for those evenings when the air was thick and heavy with heat. My sister and I would have spent the day dipping in and out of the swimming pool, so that our skin and hair reeked of chlorine. We’d come inside and stretch out on the carpet in the living-room at the front of our house, next to an electric fan. We’d read, or watch the cricket on television, or play Lego, or colour in, while the fan blew warm air over us and our hair dripped down our backs, forming great wet circles on our t-shirts. And then, at last, it was dinnertime.

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My mother made her tomato rolls with white bread — the kind that is crusty on the outside and fluffy on the inside. She cut the rolls lengthwise in thirds rather than in halves, and then spread each layer thickly with butter. Over the butter she laid slices of tomato. Then, as a last touch, she seasoned the tomato with salt. (Never pepper. Children hate pepper.)

These were the days before Australians of Anglosaxon heritage knew about things like basil or coriander, ricotta or feta. We had never eaten avocado or garlic or extra virgin olive oil. We didn’t know of the existence of focaccia bread or ciabatta or sourdough. Most people ate margarine in preference to butter, thinking it was a healthier option. And we ate salt with everything — we lived in a hot climate, after all; we needed to replace the salt we’d sweated out during the day. So a tomato roll was just what it sounded like: a tomato roll. Nothing more, nothing less.

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It’s almost forty years since I ate one of my mother’s tomato rolls, and yet when I read Elizabeth Jane Howard’s words above about the curative powers of a tomato sandwich, I was instantly transported back to those simple summer meals my mother made us.

Bread. Butter. Tomatoes. Salt. I still think of this particular combination of food as the ultimate luxury, the greatest treat.

And as a symbol of my mother’s love.

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Note:
All the photos in this post depict our vegetable plot,  a plot at the back of our garden which my partner zealously tends, and which, despite his cheerful disregard for the weeds choking the vines, produces the most delicious tomatoes each year. Gardening, too, can be an act of love.

When you can’t eat anything

Other people’s words about … IBS*

We’ve all been there. There are some days when it seems like everything you eat triggers an IBS attack. This is not your imagination; when your IBS is raging, your gastrocolic reflex can be so sensitive that simply drinking water can trigger dysfunctional colon contractions and IBS symptoms.

When this happens, you need to give your body a rest and stick to the safest foods and drinks possible in order to break the cycle of IBS.

from Help for IBS
a website by Heather van Vorous

* IBS stands for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Honestly? The acronym definitely sounds better than the full name!

A long time ago, I promised you that I would never publish a recipe on this blog. Today I’m breaking that promise.

I’ve talked often about how much I love to bake and eat cake. These days, I enjoy every part of the process — stirring, whisking and beating the mixture; smelling it cooking in the oven; eating it afterwards. Sharing it with my partner. Setting aside slices for my parents when I next see them. Eating a sliver after dinner each night. I’ve come to believe that these things are, contrary to what one might think, healthy things to do.

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The older I get, the more I believe in these rituals, at least for me. For most of my late teens and twenties, and even during my early thirties, I was stuck in a pattern of abstinent eating, though my abstinence varied in its severity and compulsion, and definitely waned as I moved beyond late adolescence. At various times, I have been low-fat, vegetarian, pescatarian, gluten-free, wheat-free, bread-free, red-meat-free, dairy-free.

In the early days, the reasons for my restrictions were purely about trying to keep myself at an artificially low weight, though I would never have admitted this then, either to others or to myself. Later, the reasons for restricting my diet were less about my weight and more about my health. When I was diagnosed with IBS some years ago — which was an explanation, at least, for some of the weird ways my digestive system behaves — I obediently tried the Low Fodmap diet, as my GP suggested. (It didn’t work. I felt worse.) When I had glandular fever with persistent fatigue some years later, I tried a grain-free diet, on the advice of various paleo enthusiasts on the internet. (Uugh. This was a disaster. Never again.)

I discovered Heather van Vorous’s website and book some years ago, and found it more helpful than anything I’ve ever come across. She is not a doctor or a dietitian or a scientist: she is someone who has suffered from severe IBS all her life. Her suggestions read a lot like the dietary advice we were all given in the 1980s and early 1990s, and so run counter to the current prevailing dietary guidelines for people with health issues. In essence (and I’m massively over-simplifying here), she advocates regular and frequent consumption of foods containing carbohydrates and soluble fibre — particularly simple, starchy foods like white rice, pasta and bread. Meanwhile, she suggests reducing or altering your pattern of consumption of foods high in fat, like avocados and coconut, along with foods high in insoluble fibre, like lettuce and prunes. She also recommends reducing or altogether omitting consumption of red meat, dairy products and alcohol. I don’t follow her guidelines all the time, particularly the omission of those last three things, but when I am experiencing a bad bout of IBS, I find her guidelines both effective and comforting.

In the end, we are all individuals: our bodies react individually to whatever we put in them, and to the environment around them. There is no one perfect diet for good health and longevity. Health is a complex beast, referring to our physical and mental wellbeing, genetically inherited tendencies, life events and personal belief systems. Doctors and dietitians — and internet health gurus, particularly — would do well to remember that.

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What does all of this have to do with cake?

First, over the years, I have come to the conclusion that restriction and abstinence, in whatever form they appear, will never be healthy practices for me personally. They may make my body temporarily healthier, but my mind and my mental wellbeing suffer. And that’s no longer acceptable to me. It hasn’t been for years.

Second, when I’m sick, or experiencing a bad case of IBS, sometimes cake is the answer. That may sound counterintuitive, but, truly, there is a cake for every occasion. The recipe below is what I call my ‘comfort cake’. Even when my stomach is wobbly and uncertain — when cauliflower and bananas are no-go zones; when, as Heather van Vorous puts it, even a glass of water can trigger symptoms — I can eat this cake. Perhaps it’s the spices in it, most of which are carminative and some of which also have anti-emetic effects. Perhaps it’s the starch. Perhaps it’s purely psychological. Whatever the reason, this cake settles my stomach; it calms my system down; it’s safe. At the same time, it tastes good and it feels like a treat. I’d go so far as to say it’s my own particular everyday cake.

This may be the only recipe I ever post on my blog. I’m posting it here because it represents something that has become a core belief for me during the time I’ve been writing this blog — which is to say, the importance of finding, and sticking to, your own kind of wellness, no matter what anyone else says, even (especially?) the experts. I’m posting it, too, for those of my readers who have a wobbly stomach like me but haven’t found anything that eases it. (You never know — this might.)

Most of all, I’m posting this recipe because I hate that saying ‘have your cake and eat it’. Why would you have a cake and not eat it?

Chocolate comfort cake

Note:
This recipe is based on an original recipe by Heather van Vorous, although I have altered it, over the years, almost beyond recognition. If you make substitutions to it, please know that it may not turn out as you expected or as I have suggested. In particular, this cake does not work well if you make it with solely gluten-free flours, due to its lack of eggs and its low fat content.

Ingredients:

1 x 410 g can pears in natural fruit juice
2 cups spelt flour
2 small teaspoons bicarb soda/baking soda
1 tablespoon of almond flour or coconut flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup cocoa, sifted
1/4 cup oil

Instructions:

  1. Blitz the pears in their juice in a blender or a nutribullet until they form a smooth puree. Set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients until they are well combined and lump-free. Either almond flour or coconut flour works well in this recipe, depending on which flavour you prefer. The coconut flour will make for a slightly lighter but also a slightly drier cake.
  3. Add the pear puree and oil and stir well to form a smooth batter. Don’t overmix, as spelt flour has some gluten in it and over-stirring here will develop the gluten, making the cake tougher.
  4. Spoon into a greased and lined loaf tin and bake at 170 degrees Celsius for one hour or so, or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the loaf comes out clean or with just a few crumbs clinging to it.
  5. Leave to cool in the tin for at least 20 minutes or until completely cool, as this cake, due to its lack of eggs and fat, is crumbly when still warm.
  6. Enjoy a slice or two with a cup of tea. If it is a sunny day and you have a balcony or a garden, go and sit out there and bathe yourself in sunshine while you eat!
  7. When your stomach is feeling stronger, this cake is good spread with a little coconut butter, butter or tahini. It is particularly nice shared with a friend.

Running and baking

Other people’s words about … running

I’ve been reading Y Lee’s lemonpi blog on and off for years. She is Australian and she loves to bake. What more can I say?

I was tickled by her recent post entitled When exercise ruins your waistline, in which she says how much she loves running, and then adds:

Running gives me time to think. Unfortunately, most of my ‘thinking’ tends to veer sharply towards the solemn contemplation of potential baked goods (thereby negating all the good work that running accomplishes). Which is incidentally how I came about to make a big batch of shortcrust pastry.

Inspired by this thinking, I went for a big long walk on the beach (my current version of running), and conjured up visions of what I might bake next … Not good for the waistline, assuredly, but very good for the spirit!