Perspective

Other people’s words about … depression. And baking.

I was diagnosed with depression, but it didn’t feel like depression … [What] I felt was very, very afraid. I felt like I’d been poisoned. I felt like there had been an avalanche in my head and I’d been shunted along by some awful force, to some strange place, off the map, where there was nothing I recognised and no one familiar. I was totally lost.

From ‘Saved by Cake’
by Marian Keyes

Marian Keyes’s description, in Saved by Cake, of living with depression — a depression which descended on her unexpectedly in the middle of her life and which has not since lifted — is truly horrifying. She describes, in the paragraph I’ve quoted above, and in further paragraphs that I haven’t quoted here, the kind of depression that verges, I think, on psychosis. The depression has invaded her mind. It is the stuff of nightmares.

Keyes writes of turning to baking cakes in desperation — because, she writes, she finds that baking is a distraction from her depression. But there is a terrible distinction between distraction and cure, and Keyes is fully cognisant of this. Tragically, distraction is the only tool available to her.

Keyes’s depression has, it seems to me, shut her mind down, closed her off from the rest of the big, wide world.

View from the edge of the big world

I think that’s the thing that strikes me most about this kind of depression. Because the world we live in is a big, wide world, and I can’t imagine a life in which I couldn’t see and wonder at its very bigness.

I don’t consider myself a particularly upbeat person. I often feel trapped in my own mind, stuck in my own gloomy, inner perceptions. But it’s been a long, long time since I felt entirely shut off from the big, wide world around me. And for that, I am intensely, immensely grateful.

Big world, big sky, big ocean

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Standing straight and tall

Other people’s words about … running

When I was lying in my hospital bed [with cancer], wondering if I wold ever be able to stand straight again, I decided that if I ever could, I would run. I don’t run marathons. I don’t want to run marathons. I trot round the park and then often stop for a cup of tea and a scone.

From ‘The Art of Not Falling Apart’
by Christina Patterson

There’s no doubt about it — running is a popular form of exercise these days. It seems to me that it hasn’t been this popular since the 1970s, back when it was called ‘jogging’, back before one of the men responsible for popularising it as a form of fitness, Jim Fixx, had died from a massive heart attack just after returning home from his daily run.

There’s no doubt that different runners run for different reasons, which is as it should be. Some people run primarily as a means to an end: to get fit and lose weight, whether or not they love or loathe running itself. Some people run compulsively, addictively, to a point that takes them beyond good health and fitness to something closer to ill health, both physical and mental. (On that topic, in particular, I found this article particularly interesting.) Some people run to challenge themselves; some people run to compete in races; some people run to find companionship; some people run to raise money for a cause they believe in.

And some of us run simply because it makes us feel good. And because we find, to our joy, that we can.

What I see when I run:
Boats

I found myself thinking about all of this recently because, for a brief moment, I thought I might enter a race, my first race. The race I was thinking of running in is the Mother’s Day Classic, a walk/run event in which walkers and runners raise money for breast cancer. I’ve done the walk with my mother for the last three years, and I’ve loved every moment of it: the time we spend together as we walk the course, the conversation we have, the knowledge that we’re raising money for an important cause. And, of course, the breakfast that we linger over together in a coffee shop afterwards, too!

But this year my mother will be overseas on Mother’s Day. I thought initially that I would participate in the walk, anyway, and think of her as I walked; and then I thought: well, why not do the run instead? Isn’t that what runners are supposed to do at some point in their running careers — run in a race?

The more I thought about it, the more I thought that I should do it … and the more, somehow, I put off entering. Every time I went online to register for the event, I felt an inexplicable sense of antipathy, an unsettling ambivalence, that I felt ashamed of but that I couldn’t seem to ignore. I wondered if this ambivalence came from worrying that I would be the slowest runner on the course (I am a slow runner). Or if it came from my slight, but not negligble, aversion to being hemmed in by a crowd. Or from my sense that I would look stupid. Or from my fear of being lonely, out there on the course alone, without my beloved mother, whose company (and whose companionship) I so love.

And it was around about then, when I was thinking about loneliness, when I was thinking about how much I would miss my mother on Mother’s Day, that I finally came back to thinking about why I run in the first place. I had been telling myself, each time I went online to register for the Mother’s Day Classic, that it would be a failure of courage if I didn’t enter, now that I’d thought of doing so; that if I didn’t, I was being a coward. That, by not being brave enough to do what other runners do, I would be giving into my fears.

But I have never run in order to learn how to become more courageous. Or to learn how to overcome loneliness. Or to learn how to cope with crowds. I have never run in order to do what other runners do or think as other runners think. Above all, I have never run because I feel I should. Quite the contrary, in fact. I run because I want to. I run because it feels good. I run because, many years ago, when I was a young, confused woman with an eating disorder and no strong sense of self, I didn’t allow myself to do the things that made me feel good — and I am not that woman anymore, that woman who couldn’t allow herself to do the things she loved. That’s why I run.

And deciding to run in a race — any race, even a lovely, community-minded fun run for a good cause, like the Mother’s Day Classic — which triggers all the things that make me second-guess myself and feel bad about myself would be a decision that is the antithesis of everything about the decision I made to run in the first place.

What I see when I run:
Avenue of sheoaks

So I have put away the registration form for the Mother’s Day Classic for this year. I will miss my mother, and I will miss walking with her, but I know that we will walk it again another year, together.

And in the meantime, I will keep running because, to my joy, I find that I can.

PS For anyone who’s interested, I am still going to raise money for cancer. I have registered instead for Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea, which means that on one morning in May or June I will be baking the kind of scones of which Christina Patterson, whom I quoted at the start of this post, would approve, and I will be sharing them over a cup of tea with friends instead of running. And I’m looking forward to that morning already …

What I see when I run:
Reflections

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve been reading online lately:

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 … )

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

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.

dscn3007

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!

Everyday cake

Other people’s words about … cake

The other day, in a dark moment, I was trying to compile a list of things that make me feel better when I’m feeling bad.
(I write these lists often. You can draw your own conclusions about what this says about me!)
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One of the things that’s always on my list of consolations is: CAKE.
Cake never fails, right?
Lovely blogger Stacy Ladenburger talks about this over on her blog Delightful Crumb.
Her solution is something she calls ‘
Everyday Cake’ —
a cake to eat and bake through all life’s trials and tribulations.

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Everyday cake.
Even the idea consoles me …

Note:
I have never posted a recipe on my blog, and don’t intend to. One reason is my self-imposed word limit. It’s hard to publish a recipe in a post that’s 101 words or less.
But if you would like a recipe for everyday cake, I’d try Stacy’s recipes here and here.
And whatever recipe you try, I hope that baking and eating the end-result will console you as I have found it consoles me…