Illustration for Hyphen by Yukai Du
Illustration for Hyphen by Yukai Du

Meals that mark the passage of time

Food can evoke powerful memories of the year past and signpost our way through the next

As 2023 draws to an end, wrapped up in festive paper and the faint tinkling of bells, I find myself reflecting on the 12 months just gone by. Much is made of looking ahead to the new year — making pledges and promises, that may or may not prove to crumble like pie-crusts — but we often neglect the importance of taking the time to look back. 

Perhaps we are nervous about accounting for what we’ve done or haven’t done. Maybe there is some disappointment that things didn’t go quite to plan, or that our timelines and expectations had to change. But I have found that taking the time for a deep dive into the past year is a way for me to face, accept, and celebrate the passage of time and to prepare for the gifts of the new year ahead.

It will be of no surprise that food features heavily in my self-imposed annual review. I keep a running list of recipes that I have experimented with over the year. Casting an eye over my notebook and remembering their flavours takes me back to specific moments, like a kind of time travel. 

Celeriac and carrot salad with lashings of vinegar, adapted from an Ottolenghi recipe, transports me to the thick heat of summer, when all I wanted to eat was crunchy, fresh vegetables. The beef shin stew with butterbeans and oregano, a recipe I developed myself, reminds me of colder evenings drawing in, the desire for comfort and warmth. 

In 2023, food and I had a particularly fraught relationship,  as alluded to in my August column, I spent far too long struggling with debilitating morning sickness. As a result, my gastronomic reflections are rather more complicated than usual. This was the year that fresh orange juice transformed from being a perfectly nice drink to nectar of the gods. Peri peri sauce, on the other hand, fell so rapidly and viciously from favour that I can no longer have it in my fridge. I also became a reluctant, de facto vegetarian, pregnancy leaving me unable to face poultry or fish of any kind. My body allowed small, occasional allowances for beef, but only if minced and shaped into something small and appealing — kofte or kebabs — without any kind of sauce.

Instead of the customary rundown of fond memories and meals savoured, my latest list is dominated by the things I have most intensely disliked. Happily, though, most of my aversions subsided with the birth of my baby daughter last month. Since then, I have been enjoying a tentative and hopeful return to old favourites. 

Garlic, banished from my kitchen during my first trimester, has made a celebrated return — most recently roasted whole in its skin, alongside a chicken stuffed with a halved lemon, a bouquet of thyme and rosemary, and sprinkled liberally with flakes of sea salt. Another much welcomed comeback has been made by the humble onion, which I have recently been enjoying thinly sliced into rounds, doused with lemon juice and sumac and left to pickle for a few hours until the rings turn a majestic shade of purple-pink, and the acrid raw flavour mellows to a tender sweetness. Only a few months ago, the sight of an onion would have been enough to make my stomach spontaneously purge itself. 

Now I’m through the worst of it, I find the waxing and waning of food preferences fascinating. It’s not just the relief I feel, more a sense of wonder that our tastebuds can be so fickle and dictate so much of our enjoyment of life. And how the sense of taste can so wholly transport us to a specific time, place, or phase of life. Like listening to a particular song or catching a certain scent of a certain perfume, food can take us on unexpected journeys through memory.

When I gave birth to my son, three years ago in a West Yorkshire NHS hospital, soon after my two day labour came to an end I ate one of the best meals of my life: a plate of white buttered toast with apricot jam and a cup of tea. The midwife on duty saw that I polished off the stack of warm, golden bread and brought me another plate without me even asking. I still remember the butter pooling in the centre of each slice, savoury and comforting. To this day, simple white toast reminds me of that moment.

Last month, when I gave birth to my daughter, the first meal I was able to keep down was a burger. Delirious on drugs, not to mention euphoric at becoming a mother once again, I remember raving to my sister who was visiting me in hospital that it was The Best Burger I Had Ever Eaten. The bun was wholemeal, studded with sesame seeds, the beef patty was well-done (I can’t abide rare burger — far too squishy) and the caramelised onions were slathered with piquant yellow mustard. It truly was the best version of the dish I had ever tasted; something I will be talking about for years to come. 

When I think back on the meals of 2023, it is that burger that will loom largest in my memory. Not just the flavour, but what it represented: a return to myself, my ability to enjoy food again and a new chapter in my book of motherhood.

Over the next few months, I will be taking a short break from this column and wrapping myself in the embrace of life with a new baby. For now, all that’s left to say is that I wish you all a happy, healthy 2024. May your reflections on the year gone by bring delicious memories and may the year ahead be flavoursome, joyous and full of love. See you next year.

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