Casting up my accounts

On Tuesday night my flatmate/landlady announced that we had a mouse infestation.

She’d found mouse droppings in the cupboard where we keep the pots and pans. Dirty mouse feet had climbed over my cooking utensils, probably for weeks.

I gagged. Then I took my leftovers, leftovers prepared with moused-up pans, out of the fridge and ate them anyway, because you’re NOT THE BOSS OF ME, MICE. (For the record, I don’t think that the mice were responsible for what happened next, because they HAD been there for a while. They are merely a decorative detail in the rich tapestry of disgusting.)

At school the next day, I was vaguely queasy in period one. At the start of period two, I grabbed my phone, raced next door and asked a colleague to keep an eye on my class while I went to the bathroom, where I spent some time 1) [excluded for decency] 2) crying 3) sitting on the bathroom floor, wiping mascara stains off my face, and sending an email asking for someone to cover my remaining period so that I could go home and be disgustingly ill in relative peace.

It wasn’t quite as bad as the moment where I saw my sister in the airport and knew that my dad was dead – nothing in my entire, privileged, extraordinarily fortunate life has ever been that bad – but it wasn’t great either.

There is so much to be happy about in my life at the moment: the Nerd Degree, my recent trip to WisCon, an increasing ability and determination to write something (anything), an increasing competence and ease with teaching, supportive colleagues (who got my classes covered and me home quicksmart), incredible friends who will talk about books, politics, strange vegetables and collage supplies with equal facility.

Hashtag-blessed-but-ultimately-ungrateful because I want to be able to tell my dad about all of it and I fucking can’t.

I will never be able to tell him good news again. He will never say, “That’s great, honey! That’s really great!” and then segue to a discussion of his golf scores. I had him for nearly 35 years, and I loved him for nearly every minute of it, and now he’s gone.

Hang on, I need to get another tissue. I’ve snotted right through this one.

Wednesday sucked. By Wednesday night my stomach had stopped expelling everything I’d put in it. I had been inconveniently hungry the whole time, and I was done with it: it was time to eat, and I’d deal with the consequences. I turned to Nadia, and looked for the simplest thing I could find.

Monday: Wednesday: Pan-Fried Salmon with Dill Mayo and Warm Freekeh Salad.

I ditched the mayo, because salmon’s pretty rich on its own, and I was planning to be less sensible than “a piece of dry toast and half a banana” but more sensible than “eggs and oil: a great idea!”. I also left out the onion in the salad because raw onion isn’t always pleasant in the aftertaste, and I’d experienced enough aftertaste for one day.

2 simple salad

My freekeh salad thus constituted boiled young wheat grain thing (new to me; delicious) with chopped baby spinach, lemon zest, lemon juice, and a few drops of olive oil. I was very okay with this.

2 nom salmon

Salmon is just so pretty. I feel like it’s far and away the prettiest protein.

2 salmon and freekah salad

And there was dinner! It took me about an hour to eat in careful bites, while I organised relief for the next day and rubbed my aching abdominals. (Honestly, if I wanted a punishing ab workout, which I never do, I would do crunches, which I never do, so you’d think my body would get the message.)

Two hours later my body made one last grudging protest against nourishment, but I could not regret this meal. Worth it.

These fragments I have shored against my ruins

When I was a kid, Dad would often, come Friday, look at the contents of the fridge, and declare it a “Bits and Pieces dinner”, which meant he’d scrounge up everything with some vestige of nutritional content that required minimal effort and throw it on a plate.

We loved Bits and Pieces dinner! It was the best time! Sometimes we got chicken nuggets!

It took me embarrassingly far into adulthood to realise that this wasn’t a special treat for our benefit, but the decision of a man, exhausted by a week’s work teaching kids, who was utterly unwilling to put effort into putting together a real meal for yet more kids who wouldn’t appreciate it nearly as much as a poached egg and some carrot sticks.

My palate has evolved a (very) little bit, but I share my father’s attitude to the end of the week. Or, in this case, Thursday, where I taught all morning, and had parent interviews all afternoon and evening. It took me perceptibly longer to walk home, bones weighted down.

On Thursday night, there was no way I was making the mandated Hickory Pulled Pork Tacos with Radish Coleslaw. With the aid of the Fruit Box, I made Bits and Pieces:

bites and pieces

Martini non-optional.

It would have taken about two minutes more to grate the carrot and chop the apple and pear into bits, cube the cheese, and toss that all together with some balsamic vinegar and the last dribble of my good olive oil. That would have made a delicious salad, and a great picture.

I super wasn’t interested in that two minutes. Frankly, it’s astonishing I had the energy to hack off slices of harvarti instead of gnawing bites straight off the block. I ate most of a carrot stick and bit that pear, not because I forgot to take the picture first, but because waiting another five seconds to eat would have been totally unbearable.

I balanced the hummus tub on top and took the plate back to my room. This was a poor decision:

sad hummus

The carpet’s disgusting anyway, but I did resignedly pause long enough to wipe the garlic chickpeas off the heater and scrub vaguely at the carpet. Then I had “dinner”. It was awesome.

For breakfast, I’ve been adding fruit to my usual peanut butter and toast sandwich. Friday morning was grapefruit.

grapefruit is sour

Grapefruit is gross. No more grapefruit, except in cocktails, which I should definitely have saved this for.

Last weekend I only did about three or four hours of school work, which means that I have a lot of planning and marking to do this weekend.

so much marking

Happy Saturday!

But, I could brighten the day by making tacos! Never a bad plan.

Thursday: Saturday: Hickory Pulled Pork Tacos with Radish Coleslaw

pulled pork taco ingredients

The pulled pork was pre-cooked (and pre-pulled!) in a wee vacuum-sealed bag.

I finely diced half an onion and grated half an apple and set them to fry.

frying onion and apple

apple matchsticks

I was to put the rest of the onion and apple in the coleslaw, only – hold onto your seats – CUT UP DIFFERENTLY. I’ve never tried to cut apples into “matchsticks” before. Nadia is clearly obsessed with matchsticks. I’m happy to indulge her unless I’m really hungry and don’t feel like screwing around. I also have vague concerns that she might be an arsonist, especially after she encouraged me to set my lamb on fire.

pulled pork in pan

I don’t mean to be indelicate, but this pulled pork looks like post-dinner.

lined up to make

I love this part of making tacos. It looks so organised and clear!

tacos with picture

There. Actually, by the time I ate, they were getting cold, and the hickory sauce wasn’t spiced to my satisfaction. But a perfectly acceptable lunch (and in two minutes, dinner) on a working Saturday.

And they did all eat, and were filled

My dad loved a nice piece of fish.

Pan-fried, or in the microwave for a minute, with lemon, garlic salt, and pepper. Mash some spuds, poach an egg, steam broccoli and carrots into limp oblivion, grind more salt over everything, and eat with joy. If he was going to buy fish at a restaurant, it had better be beer-battered with chips, or else pan-fried to his exacting standards. A second over the ideal cooking time would produce voluble scorn.

One of the enduring memories of my parents visiting me while I taught English in Japan is Dad walking with us through the wide streets of Hiroshima, complaining with increasing volume that all he wanted was a nice piece of fish, why didn’t any of these restaurants serve a nice piece of fish, it was all NOODLES and SOUP and RICE.

Me, pointing at an array of plastic sashimi dishes, arranged enticingly in a window: “Everything in that restaurant is FISH!”

He wasn’t convinced. We found a place that served steak.

I, also, love fish, but unlike my father, I am not confident in cooking it. I’ll eat smoked salmon on cream cheese toast for breakfast, or snack on sushi, or order fish and chips, and when I lived in Japan I bought both sashimi and cooked fish from the supermarket two or three times a week, but I can’t remember the last time I bought raw fish for the purpose of cooking it.

I might never actually have done that!

I’ve definitely contemplated it a few times, but I’ve always come up with a better plan at the last minute, one where I didn’t have to talk to a stranger and ask questions that revealed my ignorance about which fish was actually meant by a recipe’s direction for “any firm-fleshed white fish”. Like, how could I tell if it were firm without having to awkwardly make eye contact with someone? I didn’t think they would let me poke it.

Also, every recipe said things like “Cook until done (be careful not to overcook)”, which was profoundly helpful.


Monday’s recipe: Pan-fried fish with Sesame Rice and Miso-Dressed Salad.

Okay, so we’re doing this.

I got home late and starving, having stayed at work so that I could prepare an elaborate and risky lesson for a formal observation the next day, because what’s life without a little uncertainty?

Or a lot, you know, like just a lot of uncertainty, like endless oceanic forests of it, like razor-sharp uncertainty seaweed swirling up to catch your limbs and drag you under. What would life be like without that? Ha ha I’ll never know.

I ate a slice of cold cajun chicken pizza and a banana, and then, having probably ensured that I wouldn’t chew cardboard before dinner was ready, I got down to it.

Intimidating recipe

Intimidating recipe arranged on intimidating black stone plate: Nadia Lim. Mostly-drunk Negroni: model’s own.

Ingredients

The fish was a fillet of Blue Warehou, for those who know what that is.

I got the rice going – I was to add salt and sesame oil, then add black sesame seeds once it was all done. Noooo problem! I’m good at rice!

whisk until smooth

I had to stick miso paste, 2 teaspoons of lime juice (which I “juiced” by “squeezing” and “measured” by “not bothering”), some oil and something else I forget in a small bowl, then whisk until smooth. My whisk would not fit in the small bowl, but Nadia Lim used a fork, so I figured that would be fine. And it was!

So cooking was going great and every ingredient was an old friend, and then:

radish in the buff

RADISH. I was pretty sure I probably ate it. Nadia suggested I could either grate the radishes, or cut them into “matchsticks”. I grated each one until I was worried I’d hit the pads of my fingers, and then sliced up the rest.

grated radish is pretty

Grated radish is really pretty! Like mashed fairy wing!

even slices

Check out the incredible evenness of those cucumber slices. That’s how you know I’m nearly ready for Masterchef.

fish fries

YOU GUYS, I FRIED THE FISH. The timing said “1-2 minutes on each side, depending on thickness” which wouldn’t help me without a detailed analysis of the exact millimetre-to-cooking-minute ratio and maybe a helpful ruler printed on the packet, but in the end I only slightly overcooked it and I am going to count the whole meal a success.

my first food bag meal

It was delicious. The dressing was tart and salty, the fish firm and filling, the rice nice, and I definitely eat radishes. Also, I had plenty of rice and vegetables left over, which I accurately predicted would be great cold for breakfast.

vege and rice leftover

My first My Food Bag meal was a nearly perfect experience!

cleaning up

Oh, yeah. That.

Who was, who will be

You’re not supposed to make any sudden changes in the wake of a loved one’s death. The advice is not to do anything new, or rash, but to continue as you did before, as much as you can with what you did before.

It’s good advice. The problem is that before, I was a woman with a father, and now I’m not.

I knew he was dying. The actual death, though, was a shock. One morning I gripped his hand in Oamaru and promised to come back in two weekends to finish sorting out the stamp collection. It was a hurried goodbye. I had to leave. I had to catch the bus up to Christchurch. Anyway, I was coming back soon.

The next morning I got the call to come now. I flew to Dunedin, where a family friend was to pick me up and drive me back. Mindful of a friend’s advice, and not sure whether this was it, I packed my funeral outfit, just in case.

My sister was waiting at the airport.

“Why are you here?” I said, and then I started weeping, because I knew. Two women leaning into each other at an airport, hugging with bone-creaking force, sobbing into each other’s shoulders: strangers know what that means. They collected their luggage and dodged around us with gentle respect.

He died before I got on the plane.

In the days after my father’s death, knowing that I have a tendency to spend in times of stress, and refusing to feel guilt about that on top of everything else (I left and my father died), I gave myself permission to buy things that would make me feel better. I took $500 out of my emergency fund and placed it in spending. I bought books and games for my phone, Beyonce’s Lemonade, a new top for the funeral. I bought myself a massage. I bought the KFC Tower Burger* I’d been craving for three weeks.

I spent money to soothe my grief, and it absolutely worked. There is real, non-superficial, comfort in things.

It was autumn then. Now, it’s unmistakably winter. I hate these sullen mornings, where I wake up and inch my way to work in the dark over pavement slick with frost. I hate the damp cold that seeps through the cracks in my window frames. In any ordinary winter I shrink into myself and cut back on everything that takes effort. Thinking. Writing. Cooking, in the huge and icy kitchen.

This isn’t an ordinary winter. It’s a bad season for grieving. I want to be kind to myself, as I was when I was first bereaved, as others were to me. I don’t want my winter nights to be a drudge of soups and stews, or any of my weekends spent weaving through other harried customers in the supermarket. I want food to taste good and different. I don’t want to feel my body complain because I’ve gone too long without feeding it a fresh plant.

Last weekend, I signed up for Nadia Lim’s My Food Bag. I’m ambivalent about it. My first delivery is this Sunday.

I think this is a sudden change I can stomach. Let’s find out.

* Chicken fillet, cheese, lettuce, tomato mustard sauce, mayonnaise, and a hashbrown in a bun. It’s disgusting. I love it.