I love a good book, me. And as you know, I love food. So this is the first in a see-how-it-goes, potential series about literature and food, called Food in Books!
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Re-reading that first paragraph, I just visualised that moment when you find a bit of someone’s dinner in a library book. That’s not at all what I mean by ‘Food in Books’! Perhaps I should come up with a better name. Any suggestions?
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Recently, I’ve found myself musing about how food and stories go together. Like how the very best food often has a heritage or a story to tell. Or how most of us remember particular food-moments years (or even decades) after putting down our knives and forks at the end of the meal.
Or how food quite often plays a quiet, supporting role in the stories authors and film-makers tell. Sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly.
So, as I’ve been reading, I’ve found myself noticing all the mentions of food and musing on them. And so the idea for this not very imaginatively named blog series was born. Hooray for Food in Books! Or whatever it comes to be known.
And let’s be honest, part of the reason for this idea so that I have a valid excuse to write about books on a food blog!
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As an aside, whilst I was writing this post, I tried to come up with some food memories of my own. The first two that sprung to mind, dredged up from somewhere in my memory, hadn’t come into my mind for years! I find the mysteries of how memory works fascinating.
The first was the memory of a hot and greasy, ‘Cornish’ pasty, eaten on a sunny family holiday in Devon – we usually had a home-made sandwich-picnic, so a pasty was super exciting, and I got to eat it straight from the paper. Decadence! The second was of the first ever curry that I ate in an Indian restaurant – it was ordered by my curry-experienced friend, who assured me it wouldn’t be too spicy. It set my mouth on fire!
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On to Book #1 in Food in Books…
‘The Outrun’ by Amy Liptrot
It’s fair to say that The Outrun by Amy Liptrot is quite an unusual book. It certainly divided opinion at my book group last night! However, I happily give it 4 stars. I thought it was great. Not perfect, but really affecting.
When we chose the book, I thought it was a novel, but it’s actually the memoir of a woman in her 30s who is recovering from addiction – trying to stay sober and to piece her life together in the wild landscape of Orkney.
In the book, Liptrot allows us to experience the scattered memories of her descent into alcoholism and the break up of her relationship, far from home, in London. And then to join her, as she washes up on Orkney, fresh out of rehab; back in the place where she grew up, but never belonged. Her parents were English and had bought a farm on the biggest of Orkney’s islands back in the seventies. It has a big open field called the Outrun, and it’s here that the story begins and ends.
Liptrot’s writing is honest and bare, and it made me want to go to Orkney.
If I had to describe The Outrun, I’d say that it is almost relentlessly autobiographical, despite the fact that it is also very much about Orkney as a place. The book feels odd, but I like that. There is the frenetic chaos of her alcoholism. And the slow-paced, cyclical, reflective pace of her recovery, threaded through with facts and stories about Orkney. The second half, in particular, is organised more thematically than chronologically. I like that too. Life doesn’t always feel linear.
I’d love to know your thoughts if you’ve read the book, but to me, it felt like it was written by a woman still very much on the journey of recovery. It was all pretty raw, all the pieces of herself not yet quite put back together. For me, that made it all the more worth reading. I felt honoured to be able to experience her journey with her – to live a life so different from mine.
And I’m still in awe of her swims in the winter Orkney sea!
I could say a lot more, but this isn’t just meant to be a standard book review. Where’s the food, I hear you cry.
To the food!
Ironically, as this is my first Food in Books post, The Outrun doesn’t actually feature a great deal of food. In fact, during the London sections of the book, Liptrot rarely eats. Most of her calories inevitably coming from the alcohol she drinks alone. And there isn’t a great deal more in the Orkney sections. However, there is one particular food-moment that really captured me…
In a courageous move, Liptrot moved across from her ‘home’ island to Papay, an island with just 70 residents; just in time for winter. She plans to live in a little cottage called Rose Cottage which belongs to her summer employer (the RSPB), and to intentionally take time out to reflect and heal.
Having chosen to visit such a small community, she relishes the remoteness, but she is also anxious about fitting into such a tight community.
And so an incident with a cabbage! 😃
“Over Christmas, bad weather meant there was no ferry for a couple of weeks and the shop ran low on fresh food. The usually well-stocked Co-op is open for two or four hours a day, and going for milk often feels like a social occasion. I don’t have a car so have to ask for help with things like getting sacks of coal home. I was fearful, from warnings and childhood experiences, of doing the wrong thing, being too loud, too English, but I meet only friendliness and helpfulness on Papay, as well as a gentle curiosity about what I’m doing there. // One night there is a knock at the door: an unexpected delivery of a third of a cabbage after I’d mentioned in passing in the shop that a whole cabbage was a lot to buy if you’re living alone, and to carry on a bike. This small friendly gesture calmed me, helped soothe some anxiety that I wasn’t fitting in. The workings of society on an island are easier to understand than in a city and I’m gradually relaxing and seeing more clearly.”
Imagine what it must be like to be so dependent on the weather for deliveries of food. I imagine pantries must be stocked up with tins and dried food, and that people are used to cooking meals from the cupboard. The orcadian.co.uk website has a couple of recipe books, I wonder if they feature any of them!
But what I love most about this little passage is the incident with the cabbage! There is something so wonderfully simple and profound about that small gesture. Undertaken by a generous and un-named Papay resident. It makes my heart ache for the best of what a small community can be! I imagine that small act of practical care and acceptance did a lot for Liptrot’s heart.
I got the sense that, for Liptrot, both addiction and recovery were/are very solitary endeavours. Although she liked her new island home, and tells us about the events that she attended (like an island art festival), or activities that she undertook with other people (like learning to snorkel), the other human beings feel to me like ships passing her in the night. Her characters – even though they’re real people – enter the narrative for a couple of paragraphs and then disappear again, before we feel properly introduced. In fact, I feel like I know some of the people from Okney’s history we’re introduced to better than the living human beings in her story.
I don’t know if this sense of fleeting-ness and disconnect is a literary device that genuinely reflects her relationships at this time in her life. Or if it’s unknowingly done. Or if it’s because she doesn’t feel confident to write the people fully-fleshed, in case she offends or gets them wrong. But it does create a sense of solitude or isolation.
And I do also wonder whether the reason food doesn’t feature much in the book, is because of the amount of time Liptrot spends alone.
Food really comes into its own when it’s shared
When food is shared, it is much more than the sum of its parts: that’s something I’ve been musing on recently. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy posting food that I made for/by myself, but I rarely think to post about food that has already been shared face-to-face, over a real-life table, or sitting together with friends in my lounge. In that case a food blog is tapping into a bigger truth: that food is about connection. Or something. Musings ongoing.
Finally a couple of quotes from the book, one about alcoholism and one about food:
“One reason alcohol is addictive is that it doesn’t quite work. It’s difficult to get enough of something that almost works.”
“The full moon and new moons of winter… are also the times when it’s possible to forage for spoots, the local name for razor fish… We walk backwards and the spoots, which lie vertically just under the surface are disturbed by our booming footsteps and burrow downwards, leaving a telltale bubble in the sand… I dig furiously with a trowel, then with my rubber gloved hands… it’s a battle of woman verses spoot but I manage to get it and put it in my bucket. That night I fry them up with some garlic and eat them with spaghetti – a small meal but one of the most satsisfying I’ve had in a long time, caught for free and with fun.”