Exiled in the Land of Bland

Exiled in the Land of Bland

You never know when your body’s going to give you a wake-up call – and strip your mealtimes of any meaning.

It’s happened. Now all I need are the Stokies, the mild shuffle, the exaggerated clearing of the throat as I enter Clicks, the stained white T-shirt stretched over my stomach. I have become one of Them. (I have also, seemingly, become a man.)

For the longest time, I have been scornful of the Gaviscon gang. In the pharmacy, I’d watch middle-aged men with flushed faces and too-long toenails pick up bottles of the stuff. Portly women wearing Crocs would stuff boxes of Rennies into their trolleys. And I would smirk a little as I fondled packets of pearl barley, imagining my intestines gleaming and glossy; my stomach doing its job in a neat and faintly Iyengar fashion. I would never be common enough to suffer from digestive issues.

Then my mother got sick. The Plague came. My mother died. I swallowed my sadness and anxiety: profiteroles for breakfast; beer for lunch; hand-rolled cigarettes with hand rolls for snacks; rusks for everything; endless slices of toast; mayonnaise dipped in carrots; coffee, coffee, coffee; wine for dinner; microwaved cheese. One day I ate six Anzac biscuits in the car between Simon’s Town and the Harbour Bay shopping centre. Google Maps will tell you that’s a distance of 3.2km that takes four minutes, which means that’s a biscuit every 40 seconds. I have strong teeth.

About six weeks ago, I began to feel peculiar. My stomach hurt, I had enough internal combustion to be able to burp “Bulawayo”, and I felt bloated after eating. I googled the symptoms and cried and spent a lot of time hovering at the door of my husband’s home office, telling him I most definitely had pancreatic cancer, ovarian cancer and leprosy of the liver. He would invariably be on a conference call and would wave me away and mouth to close the door behind me. I spent hours in bed at night planning my funeral venue and wondering whether it would have a decent enough sound system to really pump out Many Rivers To Cross. I stopped smoking.

The next week, I went to a specialist. The nice anaesthetist knocked me out and the doctor stuck a camera down my gullet and, once I’d come around and stopped drooling in front of the TV in the recovery room, he showed me the snaps he’d taken. “Those red streaks are inflammation, and those spots there. And that’s a small hernia,” he said, pointing to a dark spot that looked like a small black hole. He gave me an information sheet on foods to avoid, congratulated me on quitting smoking, and prescribed some pills and daily doses of Gaviscon. Finally, my transformation from Gwyneth Paltrow to recent-times Mickey Rourke was complete.

Other common people like myself who suffer from midriff misery will be familiar with the exceptional food one is encouraged to eat. It’s akin to taking the tastiest, richest, cheesiest pizza; removing all of the toppings; scraping off the tomato sauce; soaking the base in a vat of Jik, and then serving that at room temperature with a glass of tepid water and a stick of limp celery as garnish. My meals over the past month have been combinations of the following: broccoli; rice; rice; broccoli; celery (only slightly limp); oats; apples; rice; broccoli; tepid water with a dunking of weevil whiskers. I’ve also drunk enough ginger tea to launch a new fleet of imperialistic spice-merchant vessels. Nary a drop of beer has touched my lips, I have given away all our citrus and expensive kiwi fruits, and I now side-eye tomatoes as though they’re snakeskin belts.

It’s been a weird regression to my northern English roots, where the word “bland” rhymes with “terrible pub band”, “pies that taste like sand” and “milking by hand”. Gastro pubs and Indian restaurants aside, Cumbria is the land of carveries and over-boiled cabbage, Brussels sprouts counted out at Christmas, and pork chops lying nude atop mashed potatoes. One of the blandest meals I have ever eaten was beneath a loudly ticking wall clock in a brick house down a Cumbrian lane, where the elderly host dished up carrots, peas, cauliflower and chunks of a roasted cow that had broken its neck in a ditch on their farm. Even when I told them I was vegetarian, they insisted I at least try the gravy. After lunch, we mustered in the lounge to sip sherry out of tiny crystal glasses and stare at our shoes, the tick-ticking of time suspending dust motes in the tepid light.

My ancestors – probably as far back as Thor Gudmunsblander from Blandsson Island in outer Viking land – were all fans of the flavourless and the floppy. My grandmother believed a curry was merely a stew augmented by a handful of raisins, and a good serving of oats – served salty and stodgy – was the antidote to all evil. My aunt enjoyed rendering down cabbage until it resembled soggy tissue paper and was fond of auditing vegetables. Naturally, the menfolk never came near the kitchen, unless they needed to dry their britches by the fire or kick a dog.

However, there have been some silver stomach linings in this ghastly affair. I am now much thinner and despite having entered a Mickey Rourke phase, I have actually developed the complexion of a Tibetan medicine woman. My stomach no longer hurts. I have grown to really like ginger. And after despising it for most of my life, I now think rice is nice. In fact, I’ve become a bit of a rice obsessive, hunting down organic red rice from French wetlands and black rice from China, which gets its Goth properties from an abundance of anthocyanin, which would incidentally be a perfect name for a death-metal band. I make desserts with rice by adding rice milk, honey and protein powder to steamed basmati; I chop up celery, cucumber, basil leaves, roasted cauliflower and green beans and chuck them into rice with a dash of olive oil. Sometimes I even just have a bowl of plain wild rice for lunch. I’m living large, what can I say?

But for all the nice skin, emerging abdominal muscles, clear eyes and healthy vigour, I feel punished. I miss curry the most. I miss its deep flavour and the way it strips the outer layer off my tongue. Oh, what I wouldn’t do for a bowl of paneer makhani, all warmly spiced and loaded with cream and cashew nuts, with a too-thick roti on the side. Or a plate of biryani, with its subtle spices and spiky wheels of star anise. I miss wine and beer, though these are now only available via underground goblin, with a 15-word password in Esperanto. I crave grapefruit and orange juice and arrabbiata sauce. I want to smash my face into a Mafia-sized pizza slathered in cheese and garlic and chilli. Oh, to go full Juliette Binoche and swan about in a pashmina nibbling on chocolat and giggling with French townsfolk.

And I feel even more punished when I am forced to sidle into Clicks and saunter with feigned nonchalance towards the digestive aisle, checking that my toenails are neatly clipped, my shirt free of stains, my hair in place and my tummy pulled in as I reach for two bottles of Gaviscon, filled with shame, self-loathing and a faint internal gurgling. DM/TGIFood

Helen Walne is an aspirant vegan who detests food snobs, kale fascists, tartare sauce and misplaced apostrophes on menus, but is very fond of broccoli.


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