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Personal Essay | Nourishment

by Simran Sethi

Early last fall, I lost my appetite. I ate just enough to keep me going. Nothing more, nothing less. After five years of writing a book about food, I stopped eating. While I encouraged people to support sustainable farming and savor their meals, I ate imported biscuits shipped from a factory in the United Kingdom—cookies that became my sustenance and were accompanied by multiple cups of tea, sipped one after the other. The tea reminded me of my father: Darjeeling made cloudy with milk, sweet with sugar and fragrant with cardamom and ginger.

My father was efficient to a degree that made most people cringe. A man trained in both clinical pharmacology and psychiatry, his affect and attention to detail were irritating and awe-inspiring. His every move was executed with scientific precision and detachment, coupled with deep fascination for the ways in which every facet of the world was a wondrous sum of its parts: people, life, even food and drink.

Every Monday, he would load a big ceramic teapot with multiple tea bags, freshly cut ginger and split cardamom pods, and serve himself from that same teapot throughout the week, adding extra tea bags whenever necessary, boasting of his efficiency as the ginger slowly disintegrated into mush.

After my father’s death in October, that pot became my comfort, as it held the final cups of tea he had ever brewed. While family and friends shuffled in and out of his house to offer their condolences, I secreted myself away to the kitchen, microwaving the ceramic container and sipping its spicy contents while cradling the warm pot to my chest.

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Every day, the brew became weaker. Although I added more tea bags, the ginger and cardamom continued to fade. They became faint, just as my father’s heart had during the months before he died.

Finally, it gave out.

I scooped the mass of ginger and softened cardamom pods from the pot, knowing I would never again taste anything made by my father’s wrinkled brown hands, neatly manicured with a faded “Om” tattoo near his thumb. Hands that carried his belongings from Pakistan to India during the countries’ partition; hands that carried me from the hospital back to a small, sunny flat in Munich, Germany; hands that bathed me, fed me and offered the world to me through slides on a microscope and stars through a telescope. Dad brought to life the invisible and visible, breaking the world open through its infinitesimal parts.

The day after his cremation, my cousins, sister and I wrapped the small, white box of my father’s ashes in red cloth as we recited prayers. The box was surprising; not because of the heft (a few pounds) or lack thereof, but simply because it existed. The weight of a life condensed into fine, greyish-pink ash. Ash made rough with bone. Ash that, when immersed in the ocean per Hindu rites, would glisten in the sun.

A week later, a large cardboard box arrived at my mother’s house packed with 22 copies of the book I had labored over for five years. The work had taken me to six continents in search of a broader understanding of agricultural biodiversity. I channeled my scientifically minded father as I tried to make sense of the genetic erosion in everything that made food and drink possible—starting with microorganisms invisible to the naked eye and echoing through every link in the food chain: from soil to seed to pollinator, from plant to fish to animal.

I explained the loss through the lens of flavor and the stories of bread, wine, coffee, chocolate and beer, summarizing the work by explaining to readers, “This is a book about food, but it’s really a book about love”—the love of, as poet Derek Walcott so eloquently expressed, savoring the humble riches of feasting on our lives. By remembering why we loved what we loved, we could fight for it. We could save it from disappearing.

I cut open the box and, for the first time, held a copy of the book in my hands. I caressed its textured cover, running my finger along the embossed wine stain, and flipped it over to assess the endorsements on the back. Then, without cracking the spine, I returned it to the box that I proceeded to bury in the basement closet. I walked back up the stairs, crawled into bed and cried myself to sleep. My father, the man who helped define my relationship with food and science, never saw the book.

I never believed people who said they forgot to eat. Who could deny something so essential, so life affirming? But when my father died, I understood. I didn’t forget to eat; I simply allowed something else to displace that nourishing act. It was the memory of my father, the man who made me who I am, who taught my mother how to navigate our German kitchen, who loved food the way I did.

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Each night, as I slipped into bed—my body contracted from fatigue and grief—I ran my fingers across my ribs, fanning my hands away from my sternum, counting every bone. Well-meaning relatives would look at me with concern that verged on pity, imploring, “What’s wrong? Why have you lost so much weight?” I had no energy or patience for niceties: “My father died,” I responded tersely. “I’m not hungry.” Left alone again, in quiet moments, I would call out to him. But he was not there. Nothing could bring him back. Not the book, not my ocean of tears, not my absence of hunger.

A week after I received the box of books, another box arrived, this time from a beloved friend doing his best to cheer me up and celebrate the book’s official release. The box was laden with apple and cherry hand pies. I sliced open an apple one, watching the sweet mass of filling ooze from its golden crust. Scooping up the sticky apples with my index finger, I considered Louise Erdrich’s words: “Life will break you,” she writes. “Nobody can protect you from that … You have to love. You have to feel. … And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.”

I was tasting every one. Weighted down by the book’s birth and my father’s death, I finished the slice of pie and returned to bed.

When Thanksgiving neared, I called my aunt Toshi. The only thing worse than missing my father was the grim prospect of a biscuit and tea dinner on the holiday I cherished most, the one celebration I felt deeply connected to as a Hindu raised in America.

“I’m cooking for you,” she said. “I picked up the organic, free-range turkey, the cranberries, the potatoes, everything.”

“What about the green bean casserole?” I asked, noticing, for the first time in weeks, my growling stomach.

“Yes,” she assured me. “It’s here.”

On Thanksgiving morning, I washed my hair. I donned a sweater that sparkled, took off my glasses and put on makeup. I tried. Shortly after arriving, my mother and I raised a glass of Grenache-Syrah and toasted each other with a deep knowing that our days were also finite—that every holiday we spent together was precious. Then I started doing what I had always done: foraging in the pots for what would sate me.

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On that day, healing did not come in the form of the free-range bird or the local, organic stuffing within it—the sort of food I had been writing about, advocating for and eating for years. It was in the green bean casserole, the one made with a can of cream of mushroom soup from the supermarket, smothered in fried onions dehydrated by Durkee.

My family wonders what the turning point was. How my smile and laugh returned, how my appetite found its way back to me. Just over a year later, I am still not whole. But the living memory of my father’s hands making and pouring tea—and the hands that raised their glasses in celebration and nourished my body and heart on Thanksgiving—continue to give me hope. There is love in the hands that feed me, a love passed into my own.

Slowly, I make my way back to my own table, to, again, feast on my life.

 

Simran Sethi is the author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of the Foods We Lovea book about the rich history—and uncertain future—of what we eat. Sethi traverses six continents to uncover the loss of biodiversity, told through an exploration of the senses and the stories of bread, wine, coffee, chocolate and beer. Now available in paperback at all places where books are sold.

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