I’ve been home for almost two weeks now, give or take the days lost entirely to sleep or sitting frozen on the sofa, undone by jetlag. The most profound hangover from a month of travel, though, has been a culinary one: eating from 7-11s and ramen bars in Tokyo and diners and taquerias in San Francisco might sound romantic, but it sharply undoes any sense of routine your body has, any comforting predictability around nightly meals or morning breakfasts. In being home, I was left with a strange inertia in my own kitchen, and also a determination to reset my body after putting it through the mill. So brutal and sudden is what happens to your body after you turn thirty: it’s like it knows you have stopped growing and started sustaining, or something, and discovers a whole score of new ways to make your life difficult.
I don’t want to think so closely about the things I eat anymore: I have struggled very hard against disordered eating for the vast majority of my life, and had just, in the last year or so, plateaued into something resembling a peace with food. I had finally quit my long and, bar one very revealing essay, largely private stints with weight-loss programs, too, from which I picked up a myriad of complexes but also an intense desire for structure around my meals. The internet helps me with my relationship to food: it gives me a place to write about it, get excited about it, learn about it. I watch food Youtube channels devotedly, I follow recipe accounts, I am one of the quiet apostles of Alison Roman’s viral recipes – it is something I fill my digital feeds with as I fill my days with it. My kitchen cabinets are bursting with spices and dry grains and ingredients from all over the world – wherever I’ve been, I’ve hit a supermarket. Pistachio cream from Sicily, matcha and black tea mixes from a supermarket in Shibuya, Tokyo – as well as a cinnamon banana sugar in a salt cellar – balsamic vinegar from a Supervalu in Cross, county Mayo, 21 Seasoning Salute from Trader Joe’s, Daly City, California. I care about food in the same way I care about books: I am not unconscious of the way it keeps me alive.
However, like any woman trapped within the endless mirror-vortex of the patriarchy, it has also harmed me, or I have used it to harm myself. Even in my pursuit of a more pleasurable life, rather than one wherein I had made my hunger a comfort, I have managed to turn food against myself. Eating as tourism made me unwell and here, at home, I am trying to become well again. To eat neutrally, not obsessively, not sparsely. Which brings me to oats. Which brings me to porridge.
I care about food in the same way I care about books: I am not unconscious of the way it keeps me alive.
I went back to my mother’s kitchen after a morning at the doctors and she made me a bowl of porridge. We stood at the microwave and she turned oats, with some water, into something wholesome and simple. I’d been adverse to porridge as a child because of the texture, but something in me since I’ve been away craved the simplicity and honesty of it. She tapped a teaspoon of sugar over the top of it as it cooled, and dropped a little oat-cream to cool there, too. I ate it in the kitchen, in the always surreal light that pours in from the garden on to the blue cabinets, the faux-pine lino. It had hurt my upper abdomen to eat for days (well, more than days if I’m honest), and the doctor had given me something that if it worked, meant I hadn’t given myself ulcers on the inside of my stomach lining from some weird cocktail of unpredictable diet and stress. Even seeing that written back in front of me is maddening: how the body tells you what is wrong before you even know it’s wrong, yourself. Look, the porridge hurt, but it didn’t hurt too badly. It also tasted wholesome, and bland, and good.
My instinct was to immediately go online. Look at beautiful elaborate porridges, porridges with different grades of blended nuts and fruits, porridges laid out like tiny prisms of colour, porridge with chia seeds (which I am allergic to) or flax or swirls of Nutella. Porridge made with fresh milk (which I am also allergic to) – porridge made with a variety of non-dairy milks. Pink porridge, stained with dried dragonfruit. Porridge with acai, and I am not going to lie to you, I don’t know what acai is. I scrolled Instagram. I followed porridge and oat-centric accounts. I tweeted, asked what way people make their porridge, over two hundred eaters of oats replied. I was going to make fancy, delicious porridge, I decided, I was going to make elaborate porridge and post it online. I nabbed the Instagram handle ‘oatquest’ just in case. Just in case of what? I become a digital porridge maven? What does that even mean?
My first few attempts at home were pathetic. Underprepared. I couldn’t quite remember what my mam had done in front of the microwave, though I know it was excruciatingly simple. I threw some berries – which were gorgeous looking – onto some accidentally uncooked oats and barely managed two spoonfuls, though it made a beautiful photograph.
Yesterday, and today, though, I managed it. Soft, dense porridge, warm and simple, almost without taste. A bare sweetness to it. A homeliness. It’s absolutely the least Instagrammable breakfast a person could imagine. It’s the most Irish, the most straightforward. It is as it always was, before we were performing our well-travelledness and our aesthetic ability for the world. I didn’t feel like taking a photo of it. I haven’t kept up with the porridge Instagram accounts. However, I have been feeling better. More full. Less sore. Like maybe a routine is possible. Like maybe simplicity is alright. Like maybe it is enough to just be fed.
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