British grief centres mainly around the making of sandwiches | Grace Dent

‘I’ve deliberated many times about discussing grief in a food column – you’re possibly here to read about new ways with couscous – yet the two topics are more linked than one might imagine’

In the befuddlement of grief, I have achieved very little in the kitchen other than the occasional sub-par frittata. I lurk by the hob, my safe place, but largely I just wipe and sterilise. Our days of vigilant shielding are over. The Covid monster did not catch my mother but, in the meantime, his ghoulish cousin, cancer, made an incremental land grab, taking lungs and bones, then her liver, and then, worse than any of that, it stole her appetite.

This stage felt the most hopeless. I am from a family of sturdy-hipped women who have never willingly eschewed a bowl of wobbly, custard-smothered trifle or a toasted, buttered hot-cross bun, all sticky with cinnamon glaze. When mam began refusing these things, well, we knew that time was tight.

I’ve deliberated many times about discussing grief in a food column – you’re possibly here to read about new ways with couscous – yet the two topics are more linked than one might imagine. Victoria Wood once said that British grief centred mainly around the making of sandwiches. “Seventy-two baps, Connie. You slice, I’ll spread,” she quipped, mimicking the stoic capability of a widow stood behind a 2kg catering tub of Stork margarine.

This always rang true to me. As a child, I learned that, although funerals were to be dreaded and the church part was weird and jarring, the buffet afterwards would taste like delicious, carefully restored semi-sanity. First the crying and wailing and throwing of soil, which was horrible, but then everyone went off to a chintzy hotel or the pub’s back room for tinned salmon on Mothers Pride, sliced pork pie and jam tarts. For the adults, there would be nips of Bell’s whisky on a tray. “A good spread,” all would agree while discussing the quickest route home, the traffic lights on the new bypass and the best part of nothing much.

But somewhere between the cocktail sausages with dipping mustard and the madeira cake, there would be a perceptible thawing of the mood; a general unsaid agreement that, amid the mouthfuls of scotch egg and the nibbling of cubed cheddar skewered on sticks atop small pickled onions, the grief had taken a slightly different shape.

Something shifted again when the mourners, who had started out standing stiffly and primly bolt upright in the main room, began gathering, more relaxed now, wherever smoking was permitted. Black ties would be loosened and women would nurse double gin and tonics – in short glasses, scant ice, never lemon. The first sounds of laughter would ring through the air, feeling decidedly cleansing. “They had a good send-off,” the grown-ups would agree. Into sadness, some joy was clawed back.

In the grand scheme of things, my family are relatively fortunate. We are permitted to visit the chapel, in masks, socially distanced but sort of together. Millions of grieving people, left behind over the past 12 months, have not been so comparatively lucky. Nevertheless, dealing with death in a time of Covid, with wakes permitted for up to six people and no hotels, pubs or restaurants open, is a strange, awry sensation. My grief has been oddly nomadic. Death is here, I can feel it – I even have the paperwork to prove it – but, as a good daughter, there is no known fixed point to stumble towards, featuring people and faces and hugs and stories and scones on three-tier cake stands.

My mother loved sweet things and, by God, if I could, I’d provide them. I’d fill that trestle table in that imaginary back room until it was groaning. I’d fill it with trifle, with tipsy cake and deep bowls of black forest gateau. The nips of Bell’s would be more than a finger; they’d be generous, cheek-warming and numbing. No mourner would leave without a take-home treat in their handbag, without fruit loaf, bakewell tart or eccles cake stuffed into their purse. Good suit pockets would forever be crumb-strewn, with leftover funeral flapjacks wrapped roughly in serviettes, forgotten until the next trip to the dry cleaners, when a hand in the pocket would remind you of a great funeral buffet.

But that cannot happen right now. We bury our dead, sad in spirit and very much empty of stomach. Full of love, but not of egg mayo and cress sandwiches, cut into neat triangles and piled on a stainless-steel platter. It’s an odd sort of grieving, is this.

Contributor

Grace Dent

The GuardianTramp

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