by Sarah Murphy
Recipes for Sad Women by Hector Abad sounds like a cookbook, but really, it’s a book of spells. Chapter by chapter, it names all the pains suffered by the female heart and remedies them with food. It says that white rice will prevent uncontrollable sobbing, and twenty-eight leaves of lemon balm in boiling water should soothe your fear of abandonment. Reading this is comforting, like watching YouTube tutorial videos about how to hex an unfaithful lover. As a cure for a broken heart, Recipes for Sad Women suggests a single cauliflower: ‘Take this sad, white, solid flower and steam it. Salt it with your own tears. In the end this flower will gradually soak up your melancholy.’
Chocolate, says Brittany Snow’s character in John Tucker Must Die, can mend a broken heart. (She’s sprawled across a bed with her friends, feet in the air – Hollywood body language for ‘this girl has given up on love’.) Medical websites say to treat heartbreak with almonds and freshwater fish – foods to help repair your dilapidated liver and immune system, to boost the levels of serotonin which you once got from making love. Maybe it’s scoops of Häagen-Dazs eaten crouched in the light of the freezer, or a bottle of red wine if you’re the recently dumped heroine of a British romantic comedy.
To be clear, no single meal can cure a broken heart – that obsessive, bloody organ, with its ceaseless cry of ‘I’m in pain’, as persistent and difficult to ignore as the internet. But it is a beautiful thing to decide to butter bread, separate stems from leaves, stir a thickening pot to boil. To pour goodness and heat and pleasure back into your vitamin-deficient body, during a time when you’re also considering taking an oath to lock yourself and your wounded feelings away in a windowless room with no phone signal for the next hundred years. Anyway, even if you do decide to become a hermit out of spite at an ex, there will still be snacks. Heartbroken snacking is always done alone, preferably in a bed, and is rarely sensible. It might be honeyed cardamom milk and oranges if you are a poetry kind of person, or slices and slices of buttered-gold toast, hot and piled messily like paperbacks, if you’re chaotic.
“Heartbroken snacking is always done alone, preferably in a bed, and is rarely sensible.”
My heartbreak food of choice used to be pasta, but the ravioli incident changed that forever. One night, in the aftermath of a particularly lethal breakup, I had cried so much that the crying had stopped feeling cathartic in a ‘Bette Davis in mink fur, regretting murdering her European husband’ type of way and had become boring and dehydrating instead. Realising that I was hungry, I had to wrestle with the dilemma that is the bedrock of young adulthood: do the financial losses of having a takeaway delivered outweigh the spiritual and physical setbacks of going to the supermarket? Somehow managing to heroically pull a coat on over my damp pyjamas, I walked through November drizzle to the nearby Lidl. I needed something easy going but fancy – the thought of having to dutifully hone ingredients at a stove made me want to curl up on the pavement and welcome death, but my ego was too wounded to bear the indignity of slicing up an oven pizza.
As always, Lidl had the answer: a 20% discount on ravioli, starchy diamonds stuffed with crab and ricotta. It was ready in two minutes and I arranged raspberries on the side as a last-minute touch, stupidly wondering if it would photograph well and if I could post it on Instagram with a pithy caption and gain instant sympathy for my solo pasta dinner and my heartbreak. I cracked an egg on top as a last-minute decision, and my head was so foggy from all the crying that I forgot to separate the yolk of the egg from its whites. When it came to eating my pasta I had to confront the membrane on top of it, thick and colourless, the stuff of grief. This pasta failed to cure my broken heart – in fact, most of it ended up in the bin – but it did teach me the importance of carefully separating an egg.
A year after the ravioli incident, I’m sitting alone on Telegraph Hill. As usual, I’ve brought a snack. It’s one of those May afternoons in London, pale lemon and buttery, everyone clutching the lapels of their coats a little regretfully around their floaty maxi dresses. This is technically my second breakfast of the day, as I have just spent the morning with an old friend, Maryam, talking over idli sambar. We spoke with real honesty, maybe a bit too cuttingly, as we are wont to do, about the young women we are now, wondering whether our childhood selves would look at us disapprovingly, with our overdraft fees and abandonment issues and intolerance for dairy. Maryam had flung her head and limbs back against the sofa and exclaimed, mock-plaintively, ‘My life is so good and I don’t know how to live it!’ Then she painted my fingernails for me, a mauve stone-like colour which we decided on because it would ‘ground’ me before my date later that night. Maybe it’s the golden sun on the way home, or the feeling that my heart is so full it might burst at the seams, but something about the afternoon demands for fresh bread, so I stop at the Co-op and buy an almond braid for 40p. I pick up toilet paper too, as we’ve just run out. It’s very difficult to maintain any sentimental feelings about the spring weather whilst clutching a six-pack of Cusheen, but I think I manage it. The afternoon is still and white and compressed, like an eiderdown coverlet someone has shaken out and is slowly settling. The trains ghost around the borders of the city. I fill the silence with bread.
Sarah Murphy lives and works in London. She has been published by Ambit Magazine, Thought Catalog and 3:AM Magazine.