Steavenson family memories are food memoriesby Wendell Steavenson / July 19, 2017 / Leave a comment
The last time Dad was released from hospital we thought we were taking him home to die. He was very weak and confused. He could barely sit up on the edge of the bed to eat, two of us sat on either side to steady him. We fed him chicken broth and mashed potato, pastina with a little butter, yogurt and honey. He could not hold a spoon. On the third day I asked him if he would like an aperitif. He looked up with a smile and said clearly and emphatically, “Campari!”
Miraculously, he recovered from this crisis. He was still in a wheelchair and needed dialysis twice a day for his failing kidneys, but, having moved into the palliative zone, we cut down on the medication and he was sparkier and less muddle-headed than he had been for weeks. Two months later, to celebrate his 82nd birthday, he conceived the idea of inviting a few friends to a private tour of his favourite museum, the Wallace Collection.
Afterwards we had a lunch party at home. Mum made lobster salad; I made a three tier Campari-and-orange cake. At one point during the prep, Mum had been up to her elbows in green slimy lobster muck for two hours, carefully pulling whole claws from the shell, and she was exhausted.
“What are we doing this for?” she asked half-rhetorically. “It would have been easier to have gone to a restaurant!”
I stopped whisking the orange curd for a moment to get the third cake out of the oven. “It’s what we do,” I said, “you and I, we feed people the best we can, with care and attention. It’s how we show love.”
We had a lovely lunch. Dad drank two glasses of champagne and demolished a big slice of cake. He always loved cake. He was diabetic, he wasn’t supposed to have it, but in the last couple of years when his sugar levels were being regulated by insulin, we let him eat it anyway. I made lemon drizzle and upside down caramel-orange, chocolate sponge and walnut and coffee. Dad, tired, struggling, his left hand trembling, would look up from his placemat at the end of dinner, and ask, hopeful, “is there any Wendycake?”
There is an apocryphal story of a profligate Duke in the early 20th century being asked to cut down on expenses. With some trepidation, his accountants suggested making a few economies: Do you really need, Your Grace, to maintain two full households of staff, in London and at your country seat? Is it possible, for example, that Your Grace could make do with one pastry chef instead of two? The Duke was dismayed, “Can’t a man have a biscuit?” It was one of Dad’s favourite quotes.
Dad—David Henry Michael John Steavenson—was born in 1935. He grew up in Perthshire during rationing. To my frustration he could never remember anything he ate as a child, except for his first banana when he was 11. Until 1948. When his father took him to France, they dined at La Pyramide in Vienne at the time of the Fernande Point, considered the originator of French cuisine. It was a meal that made such an impression on 13-year-old Dad that it made him a gourmand for the rest of his life and happily, too, for the lives of his children.
Steavenson family memories are food memories. I remember the entire dining room of a one-star Michelin restaurant on the French Atlantic coast applauding my brother Michael, when he was eight, because he had eaten his way through six snails, half a poulet rôti and an towering ice cream sundae. I remember my little brother Xander, aged six, drinking the dregs from the glasses at a wine tasting in Burgundy and earning the nickname, Alexander the Grape. I remember, when I was 12, the first time I ate something so extraordinary (slivers of tender veal in a mushroom sauce at Le Pré Catelan in Paris) that I didn’t want to swallow. Mum and Dad planned our holidays around battlefields—Dad’s other passion—and restaurants. A hundred wonderful memories, thousands: calvados on Omaha beach, Daddy’s scrambled eggs on Christmas morning, shucking bushels of oysters together, guessing what he would order in a Parisian bistro: cassoulet or rognons? Making a tank cake for his 75th birthday and a chocolate bust of his hero Napoleon for his 80th. There was a longstanding family joke that whenever Mum asked Dad what he wanted for supper, he answered, only half joking, “turbot soufflé.”
Over two years of hospitalisations and complications; heart surgery, a fall, an infection, Dad’s physical decline recast his world smaller and more intimate. His eyesight grew so dim that he could no longer read—and he was a voracious reader who always had several books on the go—and he could barely hear anything without his hearing aids. But he kept his intellectual curiosity. “I’m trying to understand the Boulle furniture,” he said, having become fascinated by the Rococo gilt and inlay of the French 18th-century furniture in the Wallace Collection. And he kept his gustatory pleasure. “Can I have a doughnut?” “I like liver-and-bacon.” “What’s for supper?” I marvelled that the sense of taste and the sensibilities of enquiry and generosity remained, even as sight and hearing and spacial awareness and even memory faded.
He grew weaker. I rubbed his shoulders and mixed him a Campari and soda in the evenings. Mum made him a proper supper every night and fretted over his sugar levels and blood pressure. I bought him sweet-and-sour pork from the Royal China, one of his favourites, and he ate it all with relish. He cheered when Arsenal won the FA Cup. My brother Xander took him to vote in the election. In the afternoons I would read a bit of my novel to him.
“How is it Dad? What do you think?” I asked.
“It’s very hard to say until the end,” he replied.
“I can’t wait till the end! Tell me now!”
“It’s fantastic,” said Dad.
“Are you just saying that because you’re my Dad and it’s your job to encourage me?”
“Only partly,” said Dad with a wry twinkly smile.
He died in his sleep, peacefully, at home. Mum said he had a chocolate lollipop for supper.