content note: illness, death, grief
P IS FOR PUMPKIN
Think about diseases. They're not very good, are they. Name the diseases you know. Scarlet Fever. Rubella. Mumps. Gonorrhoea. Think: some diseases sound quaint and charming and are imagined in black and white. Whooping cough. Some diseases bring up images of modern laboratories and white-coated agents of expertise, graphically overlaid with informative statistics. SARS. Some diseases are, and always will be, sheer terror. Ebola. Think about Ebola.
Now sift your flour. Sift is a verb. Sift. Drift. White.
Think about Doris Lessing. In the nineteen eighties, when AIDS was a dread plague you contracted from unmentionable sin, Doris Lessing was asked to contribute to a book called A to Z. This book would fight the taboo on AIDS and raise funds for treatment and prevention. It was full of contributions from progressive celebrities, where each celebrity took charge of a letter of the alphabet. Lessing provided copy for the letter P.
Her contribution was “P is for Pumpkin”. It comprised a recipe for pumpkin pie, and nothing else. Remember “P is for Pumpkin”. The starkness of it. No statements about the comfort that good warm sweet food provides, or the therapeutic value of cooking with one’s hands, or the significance of food as a physical manifestation of love and care. It started and finished, unadorned.
This fits your impression of Doris Lessing. She wasn’t sentimental or motherly. She wasn’t one to say, without complication, “food is love.” Or if she ever said “food is love”, she would, you imagine, follow up with some brutal deconstruction of love, as physiological crisis or psychological dependency perhaps, or self-delusion, or as an impulsive tendency working itself out in belligerent iterations through the patterns of one’s life. She could base the connection on hunger, perhaps, or the erotic act of devouring.
You imagine. She couldn’t really do any of that now, of course. She’s dead.
Food is love, food is love, food is love. Take your butter out of the fridge. Your hands need to be cold. Wash them. Wash them again, why not.
Think: it is possible to read a rugged form of sentiment in Lessing’s bare recipe. Its absence of waffle suggests an acetic – aesthetic? – ascetic dedication to the notion that a recipe has value beyond any expression of sentiment. It is hard not to read it and imagine a caring woman, facing a catastrophe she cannot surmount, perhaps cannot even conceptualise, resorting to a practical gesture, the kind of tiny practical gesture that can – if repeated enough, patterned, incorporated into the matrix of gestures and signs that we sometimes call a lifestyle, sometimes a relationship, sometimes a societal trend – slowly start to overcome the most terrible calamity.
It’s a Twelve Steps kind of mentality, you’re following right now. The kind of homely wisdom Stephen King would promote. You know – how do we walk? One step after another.
You know, the way you offer the freshly bereaved a cup of tea.
And they say A CUP OF TEA? Do you think I want A CUP OF FUCKING TEA right now?
And you acknowledge the insufficiency of your offer, this cup of tea, but persist in offering it. Because you know this cup of tea will lead to many more, reflective and sociable, and you see that bereaved person working through grief, cup by cup, and incorporating it into their life, and bearing the pulses of pain, and understanding that the intensity of each pulse is decreasing, and missing that intensity, and missing, missing, missing their beloved in the long dark hours of night thoughts. But ultimately continuing. Drinking tea. One cup after another.
Work the butter into the flour. Make breadcrumbs. That’s a stupid name for something uncooked. Bread kibble. Suet soil. Add water, slowly. Push the kibble together into a lump. This is called pastry dough. Don’t knead it. Place it in the refrigerator for an hour.
An entire hour passes, just like that.
Take the hunk of chilled dough and deform it with a rolling pin. Flatten it out. You have never offered tea to the freshly bereaved.
Think: there is also something unified about a recipe. It is a contained form, whose instructional mode provides the comfort of predetermined action. Think: it has the appeal of an incantation, an almanac, a spell.
Now take your canned pumpkin. Remind yourself that it has to be canned. This is a factoid: canned pumpkin provides a sweetness and intensity of flavour that fresh pumpkin too often lacks. Consider the absurdity of trying to put fresh pumpkin in a pumpkin pie. Consider the magic of mass production. Consider a contained form, whose instructional mode provides the comfort of predetermined action. Think of the word protocol.
Fart-dump the pumpkin into a mixing bowl. Smash two eggs that came out of hens’ arses and slop their contents in there too. They do not mix immediately. Stare at the mess. Think about the word diarrhoeal. Spell the word diarrhoeal.
Stop thinking that.
Think about diseases. Salmonella. Salmon. Error.
Stop it. Stop thinking that. What’s wrong with you?
The recipe calls for a can of sweetened condensed milk.
This is the real stuff. Ultimately, we all know pumpkin pie is just a vessel for the consumption of sweetened condensed milk. Open that can. Smell it. Malty. Lick the lid. Go on. Nobody’s looking.
Put your entire finger in the open can of condensed milk, then pull it out, trailing custard-coloured skeins. Suck it off your finger. Ooh you beast. That – that is pleasure. The nerves in your mouth contacting your brain and telling it to go ummmmmmm. You are falling in love right now, Doris Lessing might say. It’s the same neurological process.
Gee, thanks Doris.
Ask, in a self-righteous tone: Doris, do you think the remorseless pursuit of uncomfortable truth did anyone’s relationships any good?
Ask it out loud.
Then say: Nothing, sweetheart. I was talking to myself.
Pretend you didn’t just do any of what you just did. Pour what’s left of the sweetened condensed milk into the mixing bowl. Mix the mixture. Consider the erotics of consumption. Some men put their penises in food. You don’t. You won’t today. But tomorrow, who knows? It’s good to keep your options open.
Keep your options open. But follow the recipe. Because recipes provide form. They have a beginning, and a middle, and an end result. Consider that you will present this finished pumpkin pie to your wife. She will enjoy it less than you, because food is an anxiety for her the way diseases are an anxiety for you, but she will enjoy it nonetheless on multiple levels, including that it is likely to taste nice, and act as a comfort for her sadnesses and an expression of love, unsentimentally delivered, and a token of commitment to continue in the face of calamity – even imaginary calamity – into the future – the ever-imaginary future – a simple, bounded concept painted with a sunset.
Pour the mixture into the pastry base you should have already placed in a shallow glass baking tray and place in the oven you should have already preheated to 180° centigrade. Sorry I forgot to put those details in the recipe. Place the pastry base in a greased baking tray. Grease the baking tray. Fuck. Place the pastry base in the baking tray and preheat the oven to 180° centigrade. Do this, then return to an appropriate point above, perhaps the bit where you dunked your finger in the sweetened condensed milk, and cycle through again.
Jacob Rollinson just completed a PhD in creative and critical writing at the University of East Anglia. He was inspired to write ‘P IS FOR PUMPKIN’ while working at the British Archive for Contemporary Writing, which holds an extensive Doris Lessing archive. When not writing about food, he writes about translation, classical Chinese poetry, ancient evil demigods, and mental health.