Dad, food and me.
My father really loved food. Really loved it. Humpty-Dumpty-shaped until the age of 70, he always joked that he’d only be able to lose weight if it was a matter of life and death. And when he turned 70, it was.
So he lost just under seven stone. No fuss, no messing, he just did it.
He’d grown up surrounded by food, his mother Esther running a grocery shop in Hightown, in the centre of Manchester, in the shadow of Strangeways prison.
His own father, Harris, had died when my father was seven and there was never any money to talk of, before or after that, but there was always food. Part shop, part soup-kitchen, Esther never turned anyone away. The week before she died, she was still visiting her friends in an assortment of old-age homes, taking them home-cooked food. She was 86.
She took them the food of her childhood, the food that everyone cooked then, or at least everyone she knew. All the Ashkenazi greatest hits: chicken soup with kneidlach and lokshen, chopped liver, tsimmes, chopped and fried and gefilte fish. Shtetl food. Comfort food.
The joy in the giving of food was something she passed on to her son, my father. I remember him coming home every Friday night, ready for the weekend, laden with bags from M&S. It wasn’t normal then for fathers to do any food shopping.
He built up a chain of carpet shops and many of them were surprisingly close to an M&S.
And when I started my working life, tantalisingly close to the M&S Marble Arch mothership, he’d call me, to see if I had seen the latest food launch and telling me to go and buy it, that minute, then call him back to tell him that I‘d done it and to give him my verdict. Food-related control freakery.
Once, when going with him to work, I discovered that he was on first-name terms with a number of the (mostly female) shop assistants in the food hall of the Liverpool M&S. He was collecting the thirty Crème caramels they had put aside for him. Put aside, note. A personal Click and Collect, before it existed. There were five of us at home at that time and two of us didn’t eat them. These women of a certain age, fussing over him. It certainly didn’t equate to any experience I’d ever had in an M&S, then or since. And it wasn’t because he looked like Cary Grant. More a cross between Bob Hoskins and Danny de Vito.
And when we unpacked the Friday-night shopping, there were always empty packets. Half-eaten bunches of muscat grapes (“try these, you’ve never tasted grapes like them“) ripped-open packets of cake, remnants of chocolate bars. He’d had to sustain himself on the long, forty minute drive from Birkenhead to Manchester.
And there was also the traditional Sunday morning bagel smoked-salmon and picklemeat fest. When very young, this meant a trip to Titanics (motto: you shop, we schlep) near Hightown. Big sides of smoked-salmon, ready to slice, vats of sharp pickles, counters of cold meats and huge salamis. And when we’d finished there, he couldn’t resist a little drive round, pointing out an old school here, a disused synagogue there, memories from his childhood. And Titanics? It’s still there, but I can’t go back. I want it to be 1970.
And because nothing relating to food could be left to chance in my father’s world, he used to phone in his dinner order to my stepmother mid-morning, who would cook him whatever he demanded. This wasn’t as onerous as it sounds, given that nine times out of ten what he demanded was roast chicken and frozen peas.
And it had to be on the table within minutes of his arrival home or there would be an explosion. As soon as the car hit the driveway, we’d go into a well-choreographed dinner-dance. Food was on the table before the engine in his Jag had cooled down.
For someone who liked to eat so much, it was surprising that he never bothered to cook. He always told us that he could, but I didn’t see him do so much as boil an egg. There was that one time he made lemon curd, but most of it ended up splattered on the kitchen cupboards. The kitchen was simultaneously his happy place and other than the fridge, a no-go area.
And why would cook, when he always had someone to cook for him? My father was very good at letting himself be looked after. But then, as he would tell you, in case you might have forgotten, he looked after everyone else. The ”I do everything for everyone” song was on repeat play in our house.
And there was no such thing as portion control. He would never eat a single orange. It was always four. He’d cut them in half, suck the life out of them and present the plate, with the halves turned inside out, clean. It would always be a whole large tub of ice cream. Strawberries with a carton of cream, as a bedtime snack.
And when I went away to school and mentioned the crappy apples, regular food parcels started to arrive, express delivery of course. Not just any apples, Washington Reds and pink grapefruit, from M&S, of course.
That was the thing. You only had to mention that you needed or wanted something and without telling you, he would go and get it, straight away. Without telling you. Without checking which exact thing you wanted. And whether you really wanted it or not. The getting was all. Challenge Anneka had nothing on Challenge Ralph.
And with the internet, a whole new food shopping world opened up for him. One of his favourite foods was something called helzel. Chicken or goose-neck skin, stuffed with a mixture of matzo meal, schmaltz, (chicken fat, solidified) fried onions and bits of meat, sewn together and roasted, it’s the nearest thing Jews have to Haggis. Every artery-clogging mouthful taking you a step nearer to a heart attack. He loved it. We found that we could order it online from (long gone ) Blooms. Suddenly, the internet made sense.
But then, at 70, he got ill. He had lost the seven stone because he had PKD, polycystic kidney disease. It’s hereditary; one of those incredibly common, but little-known progressive and incurable illnesses. The deliberate weight loss was so that he could get a replacement kidney because the doctor told him that without it he would die in a year. And the weight loss was so swift and so dramatic that people wondered whether he was suffering from something more serious.
He’d pre-empt them, joking that he wasn’t dying of cancer. But then he was. Within a year of the weight loss, with prostate cancer. Which meant that there could be no kidney replacement. And then, shortly after that, throat cancer.
And of all the illnesses that could have beset my father (and let’s not forget the hernias and the three hip replacements and the TIAs) the throat cancer was the most cruel. Because of the prostate cancer, only radiotherapy was possible for his throat. It destroyed his tastebuds and made it impossible for him to swallow properly, as he couldn’t produce much saliva.
For over a year, he could only eat porridge, and eventually, other soft, wet foods. His appetite was shot. So were his tastebuds. Telling me the food tasted odd, or off. Only being able to eat tiny amounts. Gradually introducing more into his diet. Many long conversations, working out what he might eat that didn’t taste odd. Me trying to get him to see food as medicine, not as pleasure.
And in between this, going to work, running his business, refusing to accept his incapacity and railing at his lack of mobility. A brain as sharp as a razor, trapped inside a failing body.
And then slowly, there were small improvements. Eating a tiny bit of Dover sole or a baked potato a major cause for celebration. Calling me to tell me what he’d managed to eat. Any food beyond porridge a major victory.
And before he got ill for the last time, he was eating a wide variety of foods, to the point where he could go to a restaurant without having to check the menu in advance. Telling me what he’d eaten at Cicchetti’s in Manchester, or at the local Italian. Enjoying himself. No salt, no citrus, nothing acid, plain white fish, maybe a cream sauce, but no lemon in it. No fruit. But eating out, an unimaginable triumph.
I used to talk to him about food and how he felt about not being able to eat normally any more, given the lifelong love affair he’d had with it. He said that he’d eaten everything he’d ever wanted to eat and that it didn’t matter anymore. It’s better than the alternative, he’d say, I’m still here, he’d say, still telling the tale.
That was one of his favourite sayings. I don’t think there was a conversation that we had in the last year of his life where he didn’t say it. And in hospital, for the last three months of his life, he stopped eating altogether. It was a battle to get him to eat enough. That was when I knew he’d had enough, despite his protestations. Food was love to my father and when he couldn’t love anymore, it was time to go.
He died in hospital, on the (now disgraced) Liverpool Care Pathway. That’s the protocol which denied food and water to patients on the brink of death. They said it would take a couple of days for him to die. It took three weeks. There could not have been a more cruel end. He died in hospital, aged 79.
My father was very emotional about his mother and unusually so for someone of his generation. He often said to me that he would have given everything he had, everything, for five minutes more with her. Just five minutes. I believed him.
And I thought I understood it then. I understand it more now.
Ralph Myerson 1933-2012