Grow a Backbone! How to Deal with Illness and Culinary Exile*

Photo credit: Helmut W. Klug

Being ill results in culinary exile, every bit as much as what occurs when that knock on the door comes at night, the jackboots pounding the stairs, or when torrential winds blow off the roof and streams of water turn streets into rivers filled with floating cars and lawn ornaments set adrift.

Like other calamities of man and nature, being injured upends your life and propels you into a place you only know from nightmares. But in this case, there’s no waking, no saying “Oh, it’s just a bad dream.”

The fun starts when you struggle to turn over in bed. Easing yourself to the edge, you gasp as you try to stand upright, gripping the night table, bent over, stork-like, balancing on one leg and then putting down the other in slow motion. No, it’s not a nightmare. As the pain shoots once more through your spine, you whimper, and you see the tiny child you used to be. You need a hug, but even that can’t happen. It hurts too much.

Then your stomach growls.

“Ah, at least something is normal here,” you whisper.

You shuffle across the red tile floor into the kitchen. You know you’d never even win a race against a snail, no, not today.

Just to pull open the refrigerator door causes the sweat to bead on your upper lip, but you persevere and grab the yogurt container. You put it down on the dark granite counter, well away from the marble slab you use for pastry. But not today. You shiver, thinking of rolling out the dough. You couldn’t put the necessary spine into it even if you wanted to.

The yogurt needs some granola and some blueberries, to aid – pardon the graphic insinuation – the channeling of nutrients. You toss everything into a small white ceramic bowl and sit on the straight-back chair, the cool one with slats that you loved in the shop, the one that now makes you cringe like a prisoner pressed up against the bars of his cell. That’s why you put that nice soft pillow in the burgundy pillowcase against the unmoving wood. You lower yourself to the seat and exhale as you pick up the spoon and start eating.

“What will I do for dinner?” you wonder as you chew the granola.

You ask yourself this, because the other person living in your house doesn’t cook anything more than hamburgers. You gag at the thought. You want to cry, thinking of the tagines and marinara and pilafs you threw out a few weeks before, when the power went off for three days and you roasted in 98-degree heat.

You realize that you are in culinary exile, pretty much in the same way that immigrants and exiles find themselves after their border crossings.

Home itself becomes a place of exile when you are sick and injured.

Old cookbooks provided guidelines for food for invalids. Terrible stuff, which carried over into hospital food today. Jello. Beef broth. Tea. Ginger ale.


No wonder everybody died!

Invalids really need more. Injury and illness suck the life out of people. You can’t truly know this until it’s you lying strapped to the gurney, completely immobilized, condemned to a liquid diet and a bedpan for heaven knows how long.

Prayers and cards and flowers are nice. But you can’t eat those, unless, of course, the flowers are organic and/or candied. The kindest thing families and friends can do is to make sure that their invalid eats well and happily.

So along with “I’m sorry this happened to you,” how about making a pot of soup or other dish to ease the pain of culinary exile that your friend or family member feels, as well as the physical trauma?

*I wrote this in tribute to the people who have relieved my injury-induced culinary exile during the past 12 horrendous days.

Photo credit: Devin Young

© 2012 C. Bertelsen

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  1. Oh my, it’s just now when I learned about your poor back, it’s terrible. Get well soon!

    And yes, wise words you wrote above, as usual :)

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