Harriet Walker: 'I can carry only what fits in my mouth'

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The Independent Online

As we pat our collective gut and burp happily ahead of the festive season, it's time to think about the social power of sating oneself. Of really going for it at the dining table; of snuffling and troughing, lapping and ferreting; of not just being a "foodie" but of full-on "fooding". The whorls, splats and piles on your plate represent your lifestyle, your emotions, your relationships, like anxious tea leaves crawling up the side of a cup to be read.

The hopelessly bourgeois run on cranberries after Delia popularised them; the ubiquity of a 1970s prawn cocktail; the cold and numb-thumbed amateurs up and down the country trying out Heston's nitrogen baths. All are proof of how food is, for us, inextricably linked to community and trends, of how it has become so much than fuel.

It means we're highly evolved. A pack of hyenas doesn't stop to think about whether the raw elephant they're guzzling on is high in calories, or whether everything but the trunk and tusks constitutes a binge. They don't get angsty if one hyena rips the flesh from the carcass in a more imaginative way. They don't feel that curious tug between parsimony and pariah if the pachyderm they have felled was not free-range.

Food is about identity. We sneer at people whose baskets contain too much Müller Rice and not enough leafy veg; we envy the man who can unselfconsciously eat a sausage roll with chips and gravy in the work canteen; we love McDonald's but hate ourselves afterwards. I once went out with an awful snob who accused me of liking "poverty food" as I adore classics: corned beef, say, and semolina. A friend more recently amended my dietary foibles to "austerity chic". What's on our our plates defines us and acts as a leitmotif for our mood. Salad on a cold day? Watch her: she's steely, that one. Custard at lunchtime? What an old softie.

It's partly because we have so much choice, of course. One hardly feels that the interminable sacks of grain sent to famine-ridden countries signify anything beyond desperate need. But, as a cushy Westerner – not to mention, a fussy eater – imagine how it feels to have your food choices taken away. It's like someone sandpapering your personality.

I broke my leg last week and endured five days of hospital food – once a concept to strike terror into your heart thanks to its digestive rigour, and now simply something to avoid in the same way as walking barefoot across a blasted heath late at night. It's just not good for you.

I'm as institutionalised as they come. I can't turn down a soggy suet or flaccid flan. And I quite like the idea of a starched matron boiling up a vat of Scotch broth and pearl barley, like a Victorian allegorical painting. Nowadays, though, the scene would take in a grease-stained slattern emptying thousands of microwavable meals into a hostess trolley, before letting them congeal for two hours and then dolloping them straight in front of the expectant patient.

Even for someone who likes "poverty food", this was hard to swallow. Broccoli the colour of urine, mashed potato carved from a block like Michaelangelo's Pietà, gristly meat in a sauce so glutinous and otherworldly it can only have been made from the hot phlegm that coats the corridors of Hell. And thrown on a plate with all the alacrity of a slug regurgitating lunch for its young. When I first arrived in hospital, I was strong enough to survive despite the food; by the time I left, my only chance of getting discharged was to avoid it altogether. I hid leathery braised fetlock under wilted, farty cabbage in the knowledge that if I consumed any of it, I'd entirely unironically vomit up my anti-vomit meds and have to stay another day.

And now that I'm out, the story isn't much better. Good food is the preserve of the strong. Hobbling around my flat on crutches takes all my time and energy, not to mention all my faculties. How naive we are to think that a cup of tea and sarnie on the sofa is our God-given right. When you're on crutches, you're an itinerant desert hunter: you can't carry anything apart from what you can fit in your mouth. My time at the moment is spent shuffling back and forth from the kitchen with pre-packaged comestibles between my teeth, much like a wheezy old dog with its favourite slipper. Forget plates and viscosity, forget anything with a sauce element: I need Cellophane I can grip with my incisors, before hurling my prey on to the cushions and lowering myself down beside it.

It certainly cuts back on greed – but that's before you factor in how easily a multipack of crisps hangs between the teeth, and how light it is to transport.1