My first husband, who looked like Carlos Santana, chose Christmas to break the news, break up our lives. He was off, he said, moving in with his young mistress. The festive season often precipitates marital convulsions and a flight to new beginnings.
How do you mark the agonizing end of a long, love-filled marriage? With spicy fish and chips. That was my mother Jena's idea. Not quite a raucous divorce party (we were far too sad for that) but a way of saying to ourselves we would survive. I was all cried out when mum arrived with chunky slabs of halibut marinaded in green chutney: "Come, we are free to fry again. Something good always comes out of bad."
The dear departed found this fish dish too greasy, too smelly, too spicy, too fatty. When the greasy, spicy, fattening and delicious smells filled the flat, it felt like ceremonial fumigation.
Happy memories are often linked to food; painful recollections even more so. Spicy fish and chips can still awaken in me those old feelings of rejection and humiliation and vengeance too; other dishes are also inextricably connected to that Christmas when my world caved in.
Some of the turmoil, graphically described in my memoir The Settler's Cookbook, moved many to share their own experiences, some strangers, some acquaintances. Most people whose hearts and hopes were smashed during the season of gorging, it seems, smell the pain, taste it on their tongues.
Phillip Soames, a professional violinist, was married to a Singaporean Chinese woman for five years. Then one evening, in the week before Christmas: "She was making duck with green peppers and baby corn, stirring it furiously and fast. There was a burning smell – never happened before. Our baby was crying and my ex-wife grabbed the wok and dropped it. Then dropped the news – she was off, had a ticket and would be gone in two days. With the baby. It had all been a mistake, marrying an Englishman. It came out of the blue, a sudden heartbreak." Soames has not been able to eat Chinese food since. The aromas make him heave as he grieves, two years on.
A superwoman who runs her own PR company would, you feel, quite like to slow roast the unworthy husband who dumped her: "I was standing in the kitchen, falling apart. But then, I realised that his relationship with food is odd. Either he is on Slim-Fast diets – very narcissistic – or, like many trendies, it is fuel. They are 'beyond eating'. I am Jewish – we love feasts and noise and sitting down together. Winter is a time for those. I had suppressed who I was because he always pissed over any dinners I organised, just behaving badly and never appreciating all that I put in or what it meant to me."
My ex-husband did that too. When we had friends over, he, an Asian, conspicuously brought out antacids and complaints – he was developing allergies to chilli, peppers, meat (the new girl was a veggie), heavy Indian food and cucumber. I should have shown him the door then. Instead this little wifie tried to make fat-free, chilli-free curries for the prissy hubby, who by then was eating chappati with a knife and fork and demanding nut loaf for Christmas.
Some who are ignominiously junked in the festive season do find reasons to be cheerful and these are often to do with food. Simi, working class, mixed race and an entrepreneur, recalls her sense of release when her husband left her on New Year's Eve ten years ago: "He was something of a connoisseur, buying trips to French wineries and all that. We came from different worlds – the Wimpy girl and French brasserie boy. Wine didn't exist in our house, I was into vodka. And I've gone back to that. And raspberry martinis – as vulgar as it gets. And no more salmon steaks. Lots of chocolate. When we were courting, he indulged my love of chocolates. By the middle of the marriage though, no words were spoken; I knew he didn't approve."
Others ritualise their sorrow and fury, victuals used as props for annual melodramas. Jamie, whose divorce papers came through on the 20th of December 2008, violently chops off the heads of spring onions on this day, imagining it is his ex-wife, who loved the Wendy Cope poem: "Decapitating the spring onions, She made this mental note: You can tell it's love, the real thing, When you dream of slitting his throat".
Maria's partner was an aid worker, a noble soul, she believed, until she discovered he had married a French colleague who was pregnant with his child: "We were eating dessert – apple pie. I threw the pie dish at him, very Meryl Streep and her key lime pie moment in the movie Heartburn. It was Christmas Eve". She marks the moment somewhat unconventionally. "Every year, on the 24th of December I make an apple pie, but in with the filling I throw in a lethal number of crushed Paracetamol. I drink a glass of wine and imagine him eating it and then throw it away."
With soaring divorce rates, commercial caterers have spotted a niche market. You can now buy cakes with iced figures acting out scenes of marital discord; biscuits with "bastard" and "love rat" written out in icing and sad, blue cocktails. Clever and timely, these products, but they can't beat the personalised, imaginative response to the tragedy of divorce – like the annual poison pie or forbidden (mal)odorous fish and chips.
But these are acts of bravado. Divorce hurts, really hurts, most people. The wound is that much more agonizing if inflicted when people are eating and drinking and making merry. Those who choose this moment to betray lovers and partners are making sure there is no forgetting – perhaps it is an act of supreme vanity – and that the bitter taste will stay around forever. You do recover and find your way back to happiness, but a whiff of some dish, a sip of a drink associated with the past, and you can find yourself back on your knees weeping.
Think about that if you planned your great escape for this Christmas. To the kind hostess who served nut roast last week, which I couldn't swallow: it wasn't because I had a terrible sore throat as I claimed. The truth is it reminded me of Him again, the bastard who left, and his veggie lady. I hope you can understand and forgive me.