Counting, A Cake & Some Crumbs of Comfort
There was a cake in the oven when it happened.
We had just recovered from Covid, then the vines got sick and then seemed to be recovering too. And then Lorenzo had some blood tests to try and find out why he couldn’t gain weight.
The lab results came back and there it was – mid-column – a higher number than normal. The blood sugar count.
I didn’t see the sheet, but he described it to me over the phone, in classic Lorenzian understatement:
‘Sembra che gli zuccheri sono un po’ altini’ it seems the sugars are a little bit high.
And then the doctor’s indisputable diagnosis: Type 1 Diabetes.
The cake and my heart sank.
Our relationship is built on foundations of flour. The clouds in our communal sky are buns filled with cream, the blankets of our comfort, crema (or what I call custard). I once asked Lorenzo what the thing he loved most in the world was (I should have known better) and he thought about it briefly, and then replied, quiet but firm; crema.
The first thing I cooked for him was Cannoli, our routine every Saturday morning pancakes, every Sunday afternoon, gelato. We’d make a special trip into town to buy a Cornus, the province’s largest pastry, a huge fried and sugared doughnut cone filled to the brim with thick, yellow pastry cream.
I didn’t take the news very well. There were plenty of eruptions, a few pans of pasta thrown here and there. At lunch with his parents I saw him stick his first insulin needle into his stomach and I burst into uncontrollable sobs, weeping fat angry tears into my pasta. There were spots of blood on all of his things from the finger pricks.
The next day he arrived home with a diet ring-binder containing sad laminated sheets. On the sheets were black and white photos of baskets of pineapples and bowls of sorry grey gruel.
I found the pineapple particularly offensive.
There were lists of suggestions for every meal with the grams to count written next to them.
Just looking at it made me want put rocks in my pockets and walk into the nearest river.
100g pasta with vegetable-based sauce
150g grilled chicken breast with lettuce and 1 tbsp olive oil
80g of fruit (no bananas, grapes or figs)
Weighing and counting every single thing is depressing. At least at first. Now it’s become almost fun. We wager on the weight of this plump peach, of that fat apricot (the drupes are safe). We exclaim with hyperbolic glee, ‘look at that plum, a hundred-grammer!’. Humour softens hardship. I learnt that young. The scales sit next to his plate at meal times and he puts his slice of melon onto it, removing the skin. He puts a steak on it; half a bread roll. We spend our lives wiping the damn thing down.
And so the scales have been assimilated into our lives, just as the needles have, and his little pouch which goes everywhere with him now; full of new needles, his injection pen, emergency sachets of sugar, the reviving nasal spray I have to spray into his nostril when he has a hypoglycaemic attack, the tabs and little reader to measure his blood sugar. We bought him a smart black leather man-bag to carry it all around with, and I tell him it makes him look like a spy. White lies for black bags. Got to keep up morale.
But it wasn’t the injections or the insulin or even the miserable diet sheets that really bothered me, despite my initial melodramatic outbursts, or the fact that he will have to live with, regulate, control and manage this disease his whole life that made me so incredibly sad and sorry. It was the thought of all the pleasure that he would no longer have. Of all of the enjoyment lost. Because no one lights up at the sight of a bun like Lorenzo; he is the only person I have ever met who actually closes his eyes when he eats custard or cake. Even in a room full of people.
And part of it, of course, was selfish because I am a human and therefore selfish. I thought I couldn’t bake him cakes anymore, and part of my pleasure in making food – particularly sweet things - was witnessing his pleasure in eating them. I don’t bake cakes for myself, I bake them for other people. Who bakes a cake to eat alone?
The diagnosis was unexpected. When I first met him, about 15 months ago, he was very skinny, and he talked about it often. He said he couldn’t understand it, considering he ate so heartily. He ate like a teenager; enormous plates at mealtimes and then endless snacks; crisps, Coke, ice cream, chocolate, cake. He took no exercise (this is a man who can stay reading a book about an obscure moment in Medieval history in the same chair for 9 hours without so much as raising an eyebrow) and yet he couldn’t put on any weight. I joked that he was blessed, but I did find it odd. I said perhaps he should have his blood sugars measured as I noticed that he seemed to suffer acute hunger, and become irritable and anxious if he didn’t eat. He ignored me, of course. Then there was the constant need to pee, and to drink water all day and through the night. I never knew him without a water bottle at his side. And he complained of a dry mouth, of the lack of saliva. I thought it was just particular to him. And so it went on, for 18 months.
And then suddenly with one tiny printed number everything became clear.
He has gained 4 kilos since he began injecting himself. His face is fuller, his cheeks less gaunt. He looks healthier and he sleeps through an entire night, something I have never known him do since I first met him. He doesn’t crave sugar, he doesn’t suffer from a voracious hunger and thirst like he used to. He is, without a shadow of a doubt, healthier. The insulin has changed him in a way that makes my medication-cynical mind explode.
And – seeing him heal - I have dragged myself out of the Slough of Despond.
Checking my diary – ‘Lorenzo Diabetes’ scrawled under 20th July – I see it was 10 days ago that he was diagnosed, and there is no denying that things have got much easier, just as all the clichés and my friends said they would. You really can get used to anything. Weighing things has become second nature, cooking 100g of protein and 100g of carbohydrate every meal is really not so difficult. The salads and side dishes have grown ever larger as they do not have to be measured, and he can eat them in abbondanza. My love and appreciation for vegetables grows ever deeper. We have kept strictly to his specified diet (I snuck in only one cream bun and a handful of biscuits for myself) and he has gained 4kg, I have lost 2. Strange how it goes. I have come to actually enjoy it, in a funny way, and I cannot deny that I feel healthier, and have less frenetic/anxious energy every morning having (almost) eliminated biscuits and cake.
I also cannot help feeling it is probably a lesson I needed to be taught (Christian morality is hard to shake off). Throughout my cooking life I could never claim to have been particularly tolerant of dietary requirements, being the first to scowl and curse in the kitchen when a customer requested something specific which made my work just a tiny bit more complicated. I defiantly ate, cooked and advocated the use of white flour, white sugar, butter, full fat milk and yoghurt. I revelled in my ability to eat all of the above almost to the point of arrogance. I was too quick to dismiss intolerances as false or faddish.
Yesterday we went out for a meal for the first time since Lorenzo was diagnosed. As it came to ordering he started looking nervous and cleared his throat. He asked the waiter if he could ask the chef to weigh a piece of bread for him, so he knew he was eating exactly 100g. The waiter said he would do it himself and reappeared with his neat little panino on a small plate, immaculately cut into pieces. Lorenzo sighed with relief and began to eat his roll, licking his forefinger and using it to pick up the crumbs on the plate. He smiled wryly and said quietly into his beard,
Briciole di felicita`
Crumbs of happiness.
The waiter was kind in a way that I, in my past as a chef, often was not. And the fact that this has happened makes me retrospectively ashamed of myself and my pride in the past. People have all sorts of different needs/requirements for all sort of reasons, and who am I to judge them or complain because it takes me slightly longer to prepare whatever they may want/need to eat?
I try to think about why the counting bothered me so much at the beginning. Why it made me feel so miserable and angry. And then I realised why. As someone who has been obsessed with and worked with or around food for most of my adult life, I had finally reached a point where I no longer worried about what I put in my mouth. It had taken me 35 years to get there, but there I was, at a point where I ate what I wanted, when I wanted, and I was happy. I never looked at calories, I never thought about quantities. I hadn’t weighed myself in years. I ate until I was full – mostly pretty good stuff – pizza, bread and pasta often, not much chocolate but cakes and biscuits every day, gelato often. Plenty of vegetables and fruit and pulses. I didn’t think about it, and I certainly didn’t worry about it. Food had finally become something I no longer thought about it those terms; it was a pure, untainted pleasure. Sometimes a chore, as it had become my work too, but never a source of pain or preoccupation. And then, back came a little ring-binder book with pictures of plates and a mean little needle and I felt like it had all been a beautiful, brief dream.
But the counting now is not like it was before, when I was counting and controlling for reasons that were destructive and difficult. Now we are controlling and counting for good. And now I see that good really taking effect in physical form, in a man who is heavier, healthier and has more colour, energy and vitality, I could count forever and not care. It is a small price to pay.
And once the counting had been swallowed, there came a cake too. Emerging from the Slough I decided to set myself a challenge, because the best cure for sadness is to be busy. I wanted to make a cake. But not just any cake. A cake with a zero carbohydrate count.
I investigated sugar substitutes, of which there are many. Most of them still have carbohydrates. Fruit sugar, coconut sugar, honey, agave; these are still sugars when it comes to Diabetes. Then I discovered something called Erythritol. It has a zero glycemic index, which is something you come to know all about if you live with or are a diabetic. It occurred naturally, came from plants, and seemed to have no side effects. I found some in the health-food shop and put it to use.
I made a cake recipe which I use often, for a yoghurt cake that I wrote up in Dolce. It comes from a baker friend of mine, Yossy. It’s a lovely, moist, plain cake which can form the basis for all sorts of things and be adapted as you see fit. I replaced the flour (high carbohydrate/glycemic index) with ground almonds (almost no carbohydrate) and the sugar with Erythritol.
The mixture came together easily and looked ok. I licked the spoon. I am a perfectionist when it comes to cooking and although my food is rustic and simple there is a great deal of angsty perfectionism that goes into achieving both of these qualities. I checked the taste. The sweetness is felt first, at the tip of the tongue, and it has a little flavour, unlike normal sugar, which is just a sensation. Or perhaps it seems so because it is a flavour we all know so well it has stopped being a flavour at all. The flavour was different, a little chemical, not in an unpleasant way, but definitely unusual. Not far from sugar, but distinguishable, to me at least.
I flung it into the oven and hoped for the best.
It came out dark around the edges, and a little sunken. Not a beauty, but the house was filled with that baking smell again and there was a funny sort of light in Lorenzo’s eyes.
I sliced a bit and gave it to him.
He took a bite, chewed for a minute or two, his face inscrutable.
He swallowed slowly and then, heaving a little sigh, he closed his eyes.
La Torta Diabetica
Or a Free-from/freedom cake
250g sugar substitute (I used erythritol)
225g ground almonds
2 tsp baking powder (gluten free)
A good pinch of salt
175ml olive oil
55g melted unsalted butter
Grated zest and juice of 2 small lemons
1 tsp vanilla extract (optional)
4 large eggs
240ml yoghurt let down with a little milk
Butter and line a loaf tin and preheat the oven to 180.
Whisk all of the ingredients together in a bowl until smooth, pour into the tin and bake for 45-50 minutes, until a spaghetti strand comes out clean.