Tuesday 25 October 2016

Going mad, and cooking yourself sane

Memoir: Recipes For A Nervous Breakdown, Sophie White, Gill Books, €24.99

Emily Hourican

Published 19/09/2016 | 02:30

Sophie White. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Sophie White. Photo: Kip Carroll.

Among the sea of Sugar-Free-Food-To-Make-You-Fit-type titles out there, Sophie White's new Recipes For A Nervous Breakdown is not so much a breath of fresh air, as a dash of ice-cold water.

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This is a book in the mode of Nigel Slater's Toast - an appealing jumble of memoir and recipes, which combine to provide, not just recommendations of delicious things to eat, but a fascinating, truthful, hilarious-and-heartbreaking-by-turns account of Sophie's life, including her upbringing as the only child of loving parents, and her unexpected breakdown following a festival.

That weekend, she took a pill, Ecstasy, and had what she describes as "a bad trip." Except that this bad trip - characterised by "extreme anguish, profound terror," along with hallucinations thrown in - was to last for three months, and was followed by more months of heavy anti-psychotic medication, and two years of anti-depressants.

Sophie writes about the breakdown, and the years that followed - living "off-grid" in a van in France, getting married, having her first child and the struggle that brought, the way she felt "queasy with anxiety" and filled with fear, before falling in love with her son - interspersed with recollections of childhood, and, most movingly, a chapter on her father's Alzheimer's, which began early, then accelerated aggressively.

Through it all, she walks a remarkable line between upbeat, even chirpy humour, and a cool, unsentimental look at the kinds of things most of us keep very quiet about.

This is a book that works on many levels. It is funny - bits of it will make you laugh right out loud - touching, and honest to the point of astonishment.

Born out of Sophie's column, The Domestic, in LIFE Magazine, it has the same cast of characters, including her mother (Herself), husband (Himself) and son, (Yer Man), and the same clever ability to segue from the general - life, you know - to the particular - recipes for delicious dishes.

In recent years we've had food-as-fuel, food-as-lifestyle choice; what has been lacking is food-as-passion. Sophie more than makes up for that.

This is a very convincing portrait of someone who lives to eat, and to eat everything: butter, sugar, cream. There is a recipe for pan-fried bacon and Brie sandwiches with apricot jam, but this isn't a wilful, self-conscious kind of fat-fest.

There is also a recipe for a wonderful baba ghanoush, for pad thai with courgetti. Sophie's food tastes are Catholic, in the best possible way.

To paraphrase that David Brent-like workplace sticker: 'You don't need to be mad to read this, but it helps.' By which I mean, anyone who has been through similar mental upheavals will cheer Sophie from the rooftops for speaking out, for being so utterly truthful, but also for being able to see the funny side of things that of course aren't funny at all.

And for anyone lucky enough not to have direct experience of 'madness', this is worth a read for the insight, but also for the writing, the determination to hold nothing back, and the delicious recipes.

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