A Palliative Dinner
by Harry Haddon
This is an adapted version of the words that went along with a dinner presented by Harry Haddon for the final evening of The Palliative Turn exhibition at the Künstlerhaus Bremen on October 1, 2022.
What do you eat at the end of the world? What do you pair with your own personal apocalypse?¹ What is the amuse-bouche for eternity?
These were the thoughts I was having as I mulled over what to make for a dinner for the end of The Palliative Turn exhibition at the Künstlerhaus Bremen. It was a dinner for thirty people. It had to be delicious, palliative, and possible to be cooked in an office on a two-plate stove. The following thoughts and recipes are what I came up with.
At the end of life food’s purpose shifts, irrevocably. No longer is it taken to sustain, but instead to provide comfort: a smell, texture or flavour that reminds you of life, of living, as you prepare to exit the stage for the last time. This is known as pleasure or comfort feeding in palliative care. As the body shuts down there is no need for physical nourishment, but the soul needs to be nourished till the end.
It acknowledges the existence of the end, and plans for it.2
To consider food and eating palliatively is to consider it differently. To reconsider our relationship to it. Food, by its nature, acknowledges the existence of the end. To eat is to end the life of something in order to bring life to something else. There is no sustenance without death, which is why the most fundamental human question is not “Why am I?,” “Who am I?,” or “Where am I?”; no, the question we’ve surely asked ourselves most throughout existence is “What’s for dinner?”
Choosing what has to die to keep something else alive is a complicated and ethically arduous question. But as life on this planet becomes somewhat more terminal, it’s a question we’re having to face up to more often. It’s not simply an ethical approach to other animals but to the planet as a whole. Our rampant desire for animal flesh, sugary snacks, and plastic-wrapped instant gratification has wreaked havoc the world over. While food provision has improved with modern agriculture, and along with it a growth in population, it has come at a cost. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, especially if it is entrecôte we’re all trying to order. Whichever way you mandolin it, our relationship with food is out of balance.
Which brings me to the first course. Mussels. These tasty bivalves could play a large part in helping tip the scale back in the right direction. Researchers believe that by developing just 1% of world’s coastline suitable for bivalves, we could provide over one billion people with all their protein needs.
They’re sustainable, filter water, are high in protein, and their production creates a carbon footprint lower than carrots or apples. What’s not to love? Well. There’s the tricky ethical question of eating living things, and, I’d say, they’re probably less loved than apples and carrots. Oysters used to be pet food, until they got scarce, so I’m not sure producing more mussels is a way to win over bellies and minds. If you don’t like mussels but accept that a palliative approach to food is needed, may I suggest changing your relationship to them with this delicious Turkish street food:
STARTER: MIDYE DOLMA
You find midye dolma (stuffed mussels) all over Turkey, but I had them first in Istanbul. They can be bought from shops or on the side of the road. Their sellers make them in vast amounts. There are great videos on YouTube where you can watch the journey from boat to pot to mouth. There is a genius in the combination gently spiced rice, sweetness of the currants, salty mussels, and sharp lemon. It is still the best non-greasy hangover food that I’ve eaten.
(Recipe adapted from Anatolia: Adventures in Turkish Eating by Somer Sivrioğlu and David Dale)
• 25–30 large black mussels, cleaned and bearded
• 4 tbsp. olive oil
• 2 medium to large onions, finely chopped
• 30g pine nuts
• 110g cup short grain rice
• 30g currants (soaked for 15 min. in warm water and drained)
• 1 tomato, very finely chopped or grated
• 1/3 cup (a handful) finely chopped flat leaf parsley
• 1/3 cup (a handful) finely chopped fresh dill
• 1 tbsp. tomato paste
• 2 tsp. ground black pepper
• 1/2 tsp. Aleppo chili flakes
• 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
• 3/4 cup hot water
• salt to taste
• lemon wedges to serve
You can make the stuffing a day ahead of time. In fact, this is probably better as it really gives the flavours time to come together.
There is a knack to slicing open the mussels. I’d go watch some YouTube videos. Rinsing the mussels first in warm water will help open the shells slightly. Mussels with already opened shells should be discarded. If unsure, give the mussel a tap, if it contracts, it’s fresh, if unresponsive, it has sadly already passed on and should be thrown away.
• Rinse the rice well under cold running water. Drain and set aside.
• Start with the stuffing. In a medium pan, heat the oil and sauté the onions over a high heat for 5 minutes, or until they take on some colour.
• Reduce the heat and stir in the pine nuts, sauté for 3 minutes, stirring often.
• Add the rice, currants, chopped tomato, tomato paste, spices and a 1/3 teaspoon of salt, good grind go black pepper. Stir to combine.
• Pour in the hot water and bring to the boil, then cover and simmer over low heat for 10–15 minutes until all the liquid has been absorbed. You want to finish with the rice being a little under cooked, as it will cook further with the mussels. If it needs to cook more add a splash more hot water. When ready remove from the heat and leave to cool.
• Once cool, stir in the chopped dill and parsley, and check the seasoning adding more salt or pepper as needed. Set aside to cool.
• Open the mussels. Place the mussels in a large bowl and rinse under cold water. Carefully force the point of a knife into the gap at the pointy end of each mussel. Move the knife around the mussel, slicing through the meat so the shell opens with half the meat attached to each half shell.
• Pull off and remaining beards, and remove any grit at the base. Leaving the two halves connected, twist the shells a little to partially tear the connecting hinge tissue.
• Put 1–2 tsp. of stuffing – depending on the mussel size – into the middle of each one, and push the half shells together again. Resist overfilling. You don’t need a lot of rice. Once closed, wipe any excess filling off.
• Place the filled mussels in a wide, heavy high-sided pan, or in a pot. Arrange in a circle with the tips pointing outwards towards the edge of the pan, with the shells slightly overlapping (to prevent them opening). Build a tight spiral of shells in the centre of the pan. You can build up to two layers. Placing a plate over the top will help them stay closed.
• Pour in about 1 cup of water. The water should reach halfway up the shell of the bottom layer of mussels. Cover the pan and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10–15 minutes.
• Remove the mussels from the heat and leave to cool at room temperature. Cover and keep them in the fridge for 30 minutes–1 hour to cool further and for the flavours to settle.
• Serve the midye dolma with the leftover aromatic rice and lemon wedges by the side. Eat them with your hands! Use the top shell to scoop the mixture out of the bottom shell. A generous squeeze of lemon is a really really important part of the dish.
It’s easy to shove food in your mouth and get on with things. Not that everything has to be a mindful moment, but I think sometimes it’s good to really focus on the pleasures of eating. It’s very easy to slip into some pretty privileged areas when talking about food, assuming that these experiences are universal. Try to focus on the pleasures of eating when you’re starving. Try meditate on eating when you’re sick. For many, eating and food is not a playful topic to be philosophised over. What I am driving at here is less about what’s on the plate than what it can mean, no matter your situation. Whether we have a lot or a little, whether we can manage a plate or a mouthful, it’s sharing that can hold much value – that special space created by eating together. That small moment in time when we can break bread together; if there’s anything close to a universal language I think it’s found somewhere in that moment.
Of all the points in the manifesto I think this summarises food, and eating, best of all. When I think about joyful eating, I remember coming out the sea after a long surf, ravenous, salt drying on tanned skin, counting coins to buy a bunny chow, a half-loaf, hollowed out, filled with a generous portion of curry. Chicken or mutton when there were extra coins, or a vegetable or bean curry when there weren’t. Unwrapping waxy, oil-stained paper, tearing off chunks of curry-soaked bread, no one speaking, just eating.
The bunny chow originated in Durban, South Africa, the city I grew up in. It was invented – though stories vary – during apartheid, when black and Indian workers were not allowed inside restaurants and had to eat outside without crockery or cutlery. The bunny chow was the workaround. A standard white loaf of bread was cut in half, the inside scooped out, and then filled with curry. The scooped out bread placed on top, and the whole thing wrapped up. Starting with the scooped out bread, you dunk and eat, and as the curry level drops, you tear the walls of the loaf until you are left with only the curry-soaked crust at the bottom, the best bit. It was easy to prepare, wrap, and carry, creating little to no waste.
A bunny chow is all about generosity, adaptability, something delicious coming out of evil, racist circumstances. A dish that’s now known all over the world, and brought me so much joy, so many times. A dish that is as much home to me as the city itself.
MAIN COURSE: VEGETABLE BUNNY CHOW WITH CARROT SALAD
• 3 tbsp. vegetable oil
• 1 cinnamon stick
• 2 bay leafs
• 1 star aniseed
• 4 cardamom pods
• 1 onion finely chopped
• 1 curry spring of curry leaf
• 1 tsp. ginger/garlic paste
• 1 tbsp. of ground cumin
• 1 tsp. of ground coriander
• 1 tsp. of whole cumin
• 1/2 tsp. turmeric
• 1/4 tsp. ground fennel
• 1 tsp. garam masala
• 1 tsp. chilli powder (more or less depending on how hot you like it)
• 1 green chilli, chopped fine
• 1 red chilli, chopped fine
• 3 roma tomatoes grated
• 1/2 cup chopped green beans
• 1/2 cup chopped carrots
• 1 cup cauliflower
• 2–3 small potatoes cut into fours
• 2 cups water
• 2 loaves of sandwich bread
• small bunch of coriander for garnish
• 4 carrots, peeled and roughly grated
• 1 onion, very finely chopped
• 2 long green chillies (optional), finely chopped
• 2 tbsp. white vinegar, or any vinegar of your choice
• 1 tsp of sugar
• In a large pot, heat the oil and add cinnamon, cardamom, bay leaf, star aniseed.
• Once the whole spices are fragrant add the onion and curry leaf.
• Sauté until the onion has taken on some colour.
• Add ginger/garlic paste and fry for a minute.
• Add the spices and chilli and cook for 2–3 minutes into a thick paste. Add more water if required. Add the tomatoes and tomato paste and cook for 5 minutes.
• Add the vegetables, except the peas and sauté for 5 minutes with the lid open, on low heat.
• Add a cup of water and allow the curry to simmer until the vegetables are cooked and tender. Taste and season as needed. Add more water if required. You want to end up with a nice thick gravy.
• For the carrot salad, mix the sugar into the vinegar and combine with the rest of the ingredients. Taste and season as needed.
• To serve, cut the loaves in half, scoop or cut out the bread, and ladle in the curry. Place the cut out bread on top, serve the salad and garnish with sprigs of coriander.
Food has always been around at the time of death. From offerings, given to the dead person to take with them into the afterlife, to meals and feasts cooked to celebrate and remember the person who has passed. One story that highlights this and our strange relationship with food, death and each other are funeral biscuits.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Christians in Great Britain and Germany commonly placed bread or cake on corpses before burial. In Germany, the bread was left to rise, absorbing some of the person’s virtues that would then be transferred to the eater. In England, things were a bit darker. The cakes were though to absorb the sins of the deceased, to aid their journey to the afterlife. The rich – and it’s always the rich – would hire “sin-eaters,” the lowliest people around, to eat it. But in the Victorian era, corpse cakes were communally shared funeral biscuits, which were wrapped with printed prayers and poems meant to comfort gathered mourners, rather than to intercede on behalf of the dead.
For the dinner, I asked members to bring and share whatever biscuit or sweet they liked and share a thought, a poem, or word to comfort us all in these trying times. When I think of death, it’s always this poem that comes to mind.
VICTORIAN FUNERAL BISCUITS
1.5 cups of sugar
1 cup of soft butter
1 tsp. Vanilla essence
2 large eggs, beaten
2.5 cups of flour
2 tsp. of ground cardamon
1tbsp. caraway seeds, lightly toasted
1/2 tsp. salt
• Preheat oven to 180 Celsius.
• Combine the sugar and butter and mix till smooth.
• Add the eggs and vanilla essence .
• Sift the dry ingredients and add a bit at a time to the mixture. Add the caraway seeds and mix until a dough is formed.
• The dough will be slightly sticky. If you want to roll and use a cookie cutter, chill the dough for a few hours first. Then roll and cut.
• Or you can roll it into a small ball and use a fork to press the ball into a biscuit. Rinse the fork after each one to keep it from sticking.
• Bake on baking-sheet lined tray for 12 minutes, or until the bottom just turns brown.
• Cool on a wire rack.
²These and the other lines are taken from the Association for the Palliative Turn’s manifesto.
This contribution is part of The Palliative Turn.