A Friendship in Nine Meals

GB. England. Kent. Broadstairs. Morelli's Cappuccino. Milshakes and Gelato's on sale here. 1986.
Martin Parr. “GB. England. Kent. Broadstairs. Morelli’s Cappuccino. Milshakes and Gelato’s on sale here.” 1986. Photo courtesy of Magnum Photos.

1. December 2007: a week or two before Christmas, my sister’s birthday. My mother cooks a special dinner: a bronzed roast chicken with thickly crusted potatoes and carrots sprinkled with thyme and black pepper. Gravy is poured from a blue and white china boat, and we eat in the good front room. There’s a crowd for dinner this evening: a few of my sister’s friends, ourselves and a girl called Michelle, who my brother is dating. In the warm glimmer of Christmas lights, we eat bowls of tiramisu soaked in brandy and flecked with Bourneville for dessert. “You have nice hair,” I say to Michelle. That is the extent of our conversation.

2. On a cool, clear morning in April, my grandmother dies. Michelle and my brother have been broken up for a year, but in spite of this, she and I have remained friends. There is a harmony to our friendship: she is practical and organized whereas I am scatty and chaotic. She joins us for the funeral reception and we consume sliced-pan sandwiches filled with egg and mysterious salad mixtures in a dark, dusty room. She has made cupcakes, and apologizes that they did not rise as they should have. I reach for one. Sweet cakes and milky cups of tea are the only thing I wish to eat and drink.

3. I have just completed my second year at university, and the holidays stretch out before me. Michelle and I drive to the beach in her navy Ford Fiesta. It is empty except for a group of Lithuanian friends with an adorable Chihuahua pup that keeps toddling over to us. We bring a picnic that we have purchased at Tesco but it is fancy by our standards: smoked salmon with fresh lemon juice, bagels, a tub of cream cheese, pink lemonade, and those teddy bear corn snacks in the green foil bags that as a child I had considered the height of sophistication. We take turns swigging lemonade from the bottle. Sitting on one of those itchy tartan rugs, in the summer sun, we discuss everything and nothing: our futures, dreams, secrets. What is it about the act of sharing food that allows our vulnerable selves to surface?

4. Michelle and I spend the day walking around town, weaving in and out of shops, chatting. At lunch, I suggest a sandwich place near the shopping centre and get a bread pocket speckled with seeds, with pesto, turkey, cucumber, a white, liquidy coleslaw, endive leaves and a pale-yellow cheddar that crumbles upon bite. Michelle opts for something similar and we eat our sandwiches in the sun. Mid-sandwich, Michelle gets a phone call and is offered a job. We are content enough to sit and finish our sandwiches together, the sun beating down our backs.

5. At the end of summer, Michelle has a craving for mashed potatoes. We bump into a friend and convince him to join us for dinner. He drives us to Blackrock Observatory on the periphery of Cork city. We eat outside, on wooden picnic tables, at a Mediterranean restaurant. I order a salad with brie and a glass of white wine while helping myself to forkfuls of Michelle’s garlic-infused mash. We move indoors as the evening sets in, the summer segueing into autumn; the air is fresh with possibility. Soon, Michelle will leave for London, and this is the last meal we’ll share for some time. The three of us split a slice of blueberry cheesecake.

What is it about the act of sharing food that allows our vulnerable selves to surface?

6. I have been in a long distance relationship for a couple of months. He lives in East London; Michelle lives far south. I arrive in London on a dull March morning with a terrible wisdom-toothache. I meet Michelle outside Tate Britain, and we walk for miles in the bright sunlight looking for somewhere to eat. It is Sunday, the streets are deserted, and I am becoming increasingly difficult. We eventually find an Italian restaurant just as it starts to rain. I order some kind of thick, creamy spinach pasta, into which I loudly start to sob. Everything is on edge—my future, my relationship, what I will do with myself—and I can no longer contain the anxiety. Over hot plates of pasta, I take refuge in the non-judgmental ear of my friend. She does not advise or question, but listens. Later that evening I break up with my boyfriend.

7. I spend much of winter in the library. Amid the snap and shimmer of January frost, I book a last minute flight to London to interview at a university. The interview is for a research position I really want, but I am underprepared and awkward and shy. It does not go well. The rest of the trip is a sad, miserable blur. Michelle buys us a bottle of white wine and a bag of £1 jelly sweets—the fizzy kind with sour watermelons and cola bottles—from her corner shop. It is freezing and I wear my blue blanket-scarf all weekend. We get a box of greasy fried chicken on the way home from the pub and eat the lot curled up in bed.

8. June arrives, and I take holidays mid-week. I fly to London, and then take the train to Nottingham. Michelle and I meet our friends in the food market behind the Southbank Centre on a wet Sunday. We share crisp churros freshly fried by an attractive Spaniard and we take turns dipping them in the chocolate sauce. For lunch, we select ‘artisan duck burgers:’ hot, fried confits of duck with crunchy skin and smoked cheese with rocket and truffle mayonnaise in soft, sweet brioche buns. We eat our burgers from paper plates, perched on damp steps, our mouths salty and dry from the duck meat. It’s a rich and quick meal, and once finished, we wander along the waterfront before slugging overpriced cloudy lemonade on a rooftop bar.

9. It is a Tuesday in August and I have the day off. Michelle is home for the week. I have not seen her since June. We meet in the city for brunch. Michelle orders French toast with bacon, I order pancakes. It is raining, and we share an umbrella on our trudge up to my shared house that overlooks Cork city. My room is small. I have not unpacked from a recent trip and there are piles of clothes and books everywhere. We clean the mess up together. Afterwards, the sun emerges and I suggest we get a burrito as a reward. We take away our warm tinfoil packages and eat them eagerly in the park. The tangy orange-red juice from the meat and salsa drips from the foil, oozing over the paper napkins like an ink leak. Burritos are a foodstuff only to be eaten in the company of a good friend, I think to myself.

Kathryn O’ Regan is a writer based in Cork, Ireland. She blogs at kathrynoregan.wordpress.com