‘When my mom died, we replaced her cooking with an expensive tomato sauce’

I often correlate my appetite for food for my appetite for life. When I am feeling better, I tend to weigh more

In January, I wrote a column about Bessel van der Kolk’s, The Body Keeps the Score. Upon reading it, both my younger brother and dad commented that they were surprised not to see tuna pasta listed in my sequence of sensory memories. This was the dish that nourished me throughout my childhood.

Or at least the years after my mom had died.

When my mom died, we replaced her cooking with Loyd Grossman tomato sauce. It was a paltry replacement and did little to replace the warmth and love she provided at the kitchen table. But it was a fancy sauce, and when your mother dies at the age of 10, I think you deserve at least that.

Over time, my dad began to add to the tomato sauce. At first it was onions, then garlic. Later, we had iterations with tinned tuna and rashers, though not at the same time. On Fridays, we had Donegal Catch and chips.


Ours was a diet, to put it politely, of consistency. Although, where it lacked in (forgive me) flavour, it was not found to be lacking in love. Nor was it without intermittent adventure; sometimes my dad added peanuts to the side of the plate.

My mom was my favourite type of cook. A cook who eschewed technique for flavour. Food was an art, not a science. It was homemade, handmade and crafted with love.

Moreover, it was tasty.

For my dad, food is fuel. It’s something you put in your body that gives you energy, makes you feel full and hopefully keeps you healthy. If he could take a pill that kept him satiated, he would. Still, at six o’clock every evening, we all sat around the table and a nourishing dinner was served. This was a routine on which he placed great store.

Tuna, pasta, paired with a jar of Loyd Grossman sauce, became the staple in our home. Evening visitors could expect to receive a spatter of red saline-smelling sauce splashed upon a mound of fusilli or penne or whatever pasta was on offer in Nolan’s Supermarket that week. If this wasn’t to your liking, there were probably a few fish fingers lingering somewhere in the chest freezer.

Over time, my dad began to add a tin of tomatoes to make the expensive sauce stretch further, at which I was aggrieved. With all we had been through, could we not hold on at least to this one minor consolation? By the time I was in secondary school, Grossman no longer featured on the menu. This would not, however, mark the end of our tuna pasta dinners.

Many of my most prominent memories of my mom consist of cooking with her, or watching her cook, or eating the food she cooked. The memories sit warm in my belly. Like a layer of adipose tissue beneath the skin, they protect me from the world outside. How lucky I was to be nourished thus.

My memory of her illness is also pockmarked by memories of food. Her insatiable appetite for Magnum ice-creams while she was receiving steroid treatment; the packets of shortbread snuck into my palm by kind nurses and kitchen porters in Beaumont Hospital, the metallic tasting spoon of mashed potato I ate in the hospital’s canteen the day she died.

When she was dying, my mom gave my dad a piece of important advice: “Brigid needs elasticated trousers.” Although, without her homemade pizza and butyraceous fudge, it turned out, I would no longer need an elasticated waist.

I often correlate my appetite for food for my appetite for life. When I am feeling better, I tend to weigh more. I am fuller in myself; able to partake in the joys of life. When my health is bad, I am smaller version of myself, starved of life.

I also equate my relationships with loved ones with our relationships to food; there are my family and friends who I like to cook with, or for, and who cook for me. Exes with whom I cooked obsessively, for whom I cooked excessively, that I was intimidated to cook for, and the one didn’t feel himself worthy of good cooking.

I’ve started eating the Loyd Grossman tomato sauce again of recent. Usually, when I have a migraine and thus limited in my cooking abilities. I still add a tin of tuna. Nowadays my pasta is gluten free. The sauce tastes exactly as it did when I was 10; it is sweet and tangy with a gloriously unctuous pool of oil that gathers at the surface while you heat it up.

The sauce doesn’t bring back memories of loss, but ones of being cared for.

Which, in essence, is what I am doing now.

Caring for my migraine, for a part of me that hurts.