The house is dirty and the garden overgrown. At the back is a patch of rhubarb. ‘It’s been there forever, won’t go away.’ I hack off the bright pink stalks with a bread knife, exposing their lime green centres. Carefully I remove the poisonous leaves and discard them in a pile by the patch of fruit I have not cut away. They are huge and floppy. It is getting dark and the evenings still have bite to them. Inside where it is warm, I sift flour into a bowl and chop in chunks of yellow butter. The butter is cool and firm from the fridge but as I rub, squeeze and roll it between my fingers it softens, joining with the flour to form tiny misshapen balls. Add brown sugar and the mixture turns to sand – soft, grainy, and golden. Rhubarb in a baking dish – no need to cook beforehand. For a fruit that is so tough it contains a lot of water. I think of it weeping in the oven, turning to a hot, squishy mess. There are also blackcurrants, dark purple, almost black, which stain my fingers and leave a bitter taste on my tongue. More butter, more sugar and the dry goods on top, patted down to seal in the fruit. Another sprinkling of sugar crystals so it caramelises in the oven and then – forget about it. Five of us sit around the table, sipping Jameson’s with ice, making jokes to fill the space. ‘How long do you think it will it be?’ ‘Just another few minutes.’ ‘What? I don’t mean the food.’ While the others talk I slip out and return with the piping hot dish, silencing the conversation. The top is crisp and dark with burnt sugar. We cut through the crust to reveal the fleshy insides, purple, pink, green, sweet and sharp and soft. The heat runs through our bodies, comforting, reassuring. We eat the whole thing.
The three of us work methodically. First, the fire: stacking the black briquettes of charcoal. It needs to get hot, black turning to grey to white to red. Next the food: aubergines on, the flames blackening their skins. Slices of courgettes, slick with olive oil and flecked with salt. Pillars of corn. A whole cauliflower, covered in tahini and dusted with paprika. Shallots on a stick. Spring onions, unpeeled. At the table I slice tomatoes into cubes and place them in a bowl, scooping up all the delicious tomato-ey water that escapes. Lots of olive oil and finely chopped garlic. In another bowl lightly pickled fennel with bright circles of orange. We do not talk except for the occasional, ‘Pass me’ or ‘Give me’ or ‘Watch out’. We peel the aubergines quickly, their softened insides spill out and are mixed with sesame, garlic and oil. The courgettes are placed in a dish and covered in sharp lemon juice. And the cauliflower, we’re not quite sure what to do with the cauliflower. Someone finds a jug and it sits there, tahini sliding down its sides. It is dark by the time we eat and we cannot see the food. Still we do not speak. This is not a holiday any longer. This is definitely not a holiday. We make a start. The spring onions are sweet and soft, melting in the mouth. The aubergine is rich, the courgettes light, the onions caramelised and the cauliflower nutty. The tomato salad, peppery and fresh, cuts through it all. We are exhausted, full, and a little sad. We eat more. We eat until we feel sick, but still there is food. Despair weighs down our already heavy stomachs. Then, smack! A piece of courgette lands on my cheek. A blob of baba ganoush in my eye. Kernels of corn in my ear. I pick up an onion and fling it across the table. Laughter grows around the table as vegetables fly through the night air.
The cheeks are huge, as big as breasts, marbled with collagen and covered in a milky film on one side. This is the mucous membrane of the mouth and needs to be removed, along with excess fat before cooking. They will take hours to cook, for the collagen to break down and infuse the stew with a rich meaty flavour. ‘Doesn’t matter! We’ve got all day!’ we laugh hysterically. There are only us now – whittled down from five, to three, to two. The two carnivores of the house. I begin to cut the membrane off but none of the knives are sharp enough. I get through four before I work out my technique, tearing the membrane upwards and allowing the weight of the cheek to pull downwards. Once the cheeks are trimmed they are covered in crushed salt and browned, the dark caramelised meat sealing in the bloody sinew. We fry onion, carrot and celery until they are translucent. The meat goes back in the pan along with a bottle of wine (save the glass or two we have already drunk). A can of chopped tomatoes and some stock, along with bay leaves, pepper, and salt. The trick is to leave a little of the cheek poking out, the rest of it submerged, like an iceberg, in the sauce. Into the oven and now we wait. I read recipes and make notes for future meals even though I am eating so much I have a permanent pain in my stomach and my piles have returned. Rice pudding, baked onions in cream and tallegio sauce, homemade cinnamon danishes, black pudding with crisp potatoes and sautéed cabbage. I read them aloud as the kitchen fills with the smell of rich, spicy, meat. It is hot and we peel away layers of clothing. We have been waiting for hours and anticipation slides into frustration. We pace the small kitchen and snarl at each other. ‘What about the polenta?’ ‘I thought you said you were doing it.’ ‘No you!’ I pour yellow grains of corn into boiling water and whisk, ignoring the ache in my arm as the polenta thickens. I stir in butter and cheese and spoon the velvety mixture into bowls. Finally the cheeks are ready. We’re down to our pants now, sweat dripping from our concentrated faces as we lift the heavy pan from the oven. A whole cheek each, billowing steam, falling apart in our bowls. I’m not sure which one of us discards the cutlery first but I find myself plunging my fingers deep into the meat, scooping handfuls of flesh and sauce and polenta. Sauce streams along my arms and drips from my elbows onto the floor. And then we are not even using our hands. It just seems more practical to tip our mouths to the bowl and eat directly from it. Afterward we lie panting and naked, covered in flecks of sinew and smudges of tomato, avoiding each other’s eyes.
We had to take a break. It all got a bit much. We were vomiting after every meal, into plastic bags and once we ran out of those, into our shoes. The fridge was filled with pickles we weren’t eating, chutney that had turned and tubs of hummus that were fizzy. We saved the aqua faba and made vegan whiskey sours, drinking so much we passed out and awoke, vomiting, again. We didn’t leave the kitchen any longer, but had made a bed from packed down cardboard boxes and bin bags filled with old coffee grains. When the sun went down we went to dark places, using food in ways that thrilled and disgusted us. We didn’t talk about the things we did, before or after, but each interaction was more elaborate than the night before. Our bodies were sticky and bruised, covered in and filled with food. Our breath smelt sharp of ginger and we were turning yellow from all the turmeric. It was hard to let go, but after last night, with the trifle, we were so sick and sickened – both of us curled on the floor, evidence of what we’d done smeared over ourselves and up the walls – we packed everything away in a frenzy, throwing away rotting food, sweeping the floor and covering the surfaces in bleach to mask the other fragrant and intoxicating smells. We showered and put on clothes and now we sit, side by side, in the gleaming, sterile-smelling kitchen. For the first time in weeks we look at each other. We’re not sure what to do or how to cook anymore. We can’t trust ourselves so we start small. ‘Potato waffle?’ We eat slowly, the crisp golden lattice bringing colour back to our cheeks and calming our beating hearts.