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Bread and heaven: how compromising over food can save a marriage

Sheila Hayman

Saturday 3 June 2017 01.30 EDT

Two years after the end of the war, but still during rationing, my parents married. They had never lived together, or even had sex; people didn’t in those days. They had spent a few weeks for a couple of summers under the close observation of my grandparents. And then, the next September, there they were married and on their way to Scotland.

Two things happened on that honeymoon: my father discovered that my mother ate like a sparrow, even on a farm where the bacon and eggs weren’t rationed. And my mother got cystitis, the honeymoon disease – which ought, more properly, to be called the No honeymoon disease. And no honeymoon was what they proceeded to have for the next 47 years.

Which is not to say they didn’t love each other. It was just more a marriage of minds than of stomachs – or any other body part. My mother did enjoy some kinds of cooking, mostly where it approximated to physics and chemistry, so she liked making jam and bottling fruit, and she did both very well. One of the few harmonious memories I have are of morello cherry season, when my dad would source bags soggy with crimson fruit and settle down in the kitchen to stone them with a special gadget he had bought for the purpose.

Marriages, those that last anyway, are full of compromises. In our household, I am the one who inherited my dad’s passion for bread that is crusty, chewy and soft. I have subsisted happily on bread and fruit in Russia, Greece, Paris and Venice, where the bread has an extraordinary chalky texture, stays fresh for about half a minute, but can be conveniently obtained even from top-floor windows by letting down a basket on a string when the delivery comes by. I also keep the freezer stuffed with the many species of bread, rolls and viennoiserie collected on my travels.

To my husband, bread is always a poor second to a bowl of boiled potatoes, and on the rare occasion when boiled potatoes won’t do – say, at breakfast time, as a platform for Marmite and butter – he likes a spelt loaf that starts out hard and dry and is then charred and left to cool, just to make sure nobody else could possibly want to steal it.

But there you go, at some point you have to say either, “OK, this is it, we are totally incompatible, this was a terrible mistake and you can have the floor polisher if I can have the piano.” Or you say, “Look, we are perfectly complementary like Plato’s two halves, who spend their lives and search the whole Earth to find somebody who shares none of their tastes or interests at all. How lucky we are to find a partner who knows about everything that leaves us rigid with boredom, can do everything that stumps us, and who will never, ever run out of fascinating new truths to impart. We will always have the other point of view conveniently to hand, and will always get to eat all our favourite foods, because the other would chew on her own toes rather than share them.”

On childhood trips to France, my mother’s parsimony meant she couldn’t bear to throw away the left-over baguette, and my father’s yearning for freshness couldn’t bear it dry and hard. One summer I went into their room after unpacking my bag and found half a loaf from lunchtime, sealed in a plastic bag with a rubber band, floating in the hotel washbasin. Nobody enjoyed the soggy-crusted, splintery sandwiches we had next day, but their marriage was still intact.

Mr Fixit and I are far less mutually accommodating. And we have that freezer, its contents ready portioned to cater for every caprice, and now also accommodating the teenagers’ morning bagels and Goswell’s seedy bread for sandwiches. We all please ourselves, more or less, we even buy salted butter (for me) and unsalted (for him) and unspeakable spread for the vegan teenager. In our world view, we’re giving each other freedom in little things, and picking our battles where it really matters. But then, we haven’t lived through a war.

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