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The Flavors of My Grief: A Food Writer’s Journey Through Recurrent Miscarriage

How, after loss, can we regain our appetite for life?


Read when you’ve got time to spare.

author Yasmin Khan

The author on the island of Lesbos, Greece. Photo: Courtesy of Matt Russell.

On the day I started miscarrying my first baby, my mom cooked Loobia Polo for lunch. It was a bright August day, the sun beaming through the window of my front room as I sat on the couch, disorientated and weary. I tossed the unopened mail from my agent to one side. A contract for a new cookbook, normally an occasion for celebration, now felt like an irrelevant distraction. I lay down and rested my cheek against a cushion as scents from my childhood floated in from the kitchen. Braised lamb, rich and earthy, stewed with cumin and cinnamon. The floral, citrus notes from saffron, its scarlet stems ground in a mortar and pestle, and left to steep in a cup of hot water. Sweet, nutty, vapor floating off steaming basmati. I heard the sizzle of melting butter and the clanging of pots and spoons as my mom layered cubes of potatoes and strips of green beans into the rice. When I was growing up, this classic Persian one-pot meal was our family’s equivalent of homemade apple pie. It was as comforting as it was familiar, a meal that smelled like a mother’s warm embrace. But I wasn’t going to be a mother. Not this time. I ate three mouthfuls, then crawled into bed and cried myself to sleep.

Two weeks later I boarded a plane heading to Athens, Greece. I had a book to write and deadlines to meet. Flavors to explore and textures to salivate over. I had people to meet, to cook alongside, to interview. I had recipes to write and travels stories to pen. I only had one problem: I couldn’t recognize the food I was eating.

Some people turn to comfort eating during times of stress but my hunger completely vanishes when I go through emotional turmoil—a challenge I now realized had become an occupational hazard. The flavors of my grief were different to the flavors I was used to. They didn’t dance on my tongue, they trespassed on my body. As I began my research, I made unwelcome discoveries. Shards of damp filo pastry from a diamond of pistachio baklava stuck uncomfortably to the roof of my mouth. Cold, congealed rice pudding wobbled menacingly on my spoon. Dry pieces of under seasoned and overcooked chicken souvlaki got stuck between my teeth. The pungency of goat butter pasta made me gag. I ate almond cookies that were too dry, washed down with coffee that was too strong. Grief had changed my appetite, punishing me in places that used to offer me pleasure. I walked the streets of Athens with large sunglasses on my face to hide the bags under my eyes, a throbbing in my temples and a tightness in my chest. My steps felt heavy and cumbersome, as if I was walking through sticky honey.

Athens. Photo: Courtesy of Matt Russell.

With the benefit of hindsight, I know now what I didn’t know then, that the first weeks after a miscarriage are as messy as they are disorientating, with hormone crashes confusing your body and your psyche oscillating between emotions as it adjusts to a new and unexpected reality. One in five pregnancies end in miscarriage but it's still so rarely spoken about, shrouded in guilt, secrecy, fear, failure and shame. How could I express to others the connection a mother feels with an unborn child? Why didn’t people realize I wasn’t just mourning the loss of this being, but an entire imagined future together. Why didn’t anyone understand I hadn’t just lost a baby, I’d lost a part of myself.

But still, I was in Athens, a privileged Westerner, here to research a book on migration and the refugee crisis. Who was I to even think about loss? I spent my days interviewing people whose circumstances were so much more challenging than mine, who had lost so much more than I could ever imagine. I swallowed down my grief, for what place was there for it, really, as I stood in a refugee camp with women, men, and children from Iraq and Afghanistan, Yemen and Myanmar, people who had fled war and violence, persecution and poverty. I listened to their stories of courage and determination. I bit my lip when they asked if I had children. I learned that personal loss makes you more sensitive to the loss of others, as several people guessed what had happened anyway during the time we spent together chopping onions or peeling tomatoes. I was reminded that when you share food with others, you can’t help but share a little piece of yourself. As we cooked and talked and listened and ate, these strangers became friends, and our mealtimes became an opportunity to distract and forget. A chance to put the worst behind us. Slowly, grief’s clench on my stomach began to loosen.

Meeting with refugees in Lesbos, Greece. Photo: Courtesy of Matt Russell.

I continued researching the book, following the refugees’ journey to Turkey, traveling by boat as they had done, over the narrow stretch of the Mediterranean Sea. In Istanbul, I walked the streets in search of my appetite, losing myself to the city’s winding alleyways, majestic skylines, and endless cups of tart sour cherry juice. I snacked on stuffed mussels, eaten in front of a street cart, watching the vendor squeeze a wedge of lemon on each shell. I ate tubs of nohutlu pilavı, a buttery chickpea rice, that left my lips soft and covered with a light slick of grease. I chewed on mackerel sandwiches, grilled on the promenades that line the Bosporus and washed them down with şalgam, a salty fermented turnip drink. I ordered bowls of kelle paça soup, made from slowly simmered sheep’s head and trotters, and sipped the rich, meaty broth as if it was medicine. I gained five pounds and flew home feeling nourished. A month later, when two pink lines appeared on a stick in my bathroom, we went out to a Turkish restaurant to celebrate.

Istanbul. Photo: Courtesy of Matt Russell.

My grief was silenced by the thumping roar of a heartbeat booming out of the sonographer’s wand. It was drowned out by my laughter as I watched a tiny being wriggle on an ultrasound screen. It was extinguished as I pondered baby names out loud and then scribbled them into notepads. I replaced my sadness with jubilation instead.

I started reorganizing work commitments and making lists of essential tasks that needed finishing before I went on maternity leave. The research trips to Greece and Turkey had given me ample material, but there was one more section needed for the book to work—a trip to Cyprus, the contested and divided island, which would bring the two communities, Greek and Turkish, together. Landing at Nicosia airport, I felt energized and alive. This time around, meals were easy. I was eating for two, after all. I learned how to make halloumi cheese from a Cypriot grandmother, using fresh milk from the goats in her village. We grated the salty, squeaky cheese and mixed it with dried spearmint, ready to stuff into small squares of ravioli. It tasted like a fresh summer breeze. I ordered extra portions of loukanika, richly spiced sausages flavored with red wine, orange zest, and fennel seeds and joyously mopped up their claret juices with flatbreads. I folded squares of mushroom börek and kneaded loaves of olive bread, delighting at the cool softness of the plump dough between my fingers. I avoided coffee and happily turned down glasses of wine. I swam in the sea during the breaks between our interviews, having quiet conversations with my lower belly about how proud I was that we were going on an adventure together. That this was our time. Later, the doctor would tell me that the baby’s heart likely stopped beating sometime during the week I was in Cyprus.

Sharing a meal in Cyprus. Photo: Courtesy of Matt Russell.

The texture of my grief changed after my second miscarriage. It became more ragged. More visceral. Full of sharp edges that poked me in unexpected places. As the contractions intensified, I began to feel nauseous, the color draining from my face, my skin turning clammy. I alternated between the bathroom and the bed, squatting in the bathtub, willing for it all to be over. Finally, after what felt like hours, a sharp stabbing pain ran across my abdomen. I hauled myself onto the toilet just seconds before I felt something move through me, splashing loudly as it dropped into the water below. I slowly, cautiously, pivoted myself round to peer into the toilet bowl. My eyes flicked around the mess of blood, membranes and… I panicked, slammed the toilet flusher and slid onto the bathroom floor, holding my head in my hands.

The next day, my Mom cooked Loobia Polo. Had she forgotten she’d made it last time? My grief made me cranky, and I was irrationally infuriated and incensed. I didn’t want there to be an accidental “tradition” for us to do every time I had a miscarriage. I silently hate-ate it until a piece of unchewed lamb got stuck in my throat and I almost choked. I put down my fork. I’m not hungry, I said, pushing the plate away.

The following week the photographer who had accompanied me on the Cyprus trip sent me a link to the photos he had taken of our time there. There were frames of me smiling in an olive grove. (I could see I had the glow.) A picture of me holding a plate of freshly cut watermelon. (Had the baby died yet?) Here I was by the sea, tucking into crisp rings of fried calamari. (Did this poison the baby? Was it my fault?) I clicked through each photo, silently asking myself: Was the baby alive in this photo? Or was it dead? Alive. Or dead. Dead or alive. I slammed the laptop shut and called my editor. I couldn’t work on this book anymore. I needed a break.

Months passed. I traveled to Thailand. To Ireland. To New York. I started smoking. I stopped smoking. I drank neat vodka over cubes of frozen ice. I woke up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat from nightmares. I stopped cooking Mediterranean food. I ate ramen instead.

One morning I woke to a familiar pressure on my bladder. I needed to pee again. I sighed. It had been the third time that night. Annoyed at my lack of sleep I plodded to the bathroom where it suddenly dawned on me what was happening. But I went to the pharmacy and bought three different tests to be sure.

Photo: Courtesy of Matt Russell.

As my internal world began its now familiar transformation, the external world started changing too. A new virus was ravaging the globe, waging a war around us, driving us all indoors. I embraced the banality of lockdown, secretly enjoying the opportunity to retreat from the external world, and grateful that despite the calamity outside, our home felt safe and nurturing. I began leaning into the Mediterranean culinary traditions I had learned on my trips, making batches of homemade yogurt, wrapped in a towel and balanced on a radiator. I pickled cauliflower and turnips in lacto-ferments, turning them fluorescent yellow with turmeric and simmered batches of sour cherry jam which I smothered on toast with salted butter. I avoided crowds at the supermarkets and visited my local Turkish grocery stores instead, buying vine leaves for stuffing with tomato and mint flecked rice. I became obsessed with the rule of three, third times a charm, three is a magic number, third time lucky. I had to believe this in order to stay sane. I rejoiced at morning sickness, something I’d never had before, the queasiness a sign that this pregnancy was real. Happily, I started recipe testing for my book again, fighting my nausea as I scrubbed barnacles off mussels, roasted legs of lamb and sautéed batches of shrimp. Maybe I had been too foolish to stop. These recipes offered comfort and solace, and surely that was what the world needed during a global pandemic? I pounded minced beef with my hands, relishing the meditative quality of rolling them into meatballs. I chopped fresh cilantro, parsley and dill leaves for salads, inhaling deeply as I sliced, as if by breathing their aroma I could be imbued with their brightness. I whisked egg whites for meringues that I served with cream whipped with rose water, savoring the taste of blooming flowers, of sweetness, of life. One morning as I was getting dressed, I glanced down and saw a trickle of bright red blood run down my left leg. I crumpled onto the floor and howled.

After the operation I stumbled out of the hospital in a daze. My partner was waiting outside the gates, the rules of the pandemic keeping him a safe distance from the tragedies unfolding inside the wards. I joked to him that twins would have been a handful anyway. He didn’t laugh. When we got home, I asked for beans on toast for dinner. He toasted pieces of sourdough, smothered them in butter and piled on the canned beans, so sweet and so salty, before finishing them with a cloud of grated cheddar cheese. We ate in exhausted silence and then fell asleep, limbs intertwined, on the living room sofa. I didn’t know it then, but it was to be one of our last moments of pure togetherness, for in the months that followed we each retreated, worn down by the cumulative years of anxiety, stress and sadness. It seemed we’d left too much grief settle in the pot of our relationship. It had gone rancid.

After he moved out, I waited for my grief to kill my appetite again. But... somehow... it didn’t. It was as if my grief had cracked me wide open this time, exposing my rawness, my desires, my cravings. Suddenly, I was ravenous. As I ate, I began to set a place at the table for my grief. Accept it was a guest in my house and so I should at least be polite. I offered it drinks and snacks. I listened to its worries. I took away its wine glass if it started to get too rowdy. Sometimes we fought, sometimes we negotiated, other times we just sat in silence. Eventually we just learnt to be in the same room without shouting over each other. I started presenting it with different questions, tired of existing in the roller coaster of my own suffering. Instead of “why me?” I asked, “what next?”

Photo: Courtesy of Matt Russell.

I turned on my laptop and stared at the words I’d drafted over the last year and the images of my trips through the Eastern Mediterranean. I thought back to the strangers who had invited me into their homes to talk about displacement; the chefs who had fed me in their restaurants as we discussed what belonging meant in a fractured world; the doctors, teachers, musicians and poets I spoke to in blustery refugee camps who honored me with the stories of their survival and their aspirations for the future. Tentatively, I started to write.

I began to notice that while my grief had robbed me of my innocence, it had served me something more useful instead—a plate piled high with resilience. I let go of the fairy-tale and began to see that in life there are no last chances, just different strategies. I found some optimism in the dusty corners of a fertility clinic and added that to my dish. I sprinkled through some patience and stirred through some forgiveness. I invited hope to join us at the table.

Hope smelled like warm bread baking in an oven, it tasted like a scoop of pistachio ice cream enjoyed on a hot summer’s day, it felt like a bowl of roasted pumpkin soup eaten by a roaring fire. I stopped seeing my grief as a curse and started acknowledging it as an opportunity. A chance to experience more deeply, speak more freely, see more sharply, feel more profoundly and eat more voraciously. Perhaps, my grief hadn’t actually stolen my appetite at all, it had simply added more flavors to my bowl.

Ripe Figs: Recipes and Stories from Turkey, Greece and Cyprus (W.W.Norton) by Yasmin Khan debuted on May 4th 2021.

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This post originally appeared on Vogue and was published April 29, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

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