In October of 1986, flat broke and at wit’s end, I went to work at the home of a quadriplegic named Wolf Aylward and his frequently tipsy sister, Joanna. For six weeks, I had been crashing in the group house of my girlfriend in Brighton, England, scraping pences and pounds together when I could, often from “boot sales” where we sold junk from the trunk of her mother’s car in muddy weekend lots.
I lived almost exclusively on Brussels sprouts and rice bought cheap at the farmers market next to Brighton’s truck stop.
Brussels sprouts adorned with farm-raised bacon, Marcona almonds and the like may now be the staple of Bon Appétit magazine, but in ‘80s England, the sprouts were the green equivalent of today’s 99-cent fast food French fry. Oh, we tried our best to jazz them up with curry powder or chili peppers. One could bum some cornstarch, cream and cheese and mix up a béchamel sauce, or use canned pineapples for a tropical twist. But at the end of the day it was still Brussels sprouts and rice.
I could have asked my upper middle-class parents back in Atlanta for help, but they hadn’t wanted me to take a year off from college to spend yet a second year in Britain after my junior one abroad, and I had enough pride, shame or sense not to beg for an upgrade to chicken.
Instead, I went begging for illegal work at restaurants or shops, hitched to London to try to wrangle a temporary work permit and pleaded for some work-study at the university in which I was no longer enrolled. When all that failed, I found the Community Services Volunteers, and they found me Wolf and Joanna.
Thus ended my relationship with Brussels sprouts. Forever.
Joanna’s main interest could be found in a vodka bottle, but the years caring for her brother, and, I imagined, a past life of adventure travel had turned her into a daring and exciting cook. For a boy from Atlanta raised in the 1980s on chicken breast soaked in mushroom soup and family taco night (hard shell, please, from the supermarket), canard à l’orange, roasted pheasant, lambs’ kidneys in cream sauce, sheep’s brains, six-day hung venison, pigs’ ears, even pigs’ vagina served as culinary passports to worlds previously unknown. Often exquisite, sometimes inedible, the meals provided an exciting runway for someone who was willing to try anything but had never had the opportunity to stretch.
“I find I can stand the venison if I add enough ketchup,” Joanna’s gorgeous teenage daughter once offered. I found it did no good at all. Venison hung long enough to rot tasted, well, rotted.
My experiences those months with the Aylwards inspired my novel, No. 4 Imperial Lane. Wolf is not the Hans of the novel. Joanna is not my fictional Elizabeth. I can’t for the life of me remember the name of Joanna’s daughter, so no, she is not Cristina. But the cooking adventure is true to life.
In the writing, I thought through the sensory experiences of a quadriplegic – not one of those movie characters who tools around the University of California at Berkeley on a hospital gurney controlled by his breath or who solves the great mysteries of science, then blinks his answers onto a modified computer screen, but a truly bed-ridden cripple with no great, other-worldly talents and no extraordinary will to live. There would be music, of course, some reading, although that can be pretty exhausting. Then there would be food, small doses only – not a lot of energy to be burned with a broken neck – but with fantastic variety and powerful tastes and aromas, which could transport my character beyond the physical and emotional boundaries of his home hospital bed.
The moment I walked into Wolf Aylward’s home I was accosted with a far less appealing aroma: shit smeared into bedpans and piss hanging from a catheter bag. Couple that with the first sight of what might as well have been a corpse, paper-thin skin pulled tight over a skull, muscles constricted into clenched fists, bent knees and sinewy arms, and you can imagine the shock of my first moment with Wolf, the impulse to turn and flee. The human olfactory sense tends to get used to constants, and I’d venture that neither Wolf nor Joanna even noticed the smell of Wolf’s room. Nor did I after a few days.
But that night, perhaps in my honor but more likely just because it was Wolf’s favorite, Joanna had made her duck à l’orange and filled the house with the sweet, acidic smell of citrus reduction. After Brussels sprouts and rice, I was in heaven.
Joanna would bring me Wolf’s meals on a tray, which I would prop up on wooden legs over his emaciated body. I would do as instructed: cut a small piece of meat, dip it in sauce, use the knife to add some mashed potato to the fork, then push on the vegetable, peas maybe, or broccoli. Wolf had to have the whole meal in each bite. After only a few, he’d let out a little gasp and whisper, “that’s enough, Jonathan. You eat the rest.” And I would, right there by his side. I don’t know if this little ritual was calculated to humiliate me. Wolf was fond of my chattering company but not my American-ness. But I stopped thinking about it, and enjoyed the meal.
Wild pheasant, properly preserved, is the most delicate and tender of poultries, extraordinary. Kidneys, quartered and cooked well in a thickened cream sauce, taste like a meatier version of mushrooms, subtle, with enough resistance to the teeth to make you forget they are offal. Brains offer no such resistance. I didn’t care for them for that reason, though Wolf offered that I seemed fond of goat’s cheese and Boursin, which had the same texture. By now I thought of myself a sophisticated young man, but perhaps brains were too far a culinary chasm, returning me too close to the essential nature of a living thing, as if eating its thoughts. As for pigs’ vaginas? Nope, wouldn’t touch them.
Wolf once told me to fix him what he called corn porridge for breakfast from a tin brought to him by one of his aristocratic friends, the one with the estate in Tuscany. I came back with a steaming bowl which transported me back to Georgia and made me, for the first time, aware of my ongoing displacement.
“Wolf, where I come from, this is grits.”
“Suit yourself,” he said between spoonfuls.
In my fictional universe, Hans spends time in Paris, and I imagined he would have learned to make such fine continental confections while there, with Elizabeth studying his teachings avidly, guilt-ridden by his condition and her active role in rendering him as such. Elizabeth, for her part, escapes her stiff English upbringing for Portugal, from where she is swept into West Africa’s final colonial battles. And so I imagined the desire for culinary adventure might rise up in her on its own, following her to the Algarve where she cut into salted bacalhau, stewed cuttlefish, and goose barnicles, cozido à portuguesa, feijoada à transmontana and caldeirada.
Her desire to please would inspire her to pick up Portuguese cooking for her new husband. Her openness to new experiences would lead her to West African fufu in chili sauce, overcooked noodles drenched in palm oil, chewy skewers of goat meat and spicy ground nut stews. Food, in all its rich varieties and excesses, would be her constant companion, through southern England, Portugal, Guinea-Bissau, Angola and South Africa, a salve amid the personal and political brutality around her.
That’s what I imagined. Joanna Aylward’s cooking was not quite so worldly, but for the time, it was Jean-Georges. I have never forgotten Joanna’s master works, labored over for hours, so often for a dying brother who was utterly inexpressive in his response, sometimes even for his friends, who were cruelly ungrateful. I was appalled at his of their treatment of her but had been too self-involved to learn either the origins of her expertise or the motivation for her ministrations. My time in England, a man in his early 20s, was a meandering ribbon across the divide between college and the real world, dotted with novel experiences and a mild sense of unrest. I ate and fed and wondered how long Wolf would go on taking his painstakingly constructed forkfuls, how long I could endure my bizarre life circumstances that brought me to duck à l’orange.
I left the Aylwards’ employment two months before I was supposed to. I have felt horrible about that ever since. Wolf was to go to his beloved retreat in Tuscany that summer. I was to care for him while Joanna went to the polytechnic to study maths and typing, up to the moment when the van came to take her brother to the ferry at Dover, across the English Channel, and then on the long, long drive to Italy. Instead, I left Joanna in the lurch, figuring Wolf was dying of kidney failure, and he should die with his sister, not the Philistine of an American he never had grown particularly fond of.
I can’t remember the last meal Joanna served me. She was angry at my early, abrupt departure. There were days of uncomfortable silence between us. Wolf and I carried on as usual, but I am quite sure the cuisine in those final days suffered from Joanna’s hurt. That is the last discomfort I inflicted on the long-suffering quadriplegic.
In the decades that I have nurtured their story in my head, rendering it more sweeping, more romantic, more meaningful and more tragic, I’ve wondered just when and where Wolf finally died. I fervently hope it was not in the austere Royal Sussex County Hospital, just up the hill from Sudeley Street – and not Imperial Lane – where he lived.
He would have hated the food.
Jonathan Weisman is a Washington-based economic policy reporter for The New York Times. In his 25-year journalism career, he has covered the White House, national politics, and defense for the Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Baltimore Sun, among other publications. He is the author of
No. 4 Imperial Lane.