Sophie White refreshingly explores topics from her life that are often seen as taboo in polite society. Clodagh Finn meets for a chat and finds out the recipes that helped her through motherhood.
WHEN columnist, chef and now author Sophie White was expecting her first baby, her mother hissed in her ear that it was not going to be plain sailing. Far from it, in fact.
She was glad of the warning because when her now-beloved son Rufus (two) arrived in the world, it was a violent, life-altering shock. “My first thought was ‘What is that?’ They look really freaky,” Sophie says, squishing up her nose.
“And it was squawling.” Then, the guilt kicked in. Why wasn’t it love at first sight in the delivery room and why wasn’t she feeling elated like all the hot mums who were chronicling their deeply irritating joy on Instagram?
The reason, says Sophie White, is an elaborate piece of performance art she has entitled, ‘Isn’t Motherhood Heaven’?
Motherhood seems to have evolved into some sort of “spectacular one-woman show of impossible beauty and exquisiteness,” she tells the Irish Examiner on the day her new book hits the shops.
Recipes for a Nervous Breakdown, Gill Books, €24.99, is a genre-crossing gem that mixes memoir, recipes and rants. It’s not so much a breath of fresh air as a gale-force wind that will force a new conversation on a range of semi-taboo topics: the ambiguities of motherhood, her own drug-induced mental illness, having a parent with Alzheimer’s disease and the need for euthanasia.
Sophie White speaks with startling honesty. And she’s funny. Very funny. She brings both of those fine qualities to her book, and that’s even before we get to the recipes; beautifully photographed renditions of sumptuous main courses along with healthy snacks (quinoa granola bars) and not-so-healthy snacks (deep-fried Mars bars).
She wrote the book to amuse and to nourish but, most of all, she wrote it because she wanted people to feel better about their lives after reading about hers.
She is only 31, but she has already come through a drug-induced breakdown and what felt like post-natal depression though there was no formal diagnosis. Now, she’s learning to cope with the “brutal, blackest terror” of her father’s Alzheimer’s.
“It’s not written from a place of enlightenment, but from a place of having gotten on with things,” she says, explaining that she would have liked to read something similar when she was younger.
Mind you, when she felt she was tumbling into the abyss during the early days of motherhood, she did write a letter to her future self.
“I wrote myself a slightly hysterical letter and sealed it in an envelope across which I’d written, ‘To be opened in the event of considering another baby’,” she recalls.
When she was pregnant with her second child — due in four weeks’ time — she tore it up. “No one needs to be reading the uncensored, wild ravings of a woman who’s been awake and attached to a baby for 11 days straight.” Though, Sophie White is not afraid to revisit those feelings of inadequacy when, first-time round, pregnancy caught her on the back foot.
“My mother is a realist and she didn’t try to sugar-coat anything, but I was unwilling to believe that it could be that bad,” she says.
If she had known then that even mothers with longed-for babies found themselves on the back-foot, she would have felt better. Instead, she put a brave face on it and weathered a year of depression on her own.
“It’s not very helpful, either, that the image of an expectant mother is nesting and glowing and all these stupid adjectives that we put on them. Instead, you’re sweating and can’t sleep at night, and there are shocks of terror at what is coming. Maybe it would be more helpful if we all admitted to that.” She’s quick to add that she feels as if she’s betraying her son by even talking about these things. “He is, hands down, the best thing that has ever happened to me.” However, it was the same reluctance to admit something was wrong that stopped her getting help during what she describes as her “poof and you’re mad” episode. Ten years ago, she took a single Ecstasy tablet at Electric Picnic and it would take her the best part of four years to fully recover from it.
She had just qualified with a first-class honours degree in sculpture from the National College of Art and Design and had plans to go to New Zealand with friends.
Then, that September, she took a single pill and, as quick as snapping your fingers, the fields, tents and festive atmosphere of Electric Picnic transformed into a nightmarish landscape. “I got myself back to my tent and rode out this really bad trip on my own. I really believed that I was going die.” She woke up the next day, felt okay for a moment, but then the terror and dread poured back into her body.
“There was a low buzzing in my ears. Everything looked unfamiliar. Things seemed small and far away as if I was looking through the wrong end of a binoculars. That was what my life was like, 24/7, for the next three months.” She didn’t tell anyone, though her boyfriend Seb (now husband) saw immediately that something was wrong. Her mother did too, but it would still be several months before she got help.
“There are layers of shame to mental illness and when it’s drug-induced mental illness, there is an extra layer of shame.” She thought for a while that she might pull through on valerian [herbal remedy] and green tea but, after serendipitously meeting someone who had gone through the same thing, she got on a bus to St John of God’s psychiatric hospital in Dublin and asked for help.
“I was quite resistant to taking drugs (anti-depressants and anti-psychotics) at first but they completely changed my life. There’s no switch that can be flicked. Recovery is a stuttering process. You shuffle forward, plunge backwards and then shuffle forward again, before realising that you will eventually get there.”
Now, she hopes people will realise that the drugs problem is not just “over there”. It is right here among high-achieving, middle-class people also. “We also need to allow the drugs conversation to be nuanced. If I had known that you could do drugs and have zero craic for six years, I would have related to that as a 15-year-old.” The conversation meanders on in a broad arc that takes in her mother (“I do love my mother, what’s more I would die without her. But I also can really, really imagine killing her”); her husband Seb (“I could not overstate what he means to me”); her father (“The question is not does he know me but does he know he is in a room? He lives in a home now”); her travels in New Zealand and France, and the glories of great food.
We could still be sitting there talking. But then, storytelling is in her blood.
Sophie White’s mother Mary O’Sullivan is a writer and features editor at the Sunday Independent and her father Kevin Linehan wrote comedy sketches before being responsible for some of the biggest shows at RTÉ, including Eurovision 1993 in Millstreet, as the station’s head of entertainment.
You can see that talent coming through in their only child; a gifted teller of tales whose searing narrative of life in modern Ireland will touch so many lives.
Recipes for a Nervous Breakdown by Sophie White is published by Gill Books (€24.99)
KATSU CURRY WITH COCONUT CHICKEN
Katsu is traditionally a Japanese curry and I’ll admit it, this recipe is all kinds of bastardised. So it’s not authentic but it is delicious. The sauce itself is super tasty while also not being overly indulgent, and the coconut chicken is a nice alternative to the breaded variety.
Serves 2 greedy people and a grabby toddler
Add 30g of the flour and the ras el hanout, then gradually mix in the stock. Increase the heat and bring to the boil, then add the honey, soy sauce and bay leaf and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened.
Add the garam masala and check the seasoning, adding salt and pepper, if needed. Use a handheld blender to blend the sauce until smooth.
Put the remaining flour into a bowl and mix in the ½ teaspoon of salt. Place the egg in another bowl. Spread the coconut on a plate. Dip each chicken piece in the flour, turning to coat evenly, then into the egg and, finally, coat with the coconut.
Put the prepared chicken pieces on a lined baking tray and cook for about 20 minutes, or until golden and cooked through. Serve on a bed of rice with the sauce spooned over the top, sprinkled with fresh coriander.
COCONUT AND BERRY CAKE
I’d be the first to admit that I’m not the best baker in the world. And that is why I love this recipe so much. In the making of it, the mixture actually curdles as par for the course instead of through my own ineptitude. So if the batter looks a bit s**t, you’re doing the right thing. This is the kind of cake to bring to an underslept mother, if you have one in your life right now. She’ll appreciate it. What’s more, she might just refuse entry if you come without cake.
Put the butter and caster sugar into a bowl and cream until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, making sure that the first one is fully incorporated before adding the second.
Add the soured milk and remain calm — this curdled look is totally normal. Stir in the flour and the coconut until they are just mixed.
Add the berries and stir through quickly.
Spoon the batter into the prepared tin and bake in the middle of the preheated oven for 30–50 minutes. It is cooked when the top has a nice golden colour and springs back at a touch, or when a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
Leave to cool in the tin for 30 minutes, then unclip and release the springform.
This cake is so moist that I usually don’t bother with heavy-duty icing – a dusting of icing sugar and a dollop of crème fraîche is all it needs.
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