from Bread and Milk
by Karolina Ramqvist
translated by Saskia Vogel
Over the past twenty-five years, Karolina Ramqvist has established herself as a leading writer of her generation, with deeply personal works that probe a number of contemporary issues. In her latest text, Bröd och mjölk (Bread and Milk), she explores the complex, highly evocative topic of food. Seamlessly blending essay and memoir, Ramqvist traces a childhood filled with smells, colours and tastes, depicting the ways in which we are shaped by what we cook, share and consume, and how food is linked to how we love.
Written in Ramqvist's precise, elegant prose, the book is at once a personal account of a woman’s complicated relationship with food, a rich family chronicle, and a document of a changing society.
This extract is taken from the start of the book. An English edition (in Saskia Vogel's translation) is forthcoming from Manilla Press in the UK, and Coach House Books in Canada.
from Bread and Milk
Food is love. People say so all the time, I hear it ever more often nowadays, and know it to be true. But to me it has also meant that love was food.
A former anorexic once said this to me, many years ago, when I had invited her and some other friends over for a meal. My large white dining room table was set with mis-matched china and old cutlery of a kind that I had spent a long time searching for. The table was standing in the middle of the one-room apartment I lived in back then, and she walked over and let her eyes wander across it and everything I had laid out. A thick wedge of Parmesan cheese, a bowl of French string beans, a plate of young green leaves and thinly shaved fennel, roasted artichokes in my mother’s white soufflé dish from the 1980s, steamed broccolini with garlic and lemon, and in the middle of it all a deep ceramic dish into which I was about to pour a steaming pot of spaghetti arrabiata with fresh basil and chunks of half-melted buffalo mozzarella.
I had opened two bottles of wine and set out two carafes of water, along with the bread I had baked in the gas oven that morning, cut into thick slices, so the guests could tear bits off to eat with olive oil and flaked salt as they settled in at the table.
She took it all in and smiled.
You show your love through food, she said.
I fell silent and dropped my gaze. I couldn’t look her in the eye as those words struck me, but I looked at all the food sitting there, feeling stupid that this had never occurred to me. On some level, of course, it had, but I’d never put the thought into words the way she had, as if she were free to say anything she liked. I for one had never talked to a single person about my relationship with food and had never articulated it to myself, and I felt ashamed that it could be so obvious to another person.
Thinking about it now, I realize that she may have been simply pointing out our differences when it came to what is called the language of love, that is, how we show the people we love that we love them.
But it’s also possible that she understood.
I imagine that she did, because she knew a thing or two about what food can be and how it can be used, and I think her words were what allowed me to see myself so clearly not long thereafter, when I made that rice pudding for my daughter and was confronted with myself, in all my lack and ineptitude.
Everything I couldn’t do or say.
I used to think it was right after this event that I began seeking out others with problems similar to my own, in order to solicit help. But in reality it took much longer. After all, memory is deceptive. It’s hard to remember one’s life. It’s hard to remember in the right order, and as for this matter of food, I don’t know how it all began or why.
Those I sought out said it might begin with the very first sustenance. The milk that is so rich and sweet, that satisfies and soothes the newborn child and relieves its pain. It could be that we wish for a return, to once more be allowed to drink it while lying in someone’s arms. One might think it would be easy to speak in terms of 'we,' because we all must eat in order to survive. But people are so different. I see the love of food everywhere, simple and full of pleasure, and I wonder if there aren’t others like me after all.
They told me that I must tell my story, because it is the only way to be freed from this. And it’s not that my story is special, it’s what they’d say to anyone. It’s one of their guiding principles; they sound like sober alcoholics when they speak and indeed many of them are—alcoholics and drug addicts who stopped drinking and doing drugs and started on food instead.
But I don’t know how to tell the story of what food has meant to me. I’m frightened that I might not have a language for it. I don’t believe this story will set me free in the way that they insist they have been set free and I don’t want to spin this into 'a good story.'
Do it anyway, they say.
So I try.
I see before me a tangerine.
That is the beginning. The tangerines. It was winter, citrus season, I think I was three years old. It was the middle of the day and bright outside and the fruits had been set out on the big white table. There may have been thirteen of them, maybe more, but thirteen is the number I haven’t been able to get out of my head ever since, and they were bright orange and luminous amidst all the white in our kitchen.
I was alone in there, on the floor by the table, and it was quiet in the apartment. My mother was in her room, working as usual, as she would do on weekends unless one of her friends came over for a coffee or a walk around the nearby lake. I remember that I climbed onto one of the chairs and leaned across the white table top, reached out and grabbed hold of a tangerine, then picked it up and held it in my hand.
I pressed my nose to it and inhaled the scent, letting the tip of my tongue slip out and over its smooth rind. The bitterness made my tongue withdraw, like a small animal retreating to its den. Then I dug my nails into the rind and felt the release of a tangy mist.
I poked a small hole in the rind so I could touch the bare, juicy fruit beneath, then tore off a long strip. Then another and another. When all the peel was discarded, I removed two segments. I thought about how they reminded me of my lips when pressed together. I spread them, scraped away the soft net-like pith, put one segment between my teeth and bit down. Juice gushed out, cool and fresh and quenching. And its sweetness filled more than my mouth, it filled the whole of me and the kitchen in which I sat.
I chewed and swallowed and stuffed the other segment in and bit into it as well, felt the fibers in the flesh with my tongue, probed the membranes with its tip for what was still to be had and sucked it into me before I took another segment, doing the same with it and then one more. I was taking the time to chew, but still the juice caught on the way down and it made me cough and clear my throat, but I was undeterred and once I’d finished the first tangerine I reached across the big white table for another.
Something new and unknown was racing through me, trembling and burning. I ate one after the next and when all the tangerines were gone, the sensation vanished as quickly as it had appeared, and it was as if something colorless and slack came over me. I stared at the table, which looked so different now with that untidy heap of rind in place of what had moments ago been plump fruit, full of promise. My fingers were sticky and vibrant citrus notes rose up around me. I was still alone in the kitchen. I had taken a tangerine and tasted it, and then I had eaten them all up at once. I had done this, me, and yet I could hardly believe it had happened.
On the other side of the apartment, I could hear the door to my mother’s room opening. I gathered up the peels as quickly as I could and climbed down from the chair to try and dispose of them. She had looked so happy coming home with her bag of groceries. She’d said that tangerines were part of winter, and she was sure that I’d like them. A scrap of a rind hit the floor and when I turned around I saw that others had fallen from my hands. They were too small to hold everything.
Mom came into the kitchen with her mug of tea. She always drank tea when she was at home. What have you done? she asked. I didn’t know what to say, I was just trying to get rid of the tangerine peel that lay like a trail behind me on the floor. Have you eaten all the tangerines?
I couldn’t respond.
She looked at me and when I didn’t speak, she bent down and picked up the peels, threw them in the trash, and then took her mug to the teapot on the counter to freshen her tea.
I left the kitchen and went into my room to play with my tea tins. If you opened the lids and stuck in your nose, they still contained the aroma of the leaves: jasmine, lemon, muscatel, and osmanthus. She had taught me all the scents and words and this was something she seemed to enjoy, but I also noticed that she didn’t like that I could smell certain things so clearly and the effect they had on me, how a smell that didn’t bother anyone else could cause me to despair.
I put the tea tins in a row on the floor, picked them back up and built a wall and then a tower. After a while I started to feel itchy. My legs, my inner thighs, prickled and stung and when I pulled off my thick tights to get at it, I saw that big reddish blotches had spread across my skin. My nails left long white scratch marks. Scratching felt good, but the more I scratched the worse it got; I felt it on my neck too, my forearms and hands.
I pulled off my shirt so I was just sitting in my underpants, I kept scratching and the itch got worse. When I couldn’t stand it anymore and didn’t know what else to do, I ran into the corridor, through the hall, to my mother’s room, even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to bother her. I walked across the thick white carpet to the other side of the room. She was hunched over her desk, the typewriter and all of her papers next to a plate, empty but for a few rusk crumbs, and the mug, its interior dark with tea. Mama, I said, and she hemmed in reply without looking up from her work. I stood in front of her and started crying, or just let the tears come, to get her attention and to make clear that I had a reason for disturbing her writing time.
She spun around on the chair and looked at me, horrified at the sight of the rash, and then she stood up. Her special scent and heat enfolded me as she lifted me onto her bed and sat down beside me. I loved her every smell. They were most exquisite in winter, when mixed with the cold. I longed for them always—leather, cigarette smoke, the perfume clinging to her wolf fur when she came to pick me up, and the smells of skin and body around her when she was just at home, sitting still or walking around. I looked at the two of us in the mirror beside the desk, like she looked at herself each time she was going out. What is this, she asked, her voice different, unsteady and a touch shrill rather than deep and soft. What have you done? She stared at the rash and I remember thinking that I was leaving my body, that I too was looking at myself from the outside, just like she was.
She felt my forehead and said I had a fever and then she picked the large, heavy phone up off the floor, and as she placed it on her lap it emitted a soft metallic ping. She took one of the phone books from the pile under her nightstand, put it next to her on the bed, flipped to a number and dialed. Then she sat next to me with the receiver in her hand, the phone in her lap, and the long cord winding down her bare legs, her warm, freckled skin and her scent, which was like a room of its own that I wanted to find my way into and never leave. She had been working all morning in the big t-shirt she usually slept in, not having managed to get dressed properly. She had another job too, what she did on the weekends was a side hustle. A 'bread job,' she’d call it.
I squirmed in the bed sheets while she spoke with the person on the other end of the line who was asking questions and of whom she was asking questions in return: how had it happened, was it dangerous, what could be done. When she’d hung up, she went to the kitchen to fetch a tube of ointment that she said was in the medicine drawer in the broom closet. She came back with it in hand and squeezed some out and after she had smeared it into my itchy patches, she stroked my hair and sang to me until I fell asleep.
Thinking about it now, I can’t remember her being mad at me for eating all the tangerines and bringing hives and an allergic reaction upon myself. What I do remember is the taste, the sweetness in my mouth and how it overtook me. I think it was the first time something I ate transformed me, but I can’t say for sure. This is only a memory, the first that arises when I try to look back. And I know memories are not reliable. They belong only to you, and they are only memories, like flashes and echoes through time, images and scenes that further distort each time we call them up.
Bröd och Mjölk
Norstedts, 2022, 332 pages
Foreign rights: Christine Edhäll, Ahlander Agency.
We are grateful to Karolina Ramqvist, Ahlander Agency and Manilla Press for permission to publish this translated extract.
Karolina Ramqvist made her literary debut in 1997. She has published a number of novels, including the critically acclaimed The White City, and in 2015 was awarded the prestigious P.O. Enquist Literary Prize. She has also written short stories, film scripts, non-fiction and essays, and was formerly Editor of Arena magazine. Bread and Milk is forthcoming in Saskia Vogel's English translation from Manilla Press in the UK, and Coach House Books in Canada.
Saskia Vogel is an author and translator from Los Angeles, currently living in Berlin. She was a 2021 PEN Translation Prize finalist and Princeton University’s Fall 2022 Translator in Residence. Her debut novel, Permission, was published in five languages, and she was awarded the 2021 Berlin Senate Grant for Non-German language Literature for her writing.