December 12, 2016
Discovering mindfulness helped vegetarian cookery writer, Rose Elliot, cope when her husband, Robert, was diagnosed with dementia. Here, she tells us about his illness and the power of sharing food with those you love.
Rose Elliot is the UK’s best-known vegetarian cookery writer. She has published more than 60 vegetarian and vegan cookbooks and, in 1999, was awarded an MBE for services to vegetarian cookery.
She is also passionate about mindfulness and meditation and has written two books on the subjects, I Met a Monk and Every Breath You Take.
Interview by Andréa Childs.
When did you first become interested in Buddhism and mindfulness?
‘I grew up on a meditation retreat run by my grandmother. It was a wonderful upbringing, giving me a spiritual approach to life. I met Robert there and we worked at the centre for many years, doing healing work and meditation, and my cookery career stemmed from the vegetarian food that I created for visitors to the centre. After we left, Robert started meditating at a nearby monastery and we held a Buddhist day retreat in our home every summer for 12 years. At first I helped with this through love of Robert, but one year the monk taking the retreat said something that changed my life. He said that everything you need to know about Buddhism – the four Noble Truths – can be written on the back of a postcard. He said they would bring me happiness, freedom and peace, and they have. It’s this that inspired my book, I Met a Monk.
Robert was diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia just after your 50th wedding anniversary in 2013. What happened?
‘He was out driving and put petrol in the tank instead of diesel, and the engine blew up. The shock wiped his memory and he couldn’t work out how to get home, returning after midnight in a breakdown lorry after some kind strangers had helped him. He seemed a little better in the next few days and we went on our summer holiday, but he was forgetful and confused. After tests, we were told he had dementia. He was allowed home but his disease progressed very quickly. By the following September, he was admitted to hospital, and the following April he moved to a high-dependency nursing home.’
How did mindfulness help you during your husband’s illness?
‘I felt so sad, angry and fearful during Robert’s decline and practising mindful breathing really helped me through those hard times. I found that when I was focusing on my breath I couldn’t think about my pain, and that gave me a sense of peace. The staff at the hospital where Robert was first taken and, later, at the nursing home where he stayed, were wonderful, so dedicated and kind, but I found them sad places. I also felt incredibly tired all the time. Mindful breathing helps you to recognise your thoughts and emotions without becoming tangled up in them. It’s like a balm for a sore place.’
And those experiences went into the writing of your new book, Every Breath You Take?
‘Yes, because I was exploring the Buddha’s teachings about breathing during Robert’s illness. I would write a bit of the book each day before I went to visit him in the nursing home, so it’s a very authentic record of how I was feeling at the time.
Did Robert’s dementia affect his eating and how he felt about food?
‘He was never a great foodie, which is strange when you think he was married to me! He mainly saw food as fuel but there were a few things he absolutely loved – nut roast and roast potatoes, bananas, apple juice, and he could have lived off slices of wholemeal bread and honey. As his dementia progressed, it was almost as if he didn’t know how to eat. He would put odd combinations on a plate, like a raw carrot with a lump of butter. Dementia affects ability to chew and swallow, so we had to be aware of that when giving him food. Fortunately, most of his favourite things were also ones that he could continue to eat without difficulty.’
You have never eaten meat and you haven’t eaten fish since the age of three. Why did you make the decision to be vegetarian?
‘For me, I don’t feel it’s right to take an animal’s life just so that I can have a meal, when there are so many other nourishing and delicious foods available. In fact, these days I’m as vegan as I can possibly be because the welfare of animals is so important to me. Studies also show that vegetarians and vegans have a lower incidence of heart disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer, and are less likely to suffer from obesity. Rather than asking, “Why be vegetarian?”, I think the more compelling question is, “Why would anyone not be vegetarian (or vegan)?”’
How has vegetarian cooking and eating changed since you wrote your first cookbook, Simply Delicious, in 1967?
‘When I was growing up, the only vegetarian options on a menu were an omelette or a cheese salad. The big difference today is that there are so many fresh fruits and vegetables available, as well as herbs and spices from all around the world. It brings a vibrancy and flavour to food that’s a joy for me. Even eating a vegan diet is easier, as it’s become almost trendy now to avoid animal products.’
What do you eat on a typical day?
‘I love to start my day with a green juice of kale, rocket, celery and lemon juice – or pond water, as I call it (it’s so green and thick!). I make sure I eat plenty of flax seeds and nuts, such as walnuts, for the healthy essential oils they contain. For lunch, I’ll often make miso soup with wakame or my favourite lentil soup. Dinner might be fried tofu with a spicy sauce and wilted spinach, some lentil dahl and maybe a poppadom, or a vibrant salad. Or I enjoy snacking on hummus, with radishes, carrots and celery to dip into it.’
Recipe: Broad bean & pistachio hummus
Do you practice mindful eating?
‘It tends to be something to do at home as it involves lots of chewing! But saying that, you can take a moment during any meal, even when surrounded by others, simply to focus on the flavours and sensations of eating. Just take a breath and find your peace before you eat. If I’m on my own, I might try to chew each mouthful 100 times. It’s a very healthy practice as it helps with absorption of nutrients; the digestive enzymes in the saliva go to work on the food even before it reaches the stomach.’
Are there any meals or occasions you particularly enjoy?
‘Almost every meal with my three daughters and seven granddaughters around the table is a blissful experience for me. We might order a vegetarian Indian takeaway or cook together, chatting and eating in the kitchen. They’re very loving occasions.’
What you would advise for anyone who is poorly and has lost their appetite?
‘If it’s for yourself, I suggest trying to tune into your body. If you’re feeling jaded or sad, visualise breathing love into your body; that’s very nurturing and may help you feel strong enough to eat. If you’re preparing food for someone else, I’d say, “think love”. That may sound whimsical but love is such a powerful emotion. If you’re preparing food with love, you naturally make better choices about what you serve. Really, eating with love is everything.’
To see the recipe for Rose's favourite recipe for tofu with broccoli and kale, click here.