One of the many podcasts that I mainlined during lockdown was ‘Off Menu’ hosted by comedians Ed Gamble and James Acaster. I like it because it is frequently hilarious, often informative, and very occasionally quite touching. It is also one of those concepts – where you order your fantasy meal at a restaurant – that you can’t help but join in with.
My son, when he was very young, would put absolutely anything in his mouth. In fact, if a person in a white coat had earnestly informed me that his Autism had been caused by him obsessively mouthing plastic toys exclusively manufactured in China, then I would have been halfway to believing them.
He passed through this phase and, oddly, then became a very fussy eater, subsisting on peas, spaghetti and black olives for a protracted period. He was probably nine when he went overnight from a bacon denier to a person for whom life had no meaning unless it contained bacon. Thereafter he became something of an omnivore, wanting to try everything he could get his hands on, stealing the filling from his sister’s sandwich even as she was biting into it, and regularly helping himself to whatever looked interesting on your plate whenever your attention was elsewhere. He became violently incensed one day when, after presenting to us an unopened tub of bicarbonate of soda we declined to let him taste it.
To this day it is sensible to present him with peeled and sliced fruit or otherwise reap the consequences. Satsumas and apples would be eaten whole, skin, core, pips and all. A bunch of grapes would vanish in its entirety, the stalk only reappearing, unpleasantly, come nappy change time. Sweets were devoured in their wrappers, lollipops with their sticks. Shopping lists would vanish from kitchen surfaces, and still be partially legible after a quick voyage around his alimentary canal.
My son quickly discovered that this capacity to ingest pretty much anything could be used as a weapon. Annoyed by something or another on a walk around Whitby cathedral he rapidly scooped up and gobbled down a handful of rabbit poo. Leaves and twigs regularly became an item he could rush into his mouth whenever he wanted us to understand just how irritating he found us, or what we were asking him to do. One day, inexplicably vexed by a length of string left trailing as a cat toy, the fishy mouthed little rotter swallowed it whole, then giggled happily for hours in contemplation of his great criminal cunning.
Other times he would conduct taste experiments on items you really wish he hadn’t. One Christmas, when he was disappointingly quite mature, he plucked a shiny tree ornament from a decorative bowl on the table and bit deeply into it leaving me to desperately prise his jaws apart while Mum hurriedly picked out the myriad shards and splinters of glass before he could swallow them. That was a difficult enough experience. But then, a year later, we discovered that the star-shaped, brightly coloured block of toilet disinfectant that should have been anchored to the side of the bowl was mostly missing but for a tell-tale fluorescent smear, and a distinctly chemical tang on his breath.
The word ‘inedible’ doesn’t seem to appear in his internal lexicon. Chicken bones, lemon wedges, nut shells – all have to be scrupulously monitored and cleared away before he turns his attentions to them. A few months ago, bone tired and not really concentrating, I took myself a whisky and ginger into the living room along with a beaker of water for the boy, only to discover I’d mixed up the delivery, and my son had necked the whisky in one gulp. There was a look of mild disapproval on his face. A bit of violent burping. But he did sleep better that night.
When Mum once accidentally added garlic butter to an apple crumble recipe, our son was the only member of the family who was up for seconds. Likewise, he showed no real disapproval when a complicated salad got accidentally spritzed with hand sanitiser. So it should come as no surprise that his regular teatime routine is to punctuate his main course and second helping with four criminally sour jelly sweets, and will often take alternate bites from a bowl of strawberries, a Marmite bagel and a feisty salami. Heston Bluementhal take note.
So, what would my son order for his dream menu? Well I would hope he might opt for Dad’s BLT as a starter, then perhaps those wafer thin middle eastern pizzas that he likes. Then, perhaps, a side order of gyoza chilli soup and maybe that yummy chocolate and chestnut cake to finish.
But I strongly suspect that the meal wouldn’t be entirely complete and perfect for him unless he’d also managed to snaffle the good bits from everybody else’s plate, had a lick of the table decoration, and possibly a nibble on the menu too.
*These are the words of Mark and not Carers in Bedfordshire