Thursday, 14 January 2016

Christmas dinner: a pleasure not to be underestimated

Posted by Duika Burges Watson, Fuse staff member and Lecturer in Evaluation and Policy Interventions, Centre for Public Policy & Health, Durham University

The final event for our research project exploring the potential of progressive cuisine to improve quality of life for head and neck cancer survivors was a Babette’s feast of sorts. Babette’s feast, the novella by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), centres on the story of a most remarkable and transformative meal. In a remote and austere community in Northern Denmark, Babette cooks up a storm for the abstemious community. A religious cult denying all pleasure, the community is reluctant to eat anything that might be ‘wickedly’ enjoyable. Finally convinced of Babette’s desire to thank them for their support at the time of her father’s death, the French trained chef is permitted to use some new found wealth to prepare a sumptuous feast. During the multiple courses, the community is existentially transformed. Their enjoyment and love of life and feelings of well-being become undeniable as each delicious course is presented, despite their efforts to pretend otherwise...

Courtesy of
With our Christmas dinner, we didn’t set out to do anything other than thank the participants for their involvement in the research. We knew from our qualitative food play workshops (25 in all) that participant survivors missed the opportunity to socialise around food; their difficulties with food and eating (including swallowing, speed of eating, limited food choices, and fear of choking) made a ‘normal’ eating out experience unlikely[i]. So we invited the project’s Research Chef to prepare a Christmas meal that we hoped they would enjoy.

The tasting menu, or menu degustation (below) was designed as an adventure in dining, in which multiple very small courses make it easier to undertake - when you know that if you don’t like one, there are plenty more before and after to select from. The delightful setting at Irvin’s brassiere on the North Shields Fish Quay provided an opportunity for survivors to dine out, at their pace; to select from a range of dishes, and to enjoy some of the foods we now knew would be acceptable (with a diversity of eating difficulties, increasing options would ensure there was something on the menu for everyone). What we hadn’t anticipated was how much they’d enjoy the leisurely three hour lunch. Unlike the diners at Babette’s feast, survivors of head and neck cancer do not deny the pleasure of food, it simply may not be an option.

The menu that was offered to participants
Our Resources for Living research has centred on the potential of using some of the progressive cuisine techniques derived from the new ‘science of deliciousness’, an interdisciplinary approach to understanding our sensory perception of food with input from physics, chemistry, neurology and psychology[ii]. Chefs around the world are gaining insights into food in ways never before explored, and we developed the interdisciplinary research project on the assumption that some of these new understandings might improve quality of life for those living with the long term altered eating side effects of cancer and its treatment.

Our research, and the research of others, has showed that the loss of pleasure associated with food can be ‘almost unbearable’. Recent research in neurology suggests that there is one ‘pleasure centre’ in the human brain. In other words, “the pleasure evoked by food is remarkably similar to that of other rewards, suggesting a unitary pleasure system, whether engaging with food, sex, social or higher-order rewards”[iii]. In our research, finding ways to improve quality of life is intimately connected with the loss of pleasure. While we uncovered some ‘compensatory pathways’ such as participants finding pleasure in cooking for loved ones or engaging in exercise, the ability to eat a nine course meal appeared to do much more than just provide satisfaction. Participants reported feelings of well-being and happiness that they’d truly missed, some for years.

For our Christmas meal insights, thanks must go to Sam Storey, our brilliant chef on the project, and to the team of researchers and survivors involved who together have worked to understand, and find ways to manage, the challenge of living with altered eating difficulties.

Resources for Living (R4L) Pilot: Exploring the Potential of Progressive Cuisine for Quality of Life Improvement for Head and Neck Cancer Survivors is funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Research for Public Benefit (RfPB) programme.

[i] Wells, M., 1998. The hidden experience of radiotherapy to the head and neck: a qualitative study of patients after completion of treatment. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 28(4), pp.840-848; Cousins, N., MacAulay, F., Lang, H., MacGillivray, S. and Wells, M., 2013. A systematic review of interventions for eating and drinking problems following treatment for head and neck cancer suggests a need to look beyond swallowing and trismus. Oral Oncology, 49(5), pp.387-400. 

[ii] Mouritsen, Ole G. "The science of taste." Flavour 4.1 (2015): 18.

[iii] Kringelbach, M.L., 2015. The pleasure of food: underlying brain mechanisms of eating and other pleasures. Flavour, 4(1), p.20.

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