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People of the Salt
An essay, and snack list for people with POTS. Words and photograph by Gabrielle de la Puente.
Good morning and welcome to Cooking From Life: a Vittles mini-season on cooking and eating at home everyday.
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Cooking from Life is a Vittles mini-season of essays that defy idealised versions of cooking – a window into how food and kitchen-life works for different people in different parts of the world. Cooking as refusals, heritage, messiness, routine.
Our eleventh writer for Cooking from Life is Gabrielle de la Puente.
Cooking from Life will be on a break for two weeks following this essay. You can read our archive of recipes and essays here.
People of the Salt
An essay and snack list for people with PoTS. Words and photographs by Gabrielle de le Puente.
I want Vogue to ask me what’s in my bag. But if Vogue isn’t interested, someone else should be. Go on. You do it.
I don’t actually go outside much nowadays, so the bags in my wardrobe have become quite redundant. Shoes are practically meaningless. But if you happen to see me on the rare occasion I’ve been forced out the house and I do indeed have a bag round my shoulder, please ask what’s inside it. Ask me so that I can dramatically reveal a massive water bottle, a tiny pair of kids’ chopsticks, and as many pickled beetroots as one girl can carry.
Sometimes the baby beetroots are Babybels instead. Sometimes I have a shitload of Peperamis hidden in there. Carrot sticks, tomatoes, cornichons, a load of emergency olives. You just never know.
There are also sachets of electrolyte gel in the zip pocket, and Bounce protein balls rolling around somewhere. I have been known to carry nuts on occasion – salted cashews, almonds, saffron pistachios that taste strongly of holiday lemons. Also see: lentil crisps, char siu, anchovies. Ask what’s in my bag and I’ll ask you if you’d like one of my many boiled eggs. God, the inside of my bag must smell absolutely insane. No wonder Vogue haven’t been in touch.
But I have good reason for this mad bag strategy. I have a disease, lol.
I got Covid two-and-a-half years ago, back when we were in Delta times, and it just never went away. Long Covid is an umbrella term for post-viral misery, and the kind I have is Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, or PoTS. When a healthy person stands up, their heart rate increases for a moment to compensate for the change in blood pressure. When I try, my nervous system goes haywire. My blood is overrun with hormones that make my heart rate climb until I am dizzy, sweating, breathless and faint. I have less blood than other people now – that’s weird, isn’t it? – and the blood I have been left with is not very good at retaining salt or water. When I was diagnosed, the doctor at the Long Covid Clinic told me to consume two extra teaspoons of salt a day, which remains the only time I’ve ever smiled at a doctor.
You’ve probably already forgotten the long scientific acronym, so you’ll be happy to know that PoTS patients sometimes call themselves ‘People of the Salt’. Much catchier. A bit like Covid, I guess.
Flashback to 1 January 2021. I am a 26-year-old critic renting a beautiful flat next to the park, living alone for the first time, enjoying self-employment and all its self-affirming self-sufficiency. I am enjoying it so much that I want to feel independent in all aspects of my life. So I decide to straighten some things out. Some cooking things, to be precise.
I don’t want to be a pesto-pasta-person anymore. I don’t want to rely on my boyfriend to cook us good, complicated meals. I make a New Year’s resolution to learn a recipe every week of the year. I have bookmarked fifty-two, ready to go. Day one is already off to a good start with Nigella’s Fish Finger Bhorta. I say ‘Good start’. But I quickly think, Wow, this is boring. Step four of the recipe involves poking onions around a pan for twenty minutes. That is the length of a TV episode, and I could eat the meal in half that time. I slosh the stupid onions about until they are definitely improved and think – OK, cooking is just a stamina test. As long as I learn to stand in the kitchen for as long as humanly possible, everything is going to be OK.
Never mind! I became disabled the very next day. I woke up with Covid and – god, I remember putting a twig of fresh coriander from the bhorta in my mouth and tasting fuck all. Soon after which, I couldn’t breathe. I whispered sweet nothings down the phone to 111, who brought me to hospital. I had to leave my park-side flat to move in with my boyfriend’s family because I could no longer look after myself. I try not to dwell on that time, but sometimes I think, What I would give to be standing in a kitchen cooking something with all the tedious commitment I once gave a pan of onions. PoTS means I have bad blood now – badness between my veins, and against the Tory government for mishandling their response to a mass-disabling event.
Doting on onions is out of the question now, since I see stars waiting for my toast to pop. Those stars land me in bed a few days a week, and it’s my boyfriend who deals with the food situation – which is what it has become, A Situation. He asks me what I want to eat and I never, ever know. I’m too nauseous, I can’t think. PoTS affects memory and I forget what food even exists if it’s not there in front of me.
PoTS is a chronic illness that can be mildly irritating for some and disabling for others, and today I find myself on the disabled end. The will-anything-besides-my-own-humour-help-me end – which it turns out, yeah, sort of. Beta blockers, a support group (chat), cold weather; certain food helps as well. But very particular food. Food that doesn’t necessarily make me feel better, but that doesn’t make me feel worse. Because with those glass-half-empty veins I’m riddled with, what little blood I have gets tied up in digestion and leaves the rest of me in a fugue state if I consume anything bigger than a snack. And snacks are just as sleep-inducing if they’re high on the glycemic index; I was once KOed by onigiri.
It’s been a long process of losing independence, work, my appetite, my sanity, cake. I can’t eat cake anymore! And that’s on Boris Johnson. So I chose my 2023 New Year’s resolution very carefully. If I had to lose so much, I wanted to gain something in return. I made a list of foods I have historically not enjoyed and got started eating peanut butter every day until I liked it. That only took a month. Olives were next. They took three months, but now I get through a jar every fortnight.
It’s like Covid changed my biology for the worse and this was my small resistance. And it was this resistance that prompted me to keep going, to make an exhaustive list of snacks that don’t exhaust me. I decided to track whatever I could eat slowly, and cold, as and when the nausea would allow it – low-impact, possibly salty, small, no-prep comestibles. I wanted some independence back. I wanted to stop looking blankly at my boyfriend when he asked me what I wanted to eat. Instead, I wanted to show him an entire list.
Today, my snacks manifest in a tapas buffet I arrange on the bed tray beside me; they are foods I can parcel in Tupperware to keep me upright when I venture outside. The list grows slowly, but I’ll tell you what: it is more important to me than those long-forgotten bookmarked recipes ever were. The list is more crucial, more personal, and a lot less boring than that one time I tried to make onions good. Because it’s replacing an anxiety for all the cooking I cannot do with a collector’s enjoyment for finding food I can consume.
With this list in my hands, I don’t need to pass the kitchen stamina test anymore. With this list, I can see who I am, and I don’t even need to cook! Instead, I snack and I snack and I snack. And that way, I never see stars.
Snacks for People of the Salt
This is a reference list for people with PoTS and their carers. Please arrange a few of these in small bowls on a tray that can be kept beside the bed or on a couch, to avoid having to be up and down, and back and forth, to the kitchen. If you are going out, parcel snacks in Tupperware instead.
Cheese (var. Babybels, Cheesestrings, halloumi sticks)
Peas (var. roasted wasabi)
Pistachios (var. saffron)
Sweetcorn (var. toasted corn with chilli and lemon)
Cold cuts (var. bresaola with lemon)
Salmon (var. smoked, jerky)
Sausages (var. cocktail, Pepperami)
Tofu (var. dried)
Protein balls (var. Bounce)
Oral rehydration salts
Gabrielle de la Puente is a writer from, and based in Liverpool. She publishes criticism on art, games, and all the culture that gets on her nerves on The White Pube. Her website is gdlp.co.uk.
Gabrielle also made this website, called People of the Salt, which she uses to triage herself through various symptoms. Part website and part game, it has a food advice page which is where she updates the snacks list live via her phone all the time, as a way to track what works.
For people with PoTS, the website of PoTS UK can be a useful resource.
Vittles is edited by Rebecca May Johnson, Sharanya Deepak and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.