This is a post for all of you preposterously lucky people who can imbibe copious amounts of butter and still live to tell about it. If you have been following the chronicles of my adaption to Irish country life from the beginning, you’ll know that butter and I have been in a significant long-term relationship for many years. In fact, and funnily enough, butter kind of catapulted me into the world of food writing.

It began quite innocently; the act of making butter came early on in my Irish farm life, once I discovered the simplicity of spinning cream from our cows into rich, velvety, spreadable bliss. After that, it seemed like pure negligence not to make butter from the dairy at our farm on the weekly. Fresh butter was literally the most delicious creamy delight I had ever laid my lips upon. And, with my darling little boy holding onto every move I made in the kitchen, this was as much to his delight as mine. Nothing pleased him more than fresh brown bread out of the oven coated in just churned butter that we prepared together.

It was in 2011 that I shared my newly honed butter making skills via an incredibly erudite step-by-step blog post. The next day I woke up to see thousands of visits to my site, which, compared to my usual meagerly double digit clicks, was quite a staggering improvement. Lingering through the comments and email responses, I was stunned to see how astonishingly arousing this post was to readers. Butter had boosted me up to level of food writing that significantly piqued the interest of my subscribers. It was surprising, but also quite gratifying because I loved the process and was gleefully pleased to see that many others might enjoy making their own butter too.

BUTTER AEROBICS

In a matter of weeks, I weirdly ended up touring Ireland making butter at food festivals, on stages, and at schools, showing people the way of my butter madness. Quite an odd turn of events for a former American producer with very little background in food, but these unusual requests kept flooding in, so who was I to decline? It was fun! I did countless radio and print interviews espousing the wonder and simplicity of butter making. I donned spandex and led Butter Aerobics classes at Electric Picnic (complete with terrycloth sweatbands for all participants, I might add), and introduced the Butter Boogie to the Irish landscape. For a minute, we even considered creating our own brand of Irish farm butter called Ím (thank you Ella McSweeney who alerted me that Ím means butter in Irish) — must admit that I have often had a tiny tinge of regret that we never did go down that path.

Of course, I wasn’t the first to make Irish farm butter, but possibly the first American expat who thought it was worth making a big deal out of it? Couldn’t resist (I am American, after all). Anyway, what we all DO know is that there are towering doyennes of Irish food who have long made this bovine-derived-sweetly-whipped-vehicle-for-bread-slathering nectar of Gods in their kitchens. In my little film Small Green Fields, the Sheridan Brothers remind us of the story that Myrtle Allen told, how she met a farmer who could literally taste which field her butter came from. Now, that is a form of mastery that is nearly impossible to fathom, and is 100% to be revered. It’s true, butter anointed me with a food career that I had no intention of creating, but one in which I couldn’t imagine living without. Butter gave me life.

But now, sadly, me and butter must break up.

You see, butter– my beautiful, loving, career-boosting comrade, tried to kill me. Not in a homicidal sense, there was no pre-meditated intent that I am aware of, a bit more like a sort of slow-release manslaughter in the 5th degree I suppose.

While my work in food is still going strong, my bond with butter has unfortunately come to an abrupt end. You may have spotted a few pity posts on insta-stories about a certain post-op recovery this week. You might have also noticed that I really haven’t been sharing a lot of food/cooking/baking/recipes besides my Lens & Larder retreats or for my professional styling/photography assignments for quite some time.

What started as niggling digestive issues about a year ago that could not be pinpointed after a series of hospital appointments for every test, scope, and scan in the book; in February it became clear that I had gallstones. Gallstones that needed to be gone. Simple right? While it’s not totally clear what causes gallstones, the most common type of gallstones are made up of excess cholesterol. Butter and fat laden diets can contribute to gallstone formation. When probed on my health history, I realized I probably had one or more minor previous gallbladder attacks, so the surgeon was recommending the immediate removal of the gallbladder as he warned “where there is one attack, there is more, and it will only get worse.” (It’s also worth mentioning that at least one gallstone was the size of a golf ball which is quite deadly if it were to decide to leave the gallbladder and go for a hike to my bile duct or fuss with the pancreas.)

I wanted more time to think about it so devised a plan to change my diet, cut out some fats, red meat etc. and see how I get on. I continued to use my beloved butter, just not as often. The thing is, I was holding out to see my primary physician in the USA on our GREAT AMERICAN ROAD TRIP we had planned for over the summer, get her opinion, and possibly even have the surgery done stateside if necessary.

But, then Covid came.

Dammit.

Surprisingly, I was fine for the last 8 months. I starved myself strictly managed my food in fear, and while having little or no butter (or fats, meat, cheese, dairy, even gluten would give me trouble) was so hard (yes, I caved a number of times only to be met with discomfort), I really had no massive flare-ups…..

….until a couple of weeks ago. For whatever reason (Covid emotions?) we had decided to stage a fatty feast for all feasts. Butter was cast as lead actress. The next day, I ended up being ferried to the ER by ambulance, with what was thought to possibly be a “cardiac event”. Pain that radiated and squeezed my chest like someone had their arms around me trying to crush me into pieces. Maternity labour is nothing compared to gallbladder pain or biliary colic. Nor is the agony of appendicitis. Or, the explosive hurt of a burst ectopic pregnancy. Or, just anything I have ever experienced. Essentially my body called mutiny on me. I was forced to put the white flag up.

Once anything heart was completely ruled out, I got in to see my gastro surgeon who again said I had to have the procedure to remove gallbladder straight away via laparospoc cholestoctomy. We went through the risks, of which there are terrifyingly many, but thankfully mostly never happen. I whined that I had a really fantastic tv assignment coming up. He countered by saying that’s even more reason to have it done right now. Again, “where there is one attack, there is more, and it will only get worse.”

From there, it all happened fast and furious. Pre-op Covid test. Cosy jammy shopping. Fridge/freezer stocking. Last wishes written (well, you never know).

On Monday morning, Richard dropped me at the door of a private Kerry hospital where I waited alone (thanks again, Covid), shivering with nerves in my mask until I was called inside to begin my prep for surgery. After a rush of health questions and two valiums from the coolest female anesthesist ever, I found myself on a gurney heading to “theatre” (that’s Irish for operating room which I LOVE for the Broadway drama of it) When the surgical team transferred me to the operating table they were all asking me how on earth someone like Trump could happen to America. The last thing I remember saying before going under was “Don’t get me started!”

I spent that night in the Bons and left the following late afternoon. Staff nurses looked after me, Irish mammy style, offering pain management top-ups, and tea and toast every 3 hours. I never felt more safe and secure.

As I write this it’s Saturday and I took the dogs for a walk for the first time since last weekend. I am doing just fine. But, I will say – and after Googling I know I am not the only one, the pain after this surgery can be immense. Whether it’s the trapped air from the keyhole method or it’s the actual pain of having an organ (albeit one that is not needed) removed, you will likely have pain when you awake from anesthesia. I am lucky so far, knock on wood, that once I had the pain under control (do insist on strong pain relief and I found both ice and heat packs a necessity) I have been recovering well and I hope that things keep going in that direction.

Now the only real conundrum is how to eat for the rest of my life! As fun as it was, I will not go back to the diet I have had for the last 10-15 years. As a food writer, eating anything and everything can be specific to your work, especially if you are reviewing restaurants or products. But, seriously, how on earth I am going to live with little or no BUTTER? Cheese? Burgers? Bacon? Cake? Butter? Doughnuts? Some people even struggle with any amount of alcohol….wait, did I mention BUTTER?

I know that many people just go back to eating whatever they damn please, but this is not recommended. The gallbladder exists as a reservoir for the bile produced by the liver, a place for it to rest between meals and during the night. When you eat, that bile is there to digest the next feast. Since you have no place to store bile anymore, the liver just constantly secretes its bile straight into the intestines. You need more bile to process fats, and if you don’t have the excess stored in a gallbladder to break those fats down, it will cause uncomfortable digestion and diarrhea. Digestive issues are something that I have EVERY intention of AVOIDING from here on out.

Butter, you were good to me when I needed you most, and I am ever so grateful. We enjoyed many deliciously fulfilling years together. But, we now must part our ways. You will always hold a special place in my heart, just not in my belly.

Love,

Imen

PS Any good gallbladderless recipes are most welcomed.

Beautiful, handcrafted butter dish from Arran Street East

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10 Responses to “Butter: A Story of Love, Loss & Attempted Murder.”

  1. Jim Wright says:

    Hi Imen.

    I lost my gallbladder about 10 years ago after a similar experience. I have to say that it has not been a terrible adjustment. I still enjoy most of the foods, including butter, that I previously did. Smoked meats, like barbecue, cause problems. Really fatty meats are out. Lean beef cuts like filet or sirloin cause me no issues. The same with pork. I still cook my eggs with a little butter & EVO.

    You’ll have to sort it out your diet for yourself but once you’ve completely healed up from surgery your life will go back to normal again.

    Best wishes.

    • imen says:

      Thank you Jim! I have heard similar and I agree I hope to eventually go back to adding saturated fats back in, but not for a while. Good to know about smoked meats! I wonder what the story is with that? Again, really appreciate your comment here thank you and take care! Imen x

  2. What an ordeal! I am so sorry. I hope you heal swiftly. I do empathise. I have had to make huge dietary and lifestyle changes in the last few years, and had to add a few more last month. No gluten, dairy or caffeine for me. All favourite things and a HUGE change to everything in my life but I feel so much better now. It is worth it. x

    • imen says:

      Thanks Niamh! As I said on Insta I really appreciate your story and knowing there is light at the end of the tunnel it’s not all so bad! Take care oxoxo

  3. Erin McDonnell Dolce says:

    I too had to leave my gallbladder behind. I initially was guarded about my diet, but over time I was able to enjoy all foods. I don’t like a lot of fatty foods, but I do love my Irish butter when butter is called for. I hope you can enjoy it again soon as well, best wishes!

    • imen says:

      Thanks Erin, so you know exactly how I feel! I am sure over time I will be less guarded and willing to have a dollop of butter or something fatty, but can’t see it happening for a good bit. Best wishes, Imen xx

  4. Rachel says:

    Oh love. I’ve noticed you’ve been less present, but OH the places you’ve been! What a gift to have you live to tell the story. I shall get clear on gallbladder friendly pie, and once we can travel about, whether you are here or we come your way, I’ll give you the greatest biggest hug hello.

    All the love from here to there.

    • imen says:

      Okay “gallbladder (less) friendly pie seems like the best pie ever!!!!!! I’d love any ideas. I guess it’s just not using a saturated fat for the pastry. I will get there eventually! Thank you and I cannot wait to meet you in person on day!!!! xoxoxo

  5. Joey Sundvall says:

    Oof, that is not a pleasant situation! I’m so glad you had it taken care of and are on the road to recovery! I completely understand the sadness of needing to modify/drastically change ones diet, having recently been diagnosed with issues (lol) as well. When our bodies decide to revolt, they don’t mess around! Continued good health (and moderation) to you!

    • imen says:

      The revolution is strong!!!! Thank you for your kind words Joey. Nice to hear from you =) Hope you get your gastro issues sorted as well. No fun! Imen x

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