Annabel Langbein talks about the accident that nearly left her paralysed; plus eating for her age and her next adventure
Annabel Langbein tells Suzanne McFadden about the catastrophic accident that changed her life, how age has altered the way she eats, and why she is now preparing to take her passion and skills to Antarctica.
Closing her eyes, Annabel Langbein can be rapidly transported back to that fateful day. She can place herself in the precise moment that she is thrown from a thundering horse, onto a dry riverbed. And then she can fast-forward to the scene where she is delivered the shattering news – that she might never walk again.
“I can go through it all, like a slo-mo movie in my head. I don’t get anxious. I’m just there,” she says, relaxing at her Auckland home. She recalls the four months spent in hospital, lying on a length of four-by-two timber; and the challenge that followed as she learned to walk again.
“That really was a life-changing event for me. It was a time when I had to lie there and think, ‘What am I going to do with my life? What is important to me?’” she says.
“I knew I wanted to make a difference. And I realised how much pleasure cooking had given me, and how it was a really simple thing to make me feel useful and successful. And if I could make it an easy door for other people to open, then I could make change.”
It was during those most dire days that
Annabel reached a decision – to share her passion and knowledge of cooking and food with others. It was that resolution, coupled with the determination to defy the odds and make a full recovery, that led Annabel to become, among other things, an award-winning food writer, television cook, publisher, philanthropist and sustainability campaigner.
In spite of all her glittering global success, and the joy of raising two now-adult children, the memory of that near-fatal fall can be quickly conjured up. And it reminds her to always “go for it – because your luck can change on a dime”.
Annabel was 26, and had just started dating farm boy Ted Hewetson, her future husband, when she was introduced to horse riding on his family’s farm in Gisborne. “When I first met Ted, they had 167 horses. I would saddle one up, and take a picnic up the back,” she remembers.
“I’d be hooning around, and Ted would warn me, ‘One day you’re going to come off. You look good on a horse and you’re confident, but you actually don’t know what to do when something goes wrong.’
“And when it did go wrong, man, I was in big trouble.”
Annabel, who by then was running a successful food marketing consultancy, was in Te Anau for a conference, and decided to take a group of people on a horse trek in the morning.
“I chose this beautiful, huge horse,” she recalls. “Towards the end of the trek, we all wanted to go for a bit of a canter. But my horse just took off, through an old riverbed, and I had no way of controlling it.
“The horse stumbled on a rock, its left shoulder went down, and I went over. Because I’d done judo, I automatically went into a judo roll, which quite possibly saved my life.”
But Annabel was still seriously injured. She had landed on a rock, crushing vertebrae in her spine and breaking seven ribs. Unconscious and bleeding, she was nursed by another woman in the trekking party. “Thankfully she held me down, because if I’d tried to get up, I would be in a wheelchair now,” she says.
Annabel was rushed to Kew Hospital in Invercargill, where she would spend the next four-and-a-half months. The initial prognosis was grim.
“The doctors told me, ‘You’ve got a five per cent chance of walking again, maybe,’” Annabel says.
“I was so crushed, they couldn’t move me. It took eight people to lift me every day, so they could clean me and change my sheets. I was so unstable; just a bag of bones.
“They literally put a piece of fourby-two underneath my back, and
I had to lie on that for all of those months until it had set. The pain was excruciating – a million times worse than childbirth. Insurmountable.”
But Annabel admits that through her positivity and fortitude, she believed she would walk again. “I could always feel my toes, so I never thought it was over, clover,” she says. But as she left the hospital, on crutches and in a brace, she was given further news she didn’t want to hear.
“The house surgeon said to me: ‘I have researched your case, and no one has ever crushed their spine as badly as yours and come through it okay. And be aware, it will collapse one day.’ I met him years later and said: ‘That is actually one of the worst things you could have said to anyone.’ I was so angry about that.”
Through grit and determination, Annabel returned to Auckland and the home she had bought – the house she and Ted still share today – and learned to walk again. “I also lay on the sofa a lot and Ted brought me scrambled eggs,” she laughs.
“Up until the accident, I had been going a million miles an hour. It made me slow down a little. It made me decide what I wanted to do with my life, and also to think, ‘You are lucky, go for it.’ Because you never know when a brick could land on your head.”
Annabel put herself through a “lifesaving” regime: massage at least once a week, and yoga. “It was a balancing, strengthening and mindfulness thing,” she says. “I have just got back into yoga, and my body is saying thank you! I love it. I go three times a week when I’m in Wanaka.”
The stunning Central Otago resort town is the couple’s main home these days, and Annabel is always active there – walking up and down the hill to her sprawling vegetable garden, digging the soil, tending to plants. She’s sure that’s much better for her than pounding the pavements in the city.
“I will still get an achy sore back if I carry too heavy a load; I can’t carry a heavy pack tramping any more. And I know about it if I’ve been writing, hunched over the keyboard, for too long,” she says.
“But it has definitely improved my posture; I’ve learned that I have to sit up straight.”
It has also deterred her from climbing back into the saddle. “I just don’t want to get on a horse again. I rode a donkey in Santorini, and it nearly fell down the cliff!” she says in mock horror. “Ted is still a keen rider, and he wanted us to go trekking in South America. I said: ‘Couldn’t I just meet you somewhere with a picnic?’”
A new philosophy
Living in Wanaka has changed
Annabel and Ted’s philosophy on food. They tend to eat in more, because going out means having to drive into town. But that’s just part of the reason their diet has become increasingly connected to the land.
“It’s that idea that unless it runs around in a paddock, swims in the sea, or grows out of the ground, we don’t really eat it,” Annabel says. “Even in winter, I can forage around and find miner’s lettuce, fat leeks, and sweet parsnips, beetroot and carrots. We have a big store of onions, potatoes, pumpkins, garlic and shallots.
“The way Ted and I eat has really changed. We’ve come to the realisation that as you get older, you want to feel you’re making decisions that are going to give you a strong, healthy body to go forward. If you get overweight, it’s really hard to move it again. If you give me a whole lot of rich food, I can’t manage it any more.”
That’s when Ted chimes in. “It’s age and stage, really,” he says. “My view is that as your life changes, you have to eat your way into your future.” “A healthy future,” Annabel adds. Ted has altered his eating to his lifestyle, and has lost 18kg of weight in the process.
“I’ve chosen to, because I am very tall. If I got heavy at my size, I’d lose too much mobility,” he says. “Some
The doctors told me, ‘You’ve got a five per cent chance of walking again, maybe.’
people might say, ‘Ted, you look way too skinny,’ when I take my shirt off. But I don’t think it’s skinny. If you look at pictures of men from the 1930s and 40s, they look like me. And if you look at pictures of men my age today, they don’t look like men from the 30s and 40s.
“Back then you had some canned foods, but pretty much everything came out of people’s gardens. Before people started living on barcodes, they used to look like me.
“It’s not about dieting… I’ve never done a diet in my life. It’s a ridiculous idea. You just have to eat differently.”
A former ski coach, Ted has also changed the way he exercises. “At my age, I’d just injure myself if I tried to exercise all the time… it’s about eating and exercising moderately.”
Impressed by Ted’s transformation, Annabel decided she should also give it a go. “I thought, ‘You look quite hot, actually. I might follow suit!’” she laughs. “I just feel so energised. It’s kind of a ‘clean’ energy. It’s not that I don’t drink or eat cheese, but I’m finding that food is my fuel.
“I’ve been researching brassicas, which people think are boring. But they are such an important food group. The phytochemicals they contain are so protective. Brussels sprouts contain something that protects you from damaging your DNA.
“More and more, my diet is becoming vegetable-based. But we will still have treats. Something like cake is joyful, but it’s not a habit. It’s as Hippocrates said: ‘Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.’”
Annabel’s latest cookbook, Essential, takes note of the changes to New Zealanders’ dietary habits. Her beautifully-bound opus of 650 of her favourite savoury recipes includes an index of dairy-free, gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan meals.
“It’s 20 years since I wrote The Best of Annabel Langbein, and I suddenly thought we all eat differently now.
Even in our own family – our son Sean is a coeliac, our daughter Rose is a vegetarian. And of course Ted is ‘my body is a temple’,” she laughs.
She also wanted to give her followers what she calls “springboards” – cooking techniques that will become virtually second nature.
“There are a few things you can make with your eyes shut. I want to give simple little road maps, so you know where it’s going. It’s not just a recipe – it’s giving you the methodology, the knowledge behind how that recipe works,” she says.
“That’s what I’m so interested in – opening the door for people, because cooking has given me so much pleasure. If I can make it really easy for other people, then it’s a really simple way to change your life.
“That’s what came out of breaking my back – the sense of wanting to do something useful. It wasn’t about wanting to be famous. I want to make you feel like a star. Then I’ll feel happy that I’ve achieved.”
Expedition to the ice
Annabel is determined to make a difference away from the kitchen too, diving more deeply into the global sustainability movement.
Her next “assignment” will take her into the deepest south – with a oncein-a-lifetime expedition to Antarctica in December. She’ll spend a week at Scott Base, thanks to an invitation from Antarctica New Zealand, the government agency that manages
New Zealand’s activities in Antarctica and supports world leading science and environmental protection.
“They invited me because I’m really passionate about sustainability, and
I’m trying to help people to understand it in a way that’s not scary. There are little things we can all do to make a difference,” she says. “There’s amazing evidence out there that it would make a difference if every single person used two per cent less carbon or plastic – like walking somewhere instead of driving, or not using plastic straws.”
When we spoke, she was still contemplating what she might do on the icy continent to make her own difference, but she was planning to talk with her long-time mentor and friend, French chef Daniele Delpeuch, who spent a year in Antarctica cooking for scientists on the French research base.>>
I just feel so energised. It’s kind of a ‘clean’ energy.