Over dinner on a school trip to Wales a couple of years ago, a colleague of mine asked me if I cooked every day. I didn’t quite know how to answer that question, so in order to clarify things I asked her a few in turn.
Me: “You have three children, right? Like me?”
Me: “And they eat every day, right?”
She: “Uh. Yes.”
Me: “And you and your husband eat every day, too. Right?”
Me: “OK. I’m sorry. I don’t understand your question. Don’t you cook every day?”
Ensued a long, animated, 4-way discussion about cooking and eating and it turned out that for her and one other colleague present, “cooking” and “preparing food” are two different things.
This had never occurred to me.
My colleague patiently explained that “cooking” means making a meal from scratch, with raw vegetables and stuff, while “preparing food” means reheating leftovers or preparing something frozen or from a can.
OK. I see.
According to that definition, then, I grew up with a cooking mother and grand-mother.
As a kid, I had no incling of this. My parents grew a few vegetables, but the bulk of our shopping was done at supermarkets, like most people, and farmers’ markets where possible. My mother never bought cakes, she only ever made them herself, but we ate sugary cereal for breakfast like other kids. We drank mainly water, but my parents didn’t lose it if we had a glass of Coke at a party, and although sweets were limited on a normal day, we were allowed buy crisps and penny sweets and Chilly Willy ice lollies with our pocket money from Tony’s shop on holidays in Ireland every summer. It felt perfectly average.
As a kid, I wasn’t aware that I was being fed better than many.
I do remember, however, how a carrot tastes when you have just plucked it from its bed and washed off the earth with the garden hose. (I also remember the disappointment when I spent long minutes deciding which carrot to pull up, comparing stalk length and carrot top diameter, only to find it had grown the shape and size of a radish. It felt like Nature thumbing its nose at me!)
I remember smelling Zopf, just out of the oven, my mouth watering and my fingers itching to cut off a piece and covering it in too much butter while it was still hot. (We would always have to wait because it was for Sunday brunch, and there was no way to sneak some without it being obvious).
I remember the taste of the black, sour cherries we would pick from the tree in the back garden and having cherry pip spitting competitions with my sister and brother. (Shirley usually won. She had a knack.) Our lips and teeth and tongues would be stained for hours.
I also remember the smells of barbeque on summer nights, the taste of comforting Griespappe – warm semolina pudding with grated hazelnut, lemon zest, steeped raisins and sugar and cinnamon sprinkled over the top – on cold winter days…
Mum’s Kartoffelsalat (German potato salad) was legendary… Every year, all mothers made potato salad to go with the sausages at the school fair, but we would make sure we would get some from Mum’s bowl, as it was the best by a mile.
I wasn’t aware that cooking was a chore for many, because it didn’t look that way in our house. And although my mother didn’t work outside the home when we were little, I do and still I don’t see cooking as the job I would want someone to do in my stead. Ironing, yes. I hate ironing. But I love to cook.
Chopping things into itty-bitty little pieces is my meditation. Kneading dough until my arms ache is my yoga. Repeating out loud the instructions of a new recipe is my mantra. Eating good food is my pleasure. Drinking good wine shows me my nirvana.
And I cook every day. From scratch. Even after a day’s work out of the house. I don’t even think about it.
On holidays away from home, I like nothing better than eating out. I mean, what tastes more of holidays than tapas and sangria, breton black-wheat pancakes and cider, pissaladière and Rosé de Provence, sushi and hot saké, fish and chips and a pint of black?
Going to restaurants is always a treat, anyway, whether fancy or rustic. I love them all.
But there are days when even an obsessive cook like me has had enough of cooking. Right now, for instance. I have just wrapped up Month One of the summer holidays and, as a teacher, that means my kids are with me 24/7 for 8-10 weeks, and even if I love them dearly, keeping kids entertained is hard work. Keeping them safe, clean, and fed, is too. And on a teacher’s salary there isn’t enough spare cash to send them on a two-week trip to Waikiki while I sunbathe on the terrace. So I have driven, supervised, entertained, shopped and cooked for 11-18 people continually since July 1st, not to mention cleaned, washed and hoovered.
I can honestly say that I am all cooked out. I couldn’t care less what’s for dinner. Anyone who asks me is going to get a brisk “Ask your father!” in reply.
The good news is that once you do that, a number of surprising things happen. For one, no-one starves. If there is a time to take out the ratatouille in a jar, pizza from the local pizzeria on wheels, try ready-to-soak, already-seasoned bulghur, eat raw tomatoes with feta, with mozzarella, with onion, with herbs, with nothing, with feta again, it’s now. Eat raw. Eat cured. Eat marinated.
Secondly, when hubby invites people in the summer (as he does every other day), it mostly turns into a lively show-and-tell dinner where everyone brings something and you share the work. People bring foods you don’t usually cook yourself, things they grow in their garden, things to throw on the grill and weird stuff they bought on holidays in Portugal they absolutely want you to try. Most of it is great. (Not all. I’ll be honest: the orange block made of smoked mullet eggs Christophe brought over last night is not an experience I wish to repeat.) You talk about food, compare recipes, argue about which rhum is smoother, and have a great time.
The only problem now is whose turn it is doing the dishes. “Ask your father…” Mum is on holidays.