I used to read stuff like ‘you can taste the love’ and think ‘phooey!’ Now I’m not so sure.
Visited my mother at the weekend, and my brother was there, cooking a huge pot of chicken soup for the mother of his girlfriend, who is poorly. There being so much, he gave me some to take home, and I served it for dinner for me and my son.
It wasn’t the best thing I have ever eaten, or the most delicious thing my brother has ever made. But what a treat, to be provided for, with something tasty and wholesome. He is an excellent cook: caters parties and so on. He is interested in healthy food and what he calls his ‘healy mealies’. He also takes seriously the thing about ‘intentions’ so I imagine ‘cooking with love’ is something that would resonate with him, though we have not discussed it. And as I thought about this, it struck me: my cooking tastes sullen.
Our mum was a good cook. She’d grown up very poor – literally hungry – and essentially left to her own devices in post-war Germany while her refugee single mother worked three jobs. Finding herself a stay at home mum in London in the early 60s, married to an American and very much a fish out of water, she did a cordon bleu course and enjoyed feeding us all. (Or maybe she didn’t?) We kids had meals put in front of us and were never expected to help in the kitchen. We’d get shooed out. I did not learn to cook, only to eat. Our food was different to everyone else’s. Just as we sisters wore jeans (from the PX) while all the other little girls wore tartan skirts and scratchy white knee socks with holey patterns, we ate tortellini and meatloaf and Rouladen while our friends all seemed to eat identical meals of fish fingers or gammon followed by Angel Delight or cubed, canned fruit salad: slimy peach and grainy pear.
At university, I still had most of my meals put in front of me in college hall. In my year as a student in Germany, I ate at the Mensa when I could, delicious steaming bowls of Linseneintopf with a proper meaty sausage and crusty roll for a subsidized 1DM. Or falafel from the local Turkish kiosk. At home in my Studentenheim, always the same: crispbread with careful alternate layered slices of apple and blue cheese. So: not a cook.
As a single, career girl in London and later Hong Kong, I mostly ate out. Or at my desk. Late nights, expensed dinners. Pre Pret, lunch came from the local Sicilian sandwich bars in town, with their vats of coronation chicken and tuna mayonnaise. At Wolff Olins, the kitchen (always poaching staff from the River Cafe) was famous, and clients angled for meetings that included lunch overlooking the canal. In HK I would queue for lunchboxes of roast duck and rice, to take back to my office on the 22 floor and guzzle while gazing at skyscrapers and the occasional, magnificent, bird of prey.
So it was not until I was living in France where, by some accident, I found myself nursing my new boyfriend in my flat, that I started to cook. I enthusiastically sought out cookbooks and, in my big, basic kitchen I eagerly prepared meals for my love. We had a lot of dinner parties so it was a kind of baptism by fire. One time, I made a dish called Nelson’s Dream of Home. It was a leg of lamb marinated overnight in wine and juniper berries and we could hardly fit it in our little fridge. Not having any container large enough, and not wanting to use more marinade than was necessary to cover the joint, I put the whole thing in a – clean – bin bag. (It came out bloated and looked like something one might find in a canal after someone had been dumped there, dismembered.) When it was just the two of us, I made what were then relatively adventurous salads, with chicken livers and fruits.
I think the first time we ate in together, perhaps because I was afraid of being rubbish, he cooked. He, of course, had no such qualms. He was always confident that he was good at everything and I was always willing to believe it. And yet he was not a good cook. From then on, I was in charge in the kitchen and (I admit) somehow felt it was woman’s work.
Where was the hard-nosed, tight-assed, executive feminist?
Back in London, engaged and both working in high-powered jobs, cooking and housework fell to me. His remit was DIY (with nagging from me) and anything to do with the car. Significantly, finances were also his domain. Well, he had been so good at finance at business school. Maybe I should not have thought it so cute that when I met him he never paid his credit card bills and just let the interest mount up. That memory, once dismissed as ‘the cobbler’s children are always the worst shod’, has haunted me since.
Then the children came and I was preparing organic veg, freezing mini portions in ice cube trays and all that. And maybe because I was bored, or maybe because I felt that if I was going to be a housewife I’d better be a good one, or maybe because I am greedy, I started cutting recipes out of magazines and experimenting with new ingredients. And maybe for similar reasons I used to organize dinner parties. Else, what was the point of me?
When my ex left, I stopped cooking. Stopped eating for a while, too. Once a week my mother came with a dinner prepared for the family. Other than that I made sure the children had food, but ready meals and toast featured heavily. He complained about this. (Note that he was not giving me any money or any other kind of support and was lying through his teeth about everything all the while. And certainly not cooking for his kids.)
Most of the time now there are just two of us and I realise how large cooking has loomed in my life and how I cling to the importance of having a good hot dinner for my son when he comes home. His twin sister lives with their dad and has become vegan. He is often away, travelling for work (apparently). The thought that no one is waiting for her with her favourite dish and questions about her day makes me weep, and makes me think maybe there is some truth in the notion of tasting the love.
I thought I would never forget the lesson of those first few months, when I couldn’t swallow and was astonished to discover that it was possible to function on practically no sleep and practically no food. Admittedly, my hair all fell out and my periods stopped. I lost my eyesight, too. And was covered in bruises; tiny little round ones, as though someone had been poking me hard all over with the end of a pencil. Anyway, while I am still waking four or five times a night, unfortunately the habit of not stuffing myself with food did not last. Now I really feel, as I cram unhealthy stuff into my face, as though I am muffling something.
I am not sure what.