Not long ago, I had a skirmish with my mother.
It flared up unexpectedly in that way things can when you have lots of history with someone. Technically, there’s no one on the planet with whom I share more history than my mum. We go back quite a long way. In utero, in fact. And we’re still tight.
So anyway, I had no idea I was about to push a button. We’d been drinking tea, eating cake and chatting about this and that, the kids, my work, her work, my brother and nieces, whether she and Dad were ready to get a new dog …. the usual stuff.
And then she casually mentioned that she’d been looking through a new cookbook. “I’m getting back into cooking,” she said. “Back?” I laugh-snorted while raising one eyebrow. “What do you mean ‘back’?” You see, if I had to describe my mother using 100 adjectives, they would include some magnificent superlatives. Cooking words? Not so much. Mum, I’m sorry and I love you but we both know it’s true. The teasing was not appreciated, however.
“I put a meal on the table EVERY SINGLE NIGHT when you and your brother were kids,” my mother shot back with an unexpected sharpness.
And it’s true, she did. Those meals may have been entirely unmemorable and occasionally inedible (remember the horror of lamb’s fry anyone?) but indeed we were fed perfectly well. Baked dinners; chops and veg; spag bol; apricot chicken. I can’t say I’m nostalgic for the food of my childhood but it did the job. My Mum taught me many wonderful things, it’s just that a love of cooking wasn’t among them. Via osmosis, I learned that meal preparation was something to be endured and overcome rather than enjoyed.
Still, I was taken aback by her defensiveness. Hey, I’m hopeless in the kitchen – not just inept but lazy – and I’m the first one to mock myself for it.
As I blinked rapidly, she warmed to her argument. “There were no BBQ chicken shops back then. No healthy takeaway. We couldn’t afford to go out to dinner and the only fast food was McDonalds and Pizza Hut. If you wanted to cook, you couldn’t even buy ingredients after 5pm because all the shops were closed. And there was no microwave so you couldn’t defrost anything or even re-heat it quickly. You know, it was damn hard getting food on the table every night.”
Right. Yes. Some excellent points there, Mum. None of which I’d considered, especially not at the time because you just don’t when you’re a kid. Your parents’ frustrations and struggles are rarely apparent to you. They’re simply there to facilitate your needs, aren’t they? It never occurred to me that cooking was difficult for my Mum and countless other woman (and it mostly was women) of her generation.
Today, it’s never been easier. Your shelves are probably heaving with cookbooks exhorting you to cook fast or slowly or seasonally or with low GI or high protein or like The Biggest Loser trainers or Masterchef judges. Your cupboards are probably bulging with slow cookers and rice cookers and popcorn makers and coffee machines and food processors and sandwich presses and juicers and every other bloody gadget you’ve bought in the hope of a better culinary life.
Supermarkets are open all week until midnight. Convenience stores never close. Healthy, affordable, pre-made meals can be bought at any time of day from a million takeaway outlets.
Food has never been easier to buy (bananas notwithstanding) or prepare but there’s still a great divide between cooking as sport and cooking for every day.
As cooking shows and celebrity chefs take something ubiquitous and turn it into sparkly entertainment, these days everyone wants to ‘plate up’ and get their fancy on for an appreciative audience. But feeding your family or even just yourself night after night? After night? Less exciting. Fewer volunteers.
“My girlfriend is a Masterchef nut and will spend an entire weekend gathering exotic ingredients to prepare some new-fangled meal with foam or a chocolate spider web or something ridiculous she’s seen on the show,” a male friend complained to me this week. “She’ll invite friends over and serve it up and everyone will oooh and ahhhh. But she won’t have a bar of cooking at any other time. It’s like a performance and she needs an audience.”
So it seems everyone wants to be a chef but not a cook. My Dad was like that. After years of struggling to put dinners in front of an unappreciative family, my Mum instituted a new rule where each of us had to cook once a week. My Dad embraced the idea and even bought some cookbooks. But there was a catch: he only wanted to make dessert. I remember all kinds of delicious, experimental yumminess and years later, he explained his reasoning, “Everyone’s always happy to eat dessert. Even if it’s gone wrong, you always get a great reception.” This is so totally true. The lop-sided soufflés, the slightly burnt crème caramels…. they were resoundingly greeted with warm applause and excitement. It was the Masterchef Principle, decades before its time. I’m starting to get where my mother was coming from…
Do you cook for sport, or do you cook for every day?