25 March, 2015
When I was eight years old, my late Dad told me that he would never feed me anything that he wouldn’t eat himself. I remember feeling special. Many people say that their love of anything stems from their childhood, and this is true for me too. My friends tell me I’m fussy, my husband says I’m Sally from When Harry Met Sally, others (potentially evasively) say it’s endearing. Whatever it is, it’s really no surprise when you learn that my Mum’s idea of a treat was to greet me and my siblings, Joe and Sophie, at the school gate with a bunch of fresh coriander. We’d fight over it all the way home.
By ten my snobbery had developed to an awkward level; I dreaded tea at my friends’ houses for fear they might give me baked beans which weren’t quite hot enough, or that they wouldn’t have any chilli sauce and I’d have to force down something bland. One friend told me that you could make an entire meal from a freezer – I was genuinely taken aback. I wasn’t a normal kid, and not just because I enjoyed fresh herbs, or because I would go downstairs really late at night with my little sister to whip up then devour a vegetable curry. I was inquisitive, probably precocious and definitely annoying.
You’d be forgiven for judging this situation as a picture of privilege and wealth. My Dad left my Mum, little brother Joe and little sister Sophie when I was three years old, and while we were provided for by him financially, the challenge of raising (and feeding) the three of us must have been testing at best. Her life changed. She changed.
My Mum has led a colourful life; so colourful that she often refuses to recount some of her memoirs for fear of not being believed. She was also blessed with a beautiful face. Being born in the early 50s, she, like many women and girls at the time, did not have the opportunities I have perhaps taken for granted. At age 19, her engineering ambition thoroughly scoffed at by the rest of the family, she answered an ad for casino croupiers at the new Playboy Club in Manchester. She was successful and began to see and taste the world. This woman was serving us pickled cucumber in the 80s before it was even a thing.
I was fascinated by what she knew and where she’d been. She’d spent time volunteering in Calcutta, India where she’d tasted every manner of street food (good and bad) and she’d tell me the same stories while I watched her fry mustard seeds for carrot salad. Tales of Monte Carlo nights with oysters and champagne were my favourite – when I was allowed to have a sip of champagne at Christmas I’d remember it all year.
Salad dressing was the first thing my Mum taught me just as soon as I was tall enough to reach the worktop. When I wasn’t in the mood for a late night curry, a whole iceberg lettuce with a classic dressing was my treat of choice. I’d grab a massive bowl, tear up the lettuce then make tons of dressing in a mug. Three parts oil, one part vinegar (always malt), wholegrain mustard, salt and too much black pepper. All Sophie and I needed was a fork each and we were in tangy, crunchy heaven. I make salad dressing in exactly the same way several times a week, our friends ask for it when they come round, my husband notices when I do something different.
The thing I’ve yet to mention about my Mum is that she is a chronic alcoholic and has been since I can remember. My ability to cook was born partly out of necessity; more often than not finishing off what had been started. Many evenings I would enter the kitchen to find a half cooked tea which had been abandoned in favour of booze induced slumber and eventual oblivion. I learnt how to rescue things, how to taste, how to carry on where she had left off. Don’t feel bad for me at this point, I wouldn’t take it back. It’s been my most valuable and treasured life skill and I’ll always be grateful to my Mum for doing her best.
Like so many of life’s comforts, it tastes like a memory. I remember the smell of the kitchen when my Dad was making me a Camp Coffee, the rush of chicory and bash of syrupy, warm coffee literally drags me back twenty years. Sometimes you go back with your memory gladly; sometimes you stand firmly in the present. It wasn’t uncommon for things to become rough and chaotic in our house. At the end of those nights when we’d been the unfortunate objects of our Mum’s misery and torment, we longed to feel better. It usually went like this. After checking my Mum was suitably comatose, I’d locate her cheque book and scrawl her signature so we could ring the local takeaway and order a delivery of tandoori lamb chops, chicken madras, rice and poppadums. I’d put on my best voice over the phone then casually swap the perfectly forged cheque for the bag of food at the door. The three of us kids would lay it out on the table like a mini banquet and tuck in. My Mum would shout the next morning, we’d retort that she shouldn’t have been drunk. Food was a comfort, it still is.
I’ll probably (or perhaps hopefully) never shake the idiosyncrasies that have shaped my being; my favourite shops sell ingredients and not shoes, cooking makes me happy, cooking for others makes me even happier, and writing about it all makes me the happiest! Memories can be bittersweet, so many of mine are but at this point in my life, sweet wins nine times out of ten. When I encounter the one in ten, I always manage to find happiness in the sanctuary of my kitchen.