My mother loved to cook. That’s not really the full explanation of the importance of food in her life. She loved to be the creator of comfort and food featured highly in that equation. When I was a child she tended to a fairly traditional menu of British staples: roasts and home grown vegetables; puddings to add ballast; fried and grilled flesh of all kinds; and tea, lots of tea.
The selection depended, as so much did, on my father’s current philosophy – perhaps prejudice would have been nearer the mark – and as his focus widened so did his tastes. A tin of curry powder appeared circa 1971, the assumption being it didn’t matter what you curried the spices remained the same. Then pasta joined in – spaghetti at first then penne but the sauces stayed largely of the bolognaise disposition until the 1990s. There followed exotic and not universally successful experiments involving kidney beans (too explosive), chow mein (too viscous) and artichoke (seriously explosive).
If you wanted to follow one path along my parents’ culinary journey, their relationship with alcohol would be a good place to start. When I appeared in the 1950s beer was my father’s staple. And that’s the flat warm ale beloved of old men in pubs and trendy micro-brewers residing mole-like under railway arches, and not the fizzy amber dishwater that passed for lager back then. If he felt flush he might have had a whiskey – a blend like Bells, not then anything as subtle as a single malt – and if he felt sophisticated it would be a G&T. Mum drank the G&Ts too but also port and a yellow by product of medical experiments called Warninks Advocaat or some such. The only saving grace about this sweet sharp gunk was the glacé cherry that floated on the top and, if I behaved mum would let me steal.
But come the 70s wine appeared. To begin it was distinguished solely by colour. Whites, usually capable of immobilising Mammoths and Reds that must have been sponsored by dynorod as they certainly cleared the sluices. Gradually wine categorisation narrowed: French = sophisticated; German = sweet and cheap; Australian = not taken seriously. Then finally we had a Cote du Rhone and the die had been cast. By the time dad died I’d say spirits had retreated, though scotch had been replaced by a taste for calvados, and while beer still featured in the right company it was the wine that was making a bid for the top spot.
Inevitably mum and dad tried to make their own, with no noticeable success. Do not believe anyone if they say oak leaves can be made into wine. They can be made into floor cleaner or one of those mysterious ungents that my grandmother used for rheumatics and which made her whimper at the same time as walking quickly with her legs oddly apart. But fit for human consumption? I think not.
Mum believed food should be fun. As boys we made fudge and fondants and we were encouraged to join in creating meals – making chelsea buns was a popular choice.
And of course, cooking did feature on The Mum List.
The Mum List comprised the skills the Archaeologist and I had to acquire before we left home. The philosophy of the Mum List was to imbue in us
a set of skills that all young men should have but which your father hasn’t.
So far as she was concerned she was not going to allow us out on the world and in particular prey on some unsuspecting but probably gullible female as ill-equipped to survive as dad had been when she fell for him. As examples of the more critical skills, we had to learn how to
- iron a shirt and fold same
- ditto a pair of suit trousers using a damp cloth to create a sharp crease
- cook three meals involving meat, fish and a pie and three puddings
- wash clothes (no washing machine allowed) including handkerchiefs
- rewire a plug
- Make a bed
- pack a suitcase
- put up a shelf
- clean a bathroom (and why)
- check the vital signs of the internal combustion engine viz check oil and water levels, spark plugs and tyre pressures.
There were other skills I failed to acquire: changing the tap washer for instance, but if we grasped the main list we were forgiven the extras.
When dad died, mum’s cooking retreated somewhat though it remained as a metaphor in a way for the ongoing relationship between mother and son. I would arrive at mum’s, probably with a list of jobs to do, places to take mum, etc. By now she was in her 80s yet she’d usher me into her kitchen, sit me down and make tea while asking questions of her grandchildren’s latest doings. She’d then start cooking a meal. Unconsciously, since this is what had happened forever in my life – from coming home from school to returning from university and later visiting with my own family, I let her potter around her domain, talking, listening and letting her cook.
‘Aren’t you going to help your mum?’
It was the Textiliste. She watched with a degree of horror as I slumped back and chatted, waiting to be waited on. She was already up, peeling potatoes or something but, like my father before me, I was in mum’s zone, playing by her rules so I sat, sharing my bon mots and repartee while mum worked – slaved perhaps.
I stood to wash up; Mum tried to stop me. She wasn’t cross with her daughter-in-law, not at all. And her resistance was half-hearted. But I think, for her, by sitting and allowing myself to be waited upon, I served the purpose of reminding her of dad, of how he couldn’t really function without her. And how the centre of their world was the kitchen even if her truly happy place was her garden. She let me help – she understood male guilt better than most – but she would have preferred I stayed put and let her pretend, for just a little while longer that something of her beloved Des still remained nearby.
She had this silly carved sign on her wall by her stove which said it all really:
No Matter Wherever I Place My Guests
They Always Like My Kitchen Best