It’s only since the advent of Jamie Oliver and the Great British Baking Show that Brits can even talk about cooking without a smirk creeping over the faces of their listeners. We know our age-old reputation and we live in a humble self-effacing welter of excuses about our ignorance on such matters as olive oil, wine and spices. Almost all my friends have an “other” background or their partners hail from some exotic corner of the world where grasshopper’s legs are a standard condiment. Their kitchen equipment is unfamiliar too. Pans that I would be happy to use for a merry downhill sleighing party are routinely hauled out for a “Sunday special”. This does not increase my confidence in my cooking ability.
It is one of the blessings of modern feminism that I am no longer required to pretend that I love cooking. Like everyone else I love eating delicious food and from time to time it is interesting to produce something different, tasty, a triumph of culinary delight but day to day I would be perfectly happy to subsist on bread and cheese with the occasional fruit thrown in. I am unable to distinguish between various coffee flavors and tisane is anathema to me. I have been known to whine plaintively in a fancy tea shop (I was dragged there by a trendy friend) that I just want a cup of tea “like your mother gave you first thing in the morning, you know what I mean?” The look of resignation and disgust on the face of the waitress told me she had detected my faulty British food gene and that although she was obliged by the god of commerce to serve me there would be no pandering to my primitive cravings.
This is not to say that my mother was a bad cook. She was an unpredictable cook. She carried the yoke of food provider uneasily but a woman of her generation had no escape. She had to put food on the table but as the youngest by far of seven children her mother had given her no cooking lessons. I was overjoyed that she took no interest in pressing me into service in the kitchen either. When I married at 19, I knew how to boil eggs, make toast and fry up a steak in a cast iron pan. My mother’s interest in any but the most elementary food involved cookery books. “If you can read, you can cook,” was a maxim of hers. I sometimes thought it was trotted out more to reassure herself than anything else.
Her everyday philosophy was to produce something hot and edible as fast as possible. Not for her the slow cooker, the simmering pot, the slowly emerging delights of lovingly blended ingredients. Her favorite heat was high and many were the burned pots that were slipped guiltily into the garbage. So, earlier this week when a suspicious smell of sweet crispiness crept downstairs to where I was reading an interesting novel (always a cardinal sin for cooks) I felt my mother’s frantic presence in the face of “something burning”
The kitchen was filling up with smoke and a nice new frying pan was crackling alarmingly with what remained of some soup I had been heating up. I know, who heats soup in a frying pan? I thought it would go faster and obviously, it did. I flung the offending pan into a handy snowbank and, as it sizzled, I thought I heard my mother chuckling behind me. Certainly I had a good laugh and consoled myself with a nice cheese sandwich. Thanks to the modern miracles of cancer-causing coated cookware, I won’t even have to throw the pan away. Now I just have to check the battery in the smoke alarm.