I was seven years old when I first tried my hand at baking. My brave teacher, Mrs Dodds, who was also instrumental in encouraging me to push ahead with my love of Maths, decided to run a lesson showing how yeast reacted when added to other ingredients. I missed the end of this fascinating experiment as, for the only time in my entire school career, my parents took me out of class early. They were driving across the country to visit friends who had moved from our area to run a pub several counties away. I remember the excitement of being allowed to stand behind the bar that loomed taller than my head, before the pub opened to the public. I knew that this was distant, adult space, banned to children in those days.
My teacher had whisked my tiny little bread roll out of the oven early for me to take with me, and I nursed it’s warm crust throughout the long car journey. When I eventually ate it I remember it’s hardness and the strangeness of the taste. My mother made delicious bread regularly, but not with yeast. I ate it in the car, feeling guilty that it was too small to share. I would have liked to split it, spread on some butter and show it off. There was too much going on that day to seek attention. I nibbled on it dry, trying not to drop crumbs on my father’s car.
A year or so later I became a Brownie Guide, where we were entreated to ‘do a good turn every day’. I took this mantra seriously. We were told that giving our parents breakfast in bed would be a big treat for them; looking back I am not convinced that my parents wished to risk crumbs on the sheets and would have preferred to rise at a time of their choosing. Ever eager to please, and having recently learnt how to scramble eggs, I went through a phase of getting up early on a Sunday morning to make them a breakfast which I carefully carried to their bedroom on a tray. This ‘good turn’ came to a halt when, unbeknown to me, the clocks changed from summer to winter time and I ended up making their breakfast an hour too early. My sister heard me going through my routine and intercepted me before I disturbed our parents. I returned to the kitchen and cried hot tears of shame and frustration as I tried to keep the food warm. It was the last time I made anyone breakfast in bed.
When I moved on to grammar school I was required to study Domestic Science with a characterful teacher with the apt name of Mrs Pepper. I was truly hopeless at the subject. When we made shepherds pie I could not get the potatoes to boil soft enough to mash; how did I find this so difficult? Mrs Pepper had little time for such incompetence and I dropped the subject as soon as I was allowed.
At home I had learned to grill cheese on toast, cook eggs and heat up tinned food, but was rarely required to produce food for myself or anyone else. The only exception to this that I can remember was when my mother fainted one afternoon and had to spend a night in hospital under observation. My sister was elsewhere so I felt that I should produce dinner for my father and I. Fish had been left in the fridge, to be grilled for the evening meal. I had no idea how long to cook it for and ended up drying it out completely. We manfully chewed our way through what should have been a soft and succulent dish, but I have not attempted to cook plain fish since.
When I first moved out of the family home I lived on cereal, toast, cheese, soup, salads and fruit. With a kettle, toaster and microwave to hand I could avoid the oven and hob entirely. In a series of shared houses, with others who seemed comfortable in the kitchen, I was too embarrassed to demonstrate my lack of skill. It wasn’t until I was able to buy my first flat, at the age of twenty-four, that I began to cook hot meals from raw ingredients.
My mother had produced most of our family dinners in a scary device called a pressure cooker. She would chop up and throw in the meat, vegetables and potatoes before adding a little water and heating it all up until there was an audible whistle. The heat would then be turned down and a heavy weight put over the vent at the top. Occasionally the weight would be blown off resulting in a frightful clatter and a rush of steam. After a prescribed time the pressure cooker would be placed in the sink and cold water run over it before the weight and then lid could be removed and the food served. I have never wanted to own a pressure cooker.
All of this meant that I had not regularly observed other types of cooking first hand, and had little experience to fall back on. I had paid scant attention to what was being done in my mother’s kitchen; I had no interest in participating and learning. My mother was an advocate for healthy eating long before this became popular. I may not have picked up her cooking skills, but I had taken on board her message that processed food was bad; that fat and sugar should be avoided; that puddings other than fruit and yoghurt should be a rare treat.
For the first few months after I moved into my flat I would pop down to the local convenience store after work and buy whatever I felt like eating that night. I continued to survive largely on breakfast cereal, cheese, toast, tinned food, salad and fruit. Once I had managed to save up enough of my wages to furnish the flat, I decided that I wished to show it off and planned my first dinner party. The fact that I had little knowledge of cooking did not present itself as a problem to my naive mind. This first event set the tone for the many to come. For me, preparing the food for each of my dinner parties became a memorable, if fraught, experience.