As I was preparing our Mothering Sunday dinner – to be eaten as a late lunch, as is our wont – I got to wondering about how our individual styles of cooking develop.
Some people, like my mother, are gourmets from birth. She has always enjoyed tastes and flavours, and appreciated the skill of expert cooks in blending and contrasting them. It is a pleasure to take her to eat in a good restaurant, knowing that she will savour every mouthful, thoughtfully and sensitively analysing each morsel. She will happily try new dishes, as we have frequently seen over the years when she has been with us abroad, where my father was always wary of anything more foreign than a pizza.
Running a small café with a friend in the late 1940’s, mostly serving lunches to local office workers, she invented a house speciality that became so popular, it obliged her to organise two midday sittings in the tiny premises. It featured on the menu as “meat pie” and when she was asked what it was, and how she made it so that her clients could reproduce it at home, she just smiled vaguely and said it was “meat out of a tin”.
I think the passage of time allows me to divulge the truth: it was in fact whale meat, and had the eager customers known that, they would probably have given the place a wide berth. At that time, before ecological considerations affected opinions, it was disdained as fit only for dog food. I was a child, and free of any prejudices. I also did not like the taste of red meat, and poultry was rare, reserved for Christmas. So it was a joy both for me and my mother to discover how much I relished this whale meat pie; but I was sworn to secrecy not to let on to anyone. Since I was of that age where a secret was holy and to be kept on pain of torture and death, my lips were sealed and I simply repeated what my mother had told them: it’s meat out of a tin.
The point of this story is that my mother could conjure magic meals out of the cheapest cuts of meat using whatever she could find on ration or in my father’s “dig for victory” allotment. I have frequently heard her say, “Anyone can make a good meal with good ingredients – it takes a good cook to make something out of nothing.”
Her own cooking was always delicious, though she was restricted all her life by budgetary constraints and the limited availability of ingredients. I think she learnt most of her culinary skills from her mother, but there is an innate cordon-bleu within her, that I definitely lack. I was never interested in cooking, which was something I had to learn once I was married, and I seem to have picked it up in a very higgledy-piggledy manner over the years, absorbing recipes, traditions and customs of whatever country I was living in.
My father frequently told me, especially after I had cooked a meal I considered to be particularly successful and he had cleared his plate, “You’ll never be as good a cook as your mother!” I know it was intended as a compliment. He was saying, in essence, that it was not quite perfection, maybe 9 out of 10 rather than 10 out of 10.
Mom was still managing to produce a “proper dinner” for herself every day with meat and vegetables cooked from scratch until the age of 95. On my arrival here a little over 2 years ago, I realised that not only had she shrunk from 5ft 2 to 4ft 10, so that she was risking setting fire to her arm every time she used the back burner on the gas hob, but her hands had become so weak that she was having difficulty in turning the knobs on the cooker. She had also slowed down immensely, with reactions so delayed she was putting herself in danger. I arrived at a particularly low moment in her health, and was thus able to take over the cooking without too much resistance from her, although she didn’t always approve of the way I was doing things, and would put me right with no beating about the bush.
In these last two years, therefore, I have had to adapt my cooking style. I’m cooking for my mother, so her enjoyment is my priority and I’m endeavouring to produce something akin to what she would make. Occasionally I revert to my own “thing”, aided and abetted by the local supermarket and even the convenience stores which nowadays, even in this backwater, stock all kinds of things that my mother still regards as exotic. She eats what I place before her, and is always kind enough to compliment me, but I can see from her face that there are certain dishes she wouldn’t have picked had I offered her a menu. Finishing up a risotto: “That was OK, but I’d rather you didn’t make it again,” she says candidly (tact diminishes with age). “What do you call that?” is another cue for me not to repeat a dish.
Our neighbour is surprised to learn that, in spite of her conventional appearance, my mother does enjoy a good curry, sweet potatoes, and thrives on garlic. It’s just that, well – she would rather have potatoes than rice or pasta. She thoroughly enjoyed the change of cuisine when my daughter and granddaughter took over during my illness and convalescence, and is looking forward to having them back when the time comes. My granddaughter’s style has a far eastern accent, quite adventurous in my mother’s eyes.
Our lunch today is a very traditional English roast chicken with sage and onion stuffing. Probably my grandmother and great-grandmother would have prepared this in pretty much the same way as I am doing, with roast potatoes, roast carrots and roast parsnips, plus boiled potatoes and steamed cabbage. They would have cooked on their fireside range and oven, of course, and their vegetables and herbs – parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme – would have come from their garden, the bird from their henhouse (and they would have killed and plucked it, too). They would have made their gravy in much the same way with the juices from the meat and the water from the boiled vegetables. One other difference: instead of butter I use olive oil, which they reserved for medicinal purposes when one of the family had earache.