Amongst other things, I love to cook. Unlike many other people, my mum didn't teach me to cook.
My mum cooked like fury as I grew up. That's only an expression to convey the wealth of activity in her kitchen... she actually conducted proceedings in the most calm and controlled fashion. The results were always delicious and always had the attention to detail that someone being paid very good money would feel obliged to offer. But Mum, by this time, was out of 'the world of work'. She was a wife, mother and 1960s pop star... OK, the last one is stretching it a bit - but she was glamorous and cool (I guess we said ‘with-it’ in those days) to my brother, me and our friends. No contract other than that of marriage and certainly no salary; but she still operated at high executive level in every role she took on.
Our kitchen was the focal point of the house. At breakfast, on coming home from school with eager pals and through to dinner and still-hungry teenage evening snacks we made a beeline for the kitchen to perch on a stool or lean over worktops while Mum quietly went about her business.
Those schoolmates would walk right past their houses and on up the hill to ours, knowing that the best flapjack and rock buns were waiting. As we grew older Mum judged the correct time to ask us for the filthiest joke that we’d heard at school that day. If we drew a blank she would happily say, “That’s fine - I’ve got one for you!” Mum’s flapjack AND a dirty joke was a great double feature.
For quite a few years there were paying guests who took bed and board from Monday to Friday and helped contribute to the housekeeping. Many have kept in contact though their stay was decades ago. All were men involved at the time with jobs at nearby Gatwick airport. I’m fairly sure that most returned home at weekends to awkwardly (but faithfully!) pretend that my mother’s meals weren’t a patch on their wife’s!
On those painful occasions when I wasn’t allowed to share grown-up evening meals and dinner parties, I could always rely on second-hand pleasure as the guests’ loud verbal praise for each course bounced through the house.
What they, my dad, brother and I were treated to was an ever-changing menu of perfectly cooked food. Mum had moved beyond the confines of sound recipes and techniques learned from her own mother and embraced, well, just about anything you care to mention which was trending in the late sixties and early seventies. I’m pretty sure that ‘trending’ wasn’t a much-trending word then!
We were witnesses to the first-known appearance of pilaf in deepest North Downs Surrey. Pasta Bolognese was likely to take second billing with Milanese taking the limelight. Tarragon was added to chicken and to pears. We sometimes faced the shock of fresh asparagus rather than tinned. Close family were already fairly well inoculated against strange new ingredients and had come to relish the prospect of finding out what had given a different flavour to their meals but when I first brought home my future wife her taste buds were seriously challenged.
In all this exploration there was actually one thing which I remember as boldly going a step too gigantically far for humankind. ‘Sultan’s Kep’ appeared in glistening glory for dessert one Sunday. The capsules of green sago pudding were so like frog’s spawn that we had to search for unaccustomed excuses to avoid eating it!
Mum read and listened (the radio was almost another member of the family) She planned and prepared. She understood and was able to produce or re-produce culinary art on a daily basis. I could say that her dinner parties were sans pareil but, with every meal being an occasion, that would be untrue - all were equally exciting.
Ian MacDonald’s ‘Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties’ has some seriously short-sighted musings. However, it is a book which I treasure for many other great things. In his introduction, MacDonald suggests that it wasn’t post-war youth grabbing and embracing the ‘swinging sixties’ but, more importantly, people like Mum. She certainly welcomed plenty of the new culture’s music, literature and fashion into the house. She made no fuss about her son subscribing to the rather gender-directed ‘FAB’ magazine with its large poster pages… and ‘feminine hygiene’ product adverts of which I was oblivious! Oh, and she was a complete sucker for “That John Lennon and his lovely teeth!”
My mother was not the only one to subscribe to the Cordon Bleu monthly cookery course. The many copies still for sale on eBay make that obvious. She relied on the crazy, rather dodgy, Fanny Craddock to ensure that choux pastry was tackled with confidence instead of being a no-go area. I think that Mum was just open to anything which allowed her to spend time in the kitchen with purpose, development and progress.
I watched this flowering (and flouring!) on a regular no-ticket-required basis. I was encouraged to have a go, get messy and even clear up afterwards.
My mother didn’t teach me to cook? Not by my definition. Instead, she and I used the love between us to explore and share something together - in this case cooking. There were no expectations or pressures from either side. There were no ‘lessons’. All the time I was given to understand that the kitchen was a rather magical place and there was no earthly reason for me to think it wasn’t the right place for me. I wasn’t taught… but I learned everything I needed to set me up as an enthusiastic and determined beginner who would never lose the thrill of being able to show love through the offering of food.
My confidence really began to show as soon as I left for university. In three years there I used the refectory just twice (as can be evidenced by my pitiful hoard of nicked UEA-stamped cutlery!) For an impecunious student with lousy chat-up lines, I now possessed one hell of a clever compensatory skill. My aforementioned future life partner succumbed almost immediately to the charms of my roast chicken, chips and peas!
So… cooking helped me on the way to find love of a different kind. Thank you, Mum!
Now, please allow me to share a picture of my wonderful mother.
I only became aware of that photograph last year. It shows a person I’ve never met but there is someone there waiting to be the mother I’ve known and loved for all of my life.
If you’re wondering; my Mum is still very much alive. Soon she will embark on her eighty-eighth year and will have seen this homage to her. She is a brown belt in computer skills and can send emails and accesses Cheoff with ridiculous ease. I’m delighted to offer this to distract from her morning coffee and electronic browsing time.
I hope you all have the love of at least one fab (60s vocabulary!) parent. But I’d be ever so slightly sad if you don’t also have a love of cooking.
P.S. I love my Dad to bits as well!