Eating to Live: Living to Eat

This post was going to be about some of my favourite cookery books. I was going to write a short introduction about how I learned to cook and what I learned about learning to cook.

It turned into a post of its own. I realise I’ve repeated much of this material elsewhere in the life of this blog, so take a day off if you want. Put the kettle on and have a brew instead.

I’ll write about my favourite cookery books tomorrow.

When I was at school we did proper cookery lessons. When I say proper I mean things like we learned how to make a roux sauce, and how to make different kinds of pastry, and how to cook ‘sensible’ and ‘economical’ meals, many of which involved mince.

We used to do practical cookery one week, and the following week we would do theory, which involved learning about cuts of meat and food groups etc.

I loathed cookery at school. Absolutely hated it. I never made a single thing I actually wanted to eat. Whatever I made would be taken home once a fortnight, in my cookery basket, slopped about from pillar to post on the bumpy, endless bus ride home, leaking gently into the tufted orange coach seating. The family would grimly stare into the basket on my arrival at the homestead and we would sample my wares.  Reluctantly.

The usual fate of what I had cooked was that it either went in the bin, down the loo or on the lawn for the birds. Or in the case of the disastrous mincemeat loaf (not my fault. The French teacher was taking the lesson. The cookery teacher was on strike. Turns out the French teacher lived on brioche and pastis), buried for future archaeologists to marvel at, still in the loaf tin.

I do not look back with misty eyed fondness on these lessons. They were awful. The teacher was a martinet, and had her petted pupils, of which I was not one. She insisted that every meal we cooked be presented beautifully with things brought from home. We did not eat like that in our house and I was always, always being marked down for presentation because I did not bring in bud vases replete with single carnations, or napkin rings with my initials stitched onto them. She never tasted the food either, which seemed pointless to me, although with hindsight probably saved a great deal of money on antacids.

We also had exams twice a year, both theory and practical. Our practical exams even had to be carried out in complete silence, and we were solemnly graded as if we were in Master Chef.

I am grateful to those lessons for some things. Not the food we cooked, frankly, which consisted of recipes for things I had never heard of and never wanted to eat, ever, but I realise that I had and retain, a very strong grounding in basic, vital cookery skills, and it has given me a good foundation as a cook. Also it ensured that I am not afraid of cooking. This sounds stupid, but I do meet quite a lot of people who are afraid of cooking, or who never learned to cook at all. I was bored rigid by cookery at school, but not frightened of it.

Apart from school there were two main areas where my cookery education happened. The first was at home. When we were growing up, money was quite tight, and my mum had to be incredibly resourceful when it came to food. We grew a lot of fruit and veg, and visited pick your own farms for the rest, where we could buy in bulk. We would even buy whole animals from farmers, and I have vivid memories of my dad arriving back from the farm where we had gone to choose a happy, frolicking pig, with said pig, dead on the back seat of his car.

Mum cooked everything from scratch, and made her own biscuits and cakes every week. Bread was not her strong point, so we bought that in, but she did make it sometimes, and she was a wow at soda bread and scones. She would always make yogurt and cheese, jam and pickles, etc. Much of the summer was spent blanching, and pickling and preserving and freezing food for winter.

My brother and I were not encouraged to help out too much, as we were both utterly disruptive, but we helped enough to know the basics, and we joined in with things like slicing the runner beans, hulling the strawberries etc.

All the time these things were happening mum would explain to us what we were doing, what she was going to do, and why we were doing it. We learned about how things grow, what was in season, when fruit and veg are at their best, and what to do with them when they aren’t. We learned not to waste things, by making curd cheese with spoiling milk, or stuffing with old bread, or fruit pies with fruit that was looking a bit tired.

We also learned about foods from all over the world. Mum and dad used to eat out when they could, and we always came along. We were not very accepting of the flavours of things like curries in the early days, but they persevered and we were brought up to try, and eat food from all over the globe.

I can’t say I was grateful for this education for a long time. Regular readers will know I longed for Findus Crispy Pancakes and frozen pizza. Until I actually went to a friend’s house and ate them, and realised they were vile.

The second part of my cookery education came when I left home. The first time I had a kitchen where parents were not a vital part of the mix was at university, where I shared a house with four other girls, and we decided to pool our resources in terms of food shopping, and have a kitty. Each of us had the responsibility of shopping one week out of every five, and we all cooked for everyone else one night a week (weekends were mostly spent in a drunken stupor so no need to worry about that). Three of us were vegetarians,  and as meat was so expensive anyway, we all opted to go veggie to make our money stretch further. So I learned how to cook a different way.

One thing that shaped all my cookery lessons, in school and out, until I got married, was the need to budget and get the most out of my money, and balance the grocery shopping so there was enough food to feed everyone, every night. It was pretty tedious at times. Not for nothing did my friend and I once come up with a spurious cookery book title: ‘One thousand exotic things to do with mince.’

Reflecting on it today however, learning to make meals out of very little, and learning to budget, and where to shop to make your money go further, was another valuable lesson.

All of that stuff taught me how to cook to survive. How to not poison people, how to ensure full plates even when there was a fairly empty purse, and how to make nutritionally rich meals from scratch. It also taught me the building blocks from which I could launch into experimenting with food. I learned what elements of a dish are necessary, and which ones I could alter to suit my tastes, and that enabled me to expand my repertoire.

When the time came in my life where I could afford to buy better quality ingredients I was able to appreciate the differences in taste between say, a cheap, mass produced chicken, and a free range, organic chicken. I could make decisions about which expensive ingredients I felt were worth splashing out on, and where I felt it was all a load of twaddle and cheap would do just as well.

When I could finally afford to eat in beautiful restaurants, and travel to other countries and try different cuisines than the ones I’d grown up with, all this allowed me to savour new foods, learn to be adventurous and take risks with ingredients. It sometimes spurred me on to seek out new cookery books, or think about how a dish that had delighted me had been made so that I could have a crack at making it at home.

Now that my children are grown up, and battles at meal times are mostly a thing of the past, and not everything has to have pasta in it so they don’t starve to death, all of these elements have come into play and allow me to range far and wide in terms of what I serve and how I serve it, and what my children will try, and how they appreciate what we eat.

The sadness for them is that all their education with regard to cooking so far has had to come from me, because schools no longer teach cookery in the same way, and the endless round of limp fruit salads and cup cakes that come home in the name of learning to cook, depress the very bones out of me.

As a child I used to be the fussiest eater on the planet. According to local sources (my mum) for two years as a toddler I would only eat baked beans (which I called Melvins), and yogurt. Thankfully I do not remember this phase. I do remember the phase where all I wanted to eat was cheese sandwiches. All the weird food behaviours that drive every parent insane were exhibited by me in great swathes of nightmarish meals.

I am grateful that they persevered with me. If it weren’t for them I wouldn’t be the glutton I am today. I am not sorry about throwing up after the rice pudding at school though. I did warn them.

And I still don’t like sprouts, or liver. Not even the way you make it. And I’m not even going to attempt to make it.

I could not be more delighted that eating and cooking are two of the most rewarding and happy things I can think of doing. After all, I have to do them every day no matter how I feel about them. I am very blessed in the food department indeed.

So, tomorrow, unless I go off on another alarming tangent I shall share with you some of my favourite cookery books, because it seems infinitely more pleasurable than thinking about the miserable world we are making for ourselves right at this moment.

6 responses to “Eating to Live: Living to Eat

  1. I don’t like sprouts or liver either, no matter how it’s made.

    At school we mostly made scones and crumbles. And also mince pies once. We did learn the trick of putting an egg in water to see if it’s still edible though. That’s come in usfeul more times than I care to admit…

  2. I will call them Melvins from now on!

  3. Melvins, what a hoot! I think your book about mince has already been written.
    I don’t recall much about cooking at school other than making some rock cakes, we didn’t eat them and I have never felt the urge to make them again.

  4. I have a recipe for rock cakes where I substitute all fruit for chocolate and that makes them rather palatable. Otherwise no.

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