Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Approach Love and Cooking With Reckless Abandon

We were driving back from Cape May along deserted, mist shrouded roads one lunchtime, and spotted an ‘all you can eat buffet’ restaurant. This is a challenge the pilot can never turn down (he is as slim as when we met – how does he do it?) The restaurant hadn’t quite opened, and there were a few cars in the lot, parked well away from one another. We stretched – we’d been on the road for hours, and strolled round the car park as we waited. Each car had a solitary, very large, person inside, just visible through the steamed up windows. As the restaurant doors opened, one by one the car doors opened, and the people lumbered inside. For a few dollars, you could take what you wanted from the huge steaming trays of pasta, fried chicken, cream laden deserts rotating on carousels. I hadn’t ever – and still haven’t – seen so much food in such quantity on offer. The regulars took their places and ate with focused grim determination going back again and again for more.

‘Please sir, can I have some more?’ The pilot has explained his attitude to food goes back to boarding school where you had to eat as quickly and as much as possible before someone took it from you. I really enjoy cooking for him and the kids, but I’m relaxed about it (always adhered to the ‘approach love and cooking with reckless abandon’ school of thought). My Mum is an incredible cordon bleu chef, and mealtimes at home always involved sauces, several courses. I feel like a bit of a peasant in comparison. Cooking, providing for your family is all about love and emotion. Watching Ugly Betty chopping vegetables last night reminded me of that brilliant Wendy Cope poem: ‘Decapitating onions, she made this mental note: You know it’s love, the real thing, when you dream of slitting his throat’. Cooking together, chatting over a glass of wine – there are few simpler, better pleasures.

Have you had the experience yet where you are in a supermarket and one of the kids said in their Special Very Loud Voice: ‘Mummy why is that man so fat?’ We’ve never used the F word, never pointed out differences but children have an instinct and innocent curiosity about why people are the way they are. I’ve tried to be very non-judgemental in shaping their opinions about things – there’s plenty of time for them to make up their own minds. (This afternoon we broached the whole ‘Mummy, can a man marry a man?’ Yes darling. People can love one another whoever they are, and everybody’s family is different. ‘But they can’t (giggle) make a baby?!’ Food seems easy in comparison to modern genetic advances. I was always careful to say certain food choices are healthy, and other things are treats to have in moderation rather than ‘they are bad and will make you fat’. Thanks to Mr Olympics himself, Sportacus on Lazy Town, fruit is now ‘sports candy’. However kids tend to call a spade a spade. I overheard the six year old telling the two year old today: ‘No more sweets or you will have a fat tummy!’ He happily wandered round at bathtime with his gorgeous little tummy pushed out going ‘Fat Belly! Fat Belly!’

The latest comic to jump on the fat is funny bandwagon is Ricky Gervais. They’ve been running his trailer over the last few nights. From Mr Creosote and his ‘waffer thin meent’ to Gwynnie in her fat suit in Shallow Hal, fat is (apparently) funny. Culturally, thin is good – but it hasn’t always been so, and fashions change. A recent survey claimed that the ideal woman is getting fatter. If you read the article to the end you would see that while some men found size 16 women attractive, the majority still like a size 12. Plus ca change. Maybe because unlike all the other deadly sins, Gluttony is so obvious and the results so apparent we feel able to take a pop (‘Does my bum look big in this? Etc). There is something ghastly and depressing about places like the Calais hypermarkets – slack jawed day tourists pushing trolleys groaning with cheap booze, fags and token pack of crisps and biscuits. There is just so much of everything – do we need it? Any obsession with food is damaging – at school, a friend fighting anorexia went on (tragically) to study nutrition at university. At school now, there are lovely mothers still clearly battling their demons, but almost without exception every anorexic or bulimic mum I’ve met compensates by being a terrific homemaker or cook, always volunteering for the bakesale or serving cream cakes for tea.

Food is very deeply hardwired into our sense of selves and well being. I am so used now to making the most of what we have to hand, going through the old photos the other day was like looking at another lifetime, let alone a couple of decades ago. ‘Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci …’ we sang along to Chic and Sister Sledge. Sushi in Tokyo? Lobster in Maine? Paella cooked over orange wood fires with shrimp and langoustine fresh from the morning market? These days it is Cottage Pie in Hampshire and be grateful. Food is love – what’s your favourite meal from growing up? Bet nobody makes it like your Mum used to. From the roast dinners of home to the champagne and oysters of seduction (wasn’t it Levi who said ‘to eat is to f***’), what you eat, and how much you eat defines a lot about you. Temperance, moderation is difficult when there is so much on offer everywhere you turn. The TV schedule and bookshelves are groaning with celebrity chefs. Every other advert provokes your tastebuds (maybe Levi had been watching the ludicrous soft porn M&S ads for chocolate pudding). Writing and parenting is a double whammy – constant proximity to the kitchen, snacks, one meal after another. Sure we all know – eat less, move more. So why is everyone getting bigger?

TODAY’S PROMPT: My favourite cookbook ‘Aprhodite’ by Isabel Allende has an anecdote about every recipe. What are the key dishes in your house? We have the pilot’s bouillabaisse, and my chicken claybake as the ‘warms your heart soul food’ staples. Tonight there’s the scent of beef stew mingling with woodsmoke when he gets home from a late flight (writing about food sees me having a fleeting domestic goddess moment - it won't last). What great food stories can you think of in literature – I re-read last night where Rebecca Miller’s Pippa Lee eulogises about Vacherin cheese (and knew we would get on like a house on fire because of it). Then there is Proust and his madelines. Why not grab your journal, and reminisce about what certain meals or certain food means to you. Or you could get the parents at school together and write a charity cookbook – each child providing a recipe and drawing, profits going to a good cause.


  1. Everyone's getting fat because we all had to give up smoking!

    I'm a dreadful cook, probably because I haven't got children, so I haven't bothered to learn. At the age of 35 I realised I could no longer get away with eating 'rubbish'; I now have a healthy diet; if I over-eat I feel horribly bloated and I dislike this feeling so much that I seldom over-eat. Once your body has become accustomed to healthy foods it no longer seems to crave all the sugary stuff. This has been my experience in any case. Apologies, I'm waffling!

  2. I am frustrated with cooking and food lately, because no one seems to ever eat what I make, or they eat erratically. Have to say, I've kind of given up on gourmet or inventive cooking and just stick with chicken nuggets. I am so sick of chicken nuggets.

    But I have a theory that the recent phenomenon of eating disorders stems directly from the over consumption of the western world. I don't know about Europe, but I see it in America. They spend so much, use so much, focus so much on buying, labels, possession, luxury, decadence, big bigger biggest, that when it comes to eating, they go the other direction and starve themselves to feel virtuous.

    You wouldn't believe how often food is related to moral concepts. Food is not bad or evil, it's just nutrition that happens to be sensually pleasing. (oh, there's another sin.)

  3. Scarlet - I hear you. These days I'm reminded of Adam and the Ants 'Goody Two Shoes'. I'm banking on the 'if you get on track by 40 you're fine' philosophy.

    Rowena - interesting ideas. I've resorted to stealth tactics to get some good stuff into the little ones (blitzing veggies for pasta sauce etc!) Bless them they have no idea, but chicken is v popular in our house too.

  4. My mother never used her kitchen. Well, for several years she could barely afford food.

    My dad was a cook. He didn't care to spend much time cooking when he got home--from either of his cooking jobs.

    If food is love, then I got the love from my grandmother. She enjoyed cooking and was good at it. Though she never taught me anything about it. She didn't like to explain things.

    I have a very hard time in the kitchen. Ugh.

    Love Allende's book though. Anything she writes is fine by me.

  5. Hi Marta - my approach to cooking has also been learnt through trial and error, (and luckily children are easily pleased with simple dishes). Still in awe of people like my mother ...

  6. I loved reading the beginning of "Girl with a Pearl Earring" where Grete is cutting the vegetables and arranging them in the most pleasing way. I find that I like to eat (most meals are by myself) things that look pretty. I take my time more.

    Give me a pizza and I can eat it while watching television and not even notice when three slices have disappeared.

    But yesterday I made an avocado and tomato salad and the red and greens just made me so happy.

    Staples in my house are tortillas with EVERYTHING....mexican is large part of my diet.

    But salads are daily.

    And curry is weekly.

    Yesterday I ate a grilled cheese and avocado sandwich on walnut bread with a bowl of tomato bisque. It's the perfect fall meal.

    And kids are curious, but they can be taught to be curious and respectful I have learned.

    One of the hard things for me is to see that my neice, all of 9 years old, is desperately concerned about her "tummy" of which she is probably 6-8 pounds heavier (different from stone people!) than the average girl, but nothing severe. However, in just the past three months she lost it all and I don't know how and I am a bit concerned (as one who has dealt with an eating disorder much of my life).

    Times are tough. Women get the raw end of the deal most days.

  7. Hi D'Arcy - wow, you've just made me realise I'm famished! It is very hard with kids - they absorb so much by osmosis. Curious and respectful is a great thing to aim for.

    Simple pleasure in food is a great indicator of good choices - I also get a kick out of buying/preparing fresh veggies. (But then there are those moments when you really, really feel like inhaling a pizza on the couch - fine too). If you like tomatoes and Mexican, I am making Gazpacho every few days at the moment (excellent antioxidants, garlic and onion to ward of winter germs - and everyone else!) You probably have a recipe but if not let me know and I'll post it up for you!

  8. WOW!!!!!
    We are psychic twins. I have the Gervais clip up on my blog too!!

    What are the key dishes in your house?

    chicken nuggets
    noodles with butter
    noodles with butter and cheese
    for dessert: tangerines

  9. Heh - I was just helping myself to a second deep fried Mars Bar when Ricky came on TV and i thought 'ah, a message - He moves in mysterious ways'. Noodles and butter - two of their favourite ingredients in one dish. Alternated with pasta that just about sorts out the kids' weekly menu - tried to fob them off with some of the beef stew and the 2 year old spat it on the floor like a gunslinger in a Western.

  10. YES!!! Please, I've never made that dish before, probably because I can't spell it!

  11. Here we go D'Arcy - first had this in Spain (from Andalucia originally I think). It's a cold soup - but if made slightly chunkier it's great as a salsa with everything from grilled chicken to roast lamb!


    Half cucumber
    1lb tomatoes
    Small red onion
    Yellow Pepper
    1 Garlic clove
    1 small handful of fresh parsley
    1 small handful fresh coriander
    1 dessert spoon extra virgin olive oil
    Pinch sea salt
    Pinch paprika
    Fresh black pepper
    1 tablespoon cider vinegar
    1 deseeded and finely chopped red chilli - or a dash of chilli sauce/tabasco to suit your hotness level!

    Blitz all the ingredients in a food processor until they are finely chopped but not pureed. If you want to serve it as a cold soup, you may want to add a little chilled tomato juice to thin the mixture. Otherwise it is great with tacos, tortillas ... just about everything and it is SO fresh and good for you. Enjoy!

  12. Hi there

    Please may I have permission to post your photo of the oversized models/mannequins to my site ( abandoned-mannequins.posterous.com). I will of course link to your site, and set out the full reference, and give full credit !



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