I don’t remember being taught to cook. Cooking was just something that happened in my vicinity. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s in the UK, people didn’t go out to eat. I can remember the few occasions that we did—the deep pan pizzas near Trafalgar Square, a meal in an Indian restaurant because some colleagues of my father were over from the USA. Takeout wasn’t a thing. If there was nothing in the fridge, we dug about in the freezer, peering into the ubiquitous ice cream tubs (we never seemed to eat enough ice cream to generate all those tubs) to see if there was something to defrost.
My parents both cooked. My mam made family favourites, and my dad went through phases of culinary exploration. I remember eating cheese souffle for what seemed like every meal for a while. Christmas dinner was often something non-traditional, a chance to spend more on food, so why spend it on boring turkey? We had several invented meals—Burnmouth Pie (the content I do not recall) and Splodge (basically an omelette gone badly wrong).
I must have expressed an interest in cooking at some point. A copy of the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book, given to me when I was 11, was one of the few possessions I kept through a turbulent few years in my late teens. I still have it on my shelf today, “To Rachel, Christmas 1986, from Mum & Dad.”
Being able to turn inexpensive ingredients into decent food turned out useful. I remember making a big pot of dal for my fellow Jesus Christ Superstar cast members in a bleak holiday cottage in Berwick upon Tweed. When my daughter was a baby, I knew exactly when they would reduce produce in the local supermarkets. I’d follow them around to buy cheap veg and turn it into soup and casseroles.
I still cook most meals from raw, often muddy, ingredients. I have a good collection of recipe books joining my Good Housekeeping from 1986. However, I tend to see them as inspiration rather than instruction and often haven’t worked out what I’m cooking until some way through the cooking process. This evening was a good example. I’d returned home with a really good cauliflower. The sort of cauliflower that will easily make two nice steaks when cut down the middle without falling apart. I had it chopped up, spiced and seasoned, and in a roasting tin, and then considered that I should make something to go with it. Some dal, perhaps, and I poked around to see if I already had some in the freezer. I did not, so I set to making a quick basic dal, chucking in some uninteresting tomatoes while making the masala. While locating garlic and ginger in the fridge, I found a bag of brussels sprouts and cooked a few in a frying pan with some red onion and chilli crisp as a side dish. It was all delicious, and there’s still a good batch of roasted cauliflower to make a buddha bowl tomorrow with other leftovers, plus five portions of dal destined for the freezer.
While cooking this meal, I started thinking about cooking and how I learned to cook, and I decided to write it down in this post. My daughter also cooks, and again, I didn’t teach her. She just learned by being around cooking, being around someone who didn’t act like making food was a chore or difficult to do. I feel it’s a good thing to have passed on to her, as it was passed on to me. We often send each other photos of things we have cooked, a connection through a shared joy of turning ingredients into meals, even when distance means we can’t share that meal together.