When it comes to culinary talent and expertise, some have it – and some don’t. And some go at it with a shovel and a galvanized bucket…
If myself and himself were ever to find ourselves on that awful TV programme Mr & Mrs, the awfulness would be immediately increased. Even after more than three decades of cohabitation, he’d probably struggle with my favourite colour, wouldn’t know my favourite Mr Man and certainly wouldn’t know whether I put my lipstick on my top or bottom lip first.
We’d make a holy show of ourselves. We’d be shamed. We’d walk away empty-handed. No matching watches or fondue sets for us.
But if he was asked what my most impressive quality is, I know exactly what he’d say. He’d say I was a great woman to get a bit of dinner. That doesn’t mean he’d say I was a great cook – there’s a chasm of difference between being a great cook and being ‘a great woman to get a bit of dinner’. What impresses him about my culinary abilities is my speed. I can get the meat and two veg dished up in record time. There’s no faffing about, no fanciness or frills. It’s dinner, pure and simple. And, even after the more than three decades, it still impresses him. Other couples might whisper romantic endearments to each other and pledge their undying love; the closest we come to that is that he regularly tells me I’d win a gold medal in the speed event at the dinner Olympics.
I am what bygone generations would have called a ‘plain cook’. Competent with the basics but quite unadventurous. It’s not that I haven’t ever attempted adventurous – I have, but it just doesn’t work. I watch all the TV cookery programmes and am occasionally inspired to try something fancy. It never works. My fancy and adventurous attempts end up in the bin. On one memorable occasion, fancy and adventurous ended up in the garden.
It was actually the first dinner I ever cooked as a married person. The honeymoon was literally over and we were settling in to the everyday routine of married life. He went to work and I was still on leave. It suddenly occurred to me that I’d never actually cooked him a meal. Prior to the wedding, I’d been living at home and he’d been living in on the job. Yes, we went out for meals or he’d come to my mother’s for dinner (that she cooked) but we’d never cooked for each other. I decided I had to impress him. I attempted to make a proper chicken curry. It was not a good idea.
In fairness, some of the problem was the lack of kitchen gadgetry. As a brand new household, we weren’t comprehensively equipped. I had no kitchen scales and naively thought that it didn’t really matter. Surely I could judge an ounce of this or a pinch of that? Whether I overdid it or underdid it, I still don’t know. All I know is that after a whole afternoon of slaving, I ended up with inedible, sticky gloop and a very badly burnt saucepan.
And I panicked. I’d never even thought about it before but now it seemed I couldn’t cook. How could I admit that? How scary would it be for him to come home on the first day of a new lifestyle to discover he’d married Denise Royle? Doomed to a lifetime of cuppa soup and Dairylea. I couldn’t admit defeat and couldn’t let him know about the disaster in the kitchen.
Throwing it in the kitchen bin wouldn’t work because he’d smell it and see it. Throwing it in the outside bin wouldn’t work either for the same reasons. And we didn’t have a dog. (Not, indeed, that even the dumbest of mutts would have eaten it.) I needed a more inventive, cunning solution.
So I buried it. I chose a secluded area of the garden and got busy with the coal shovel. I intended to bury saucepan and all but soon realised there was more to this digging malarkey than I thought. Particularly when you’re doing it with a coal shovel. I managed to make a hole deep enough to take the gloop and covered it up with clay and grass. I rescued the saucepan with a Brillo pad and a lot of elbow grease. A generous squirt of air freshener in the house and nobody need ever know.
In hindsight, I think that was the day my speed-cooking skills were born. When you’re standing in your garden with a coal shovel after burying your evening meal, it fairly gives you focus. He will be home from work soon… there will be dinner. A quick consult with the mother to find out what’s quick, what’s easy and what doesn’t demand a load of saucepans. A nice bit of steak with a few chips, onions and mushrooms never goes astray.
And so I became a plain, speedy cook. I am the queen of the roast dinner and I do world-class cauliflower cheese. I make great Shepherd’s Pie and bacon and cabbage is a firm favourite. Desserts don’t get any fancier than apple crumble (or crapple umble as my children insist on calling it) or a fresh fruit pavlova on special occasions. From time to time, I do a bit of baking but that too is plain and simple. Buns and Madeira cake; mince pies and sausage rolls at Christmas. (Mind you, I did make a successful special-occasion cake this Easter. The icing wouldn’t have stood up to close scrutiny but it all tasted OK.)
My average skills seem to hit the spot with the family at least. I occasionally get text messages from my children along the lines of “how do u make gravy” quickly followed by another saying “how do u get lumps out of gravy”. It’s the modern equivalent of me ringing my mother so many years ago. Plain cooking endures.
But sometimes I wish I were more adventurous and talented. Heston Blumenthal, the king of the celebrity chefs, intrigues me. With his three Michelin stars at the Fat Duck restaurant in Berkshire in the UK, food is science, religion and art all rolled into one. One of the dishes on his menu at the restaurant is called Sound of the Sea. The dish is presented on a glass-topped box containing sand and seashells. The dish itself consists of fried breadcrumbs and tapioca that resemble sand; crushed fried baby eels, cod liver oil and langoustine oil topped with abalone, razor clams, shrimps and oysters and three kinds of edible seaweed. Juices from the shellfish are whipped up into foam and placed beside the tapioca to look like the sea hitting the shore. The completely innovative thing about this dish is the addition of sound. Diners are given a spiral conch shell which contains an iPod. As they eat, they listen to the sounds of the ocean. According to Blumenthal, people have actually cried at the experience.
When I see things like this, it tempts me. Maybe I should branch out. Maybe I should be a little more adventurous than the meat and two veg. Maybe I should aim for satisfying the soul as well as the body. Maybe I should attempt something that will make him cry.
But sense and experience prevails. He’ll cry if there’s no dinner. I’ll stick to the tried and tested. Maybe I’ll put a few oinky, farmyardy noises on the iPod for the next bacon and cabbage day. I could put it in a galvanised bucket under the table, maybe.
But, apart from that, I won’t be going the Blumenthal route.
I haven’t got a big enough shovel.