I’m not a cook, but I cook. And I usually won’t buy things I can make myself. And if I’m in a restaurant, I’ll order something a bit cheffy, or an ingredient I don’t usually use. More commonly, I open the fridge door and think, “Oh yes, that. I’ll get some feta, chorizo or cream to turn that into something”. Quite often, my husband will dash out for lemons, the coriander, or pine nuts that will lift the humble veg into a dish. I try to avoid Sainsbury’s Local, and buy herbs and pulses in the local Arabic shop. But sometimes it can’t be helped.
On deciding what to cook, I go quiet, and imagine the kind of thing I’d like to taste. Is it Italian-ish, Thai-ish, Engl-ish? Are my taste buds craving cumin, or basil, or a cheesy thing? My appetite is influenced by any experience: a book, a place, the weather, a certain smell, memory – a combination of all sorts. But I need that quiet moment before launching into cooking, even if it’s just a pause for breath.
There are so many kinds of meals. The mad after-school dash of a meal, or a meandering weekend cook-in with music playing - or precise, strategic dinner party preparation. They’re all important to me. Being serenaded by my children’s piano practice can be pleasurable company while I cook, though I do bark long-range instructions from the stove. Mealtimes underpin the day. Work, leisure, everything moves around these recognised times when we refuel, meet and gather to eat.
Perhaps it’s obvious to say that feeding is giving, or even loving. Being fed is being given to, or even loved. A house that smells of spices, or bread, melted butter, fried onions is a warm inviting house. A meal that has been thoughtfully prepared (even if it’s a roasted leek, cheese on toast, a baked potato – often the most perfect meals) is satisfying and nurturing. It’s not that my children never have fish-fingers and oven chips – they do. It’s not that I never snatch a peanut butter sandwich for lunch – I do, too often. But fill-up meals aren’t the same, because they make little reference to crop, ingredient, or care, and just land clumsily on the plate. Providing a home-cooked meal is a performance of sorts, and applause is wonderful. I crave and enjoy it, even if it comes from just one other, or the friends of one’s children. Did I really make the best spare ribs ever? I’m flattered!
Eating together. Of course that’s important. We’ve been told that repeatedly. We swap our stories, thoughts and beliefs at the table. Cooking together. I think that’s important too. I’m not so good at it, admittedly. I like to control the kitchen space, physically and mentally. But I’m wrong. There are many tedious tasks in cooking (especially if you don’t like equipment, as I don’t) and so how much more fun to have company. There are communities where the shelling of peas, the shaping of pasta (I’m thinking of the streets of Bari in Italy, lined with women making it – together!) or the peeling of cooked peppers (Pristina in Kosovo – a group preparing for a party) is a shared activity. I’m sure that’s a good idea. In fact, I know it is, because I set up Root Camp, and I’ve witnessed the fun of it – in this case, between teenagers.
So now I have mentioned Root Camp. I created Root Camp because I wanted to express some of my passion about food and eating. I wanted young people to cook together, eat together, watch films together, go out in the field together, debate together, play together – to feed, and be fed – and find the pleasure in that. Oh, and I wanted them to learn to wash up after themselves.