I think about food a lot of the time, when I am not otherwise busy with my dayjob, and sometimes even then. Not thoughts about eating food, but about buying it, or preparing it. This is not because I am a good cook, but because I am quite the opposite. Putting three meals a day on the table for the family remains a major challenge for me. There are few other aspects of family life that I have found so difficult to master.
For years I have pored over books and food magazines, watched TV programmes, and searched the internet for cooking tips. On the whole I do not want to learn to cook fancy food: all I aspire to is to be able to cook good food. I want to be able to turn out a decent meal reliably, using a certain amount of skill, knowing that my family will eat it, enjoy it, and grow up strong and healthy. I want food to be the centre of family life, and I want to be able to cook as my grandmother cooked – plainly, instinctively, and with love.
(At the same time, I want to be able to hold an argument with my teenage son about feminism, the banking crisis, or the collapse of Soviet Russia, while I cook!)
Over the last few years, cooking has slowly become a more enjoyable task, and I have come to feel genuinely attached to the pots, knives and dishes I use every day. I feel a certain competance now, enough to be able to experiment, and to explore. I am ridiculously pleased each time I finally master a new skill, or work out a new shortcut for myself. But most of this wonderful process of discovery is done alone because I’m not a good enough cook to go round swapping recipes with other cooks. And in any case, I only just have time enough to do it – I don’t have time to talk about it too.
The most important ingredient it turns out, is time. When I worked longer hours, scrambled to pick up my babies from the nursery before it closed at six, and returned with them to a cold and empty house, I had to overcome my own hunger and exhaustion to put something warm on the table in twenty minutes flat. I still remember the desperation of those evenings – a mind-numbing feeling of panic and dismay and empty cupboards. Now that circumstance has forced me to cut the hours that I work, I rarely work after four, and reserve at least an hour every evening to producing an evening meal. It is my family’s biggest luxury, if they but knew it: the luxury of a homecooked meal almost every night.