Dear Dave

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Learning to cook (again)

Dear Dave,

Yeah, you should probably eat something for lunch other than coffee, Krispie cake and whatever you happen to find down the back of Daisy's high chair while you're cleaning it. I'm not one to talk, though. If I have a cheese toastie and the limp remains at the bottom of a bag of salad, I consider that a balanced meal. I'm kind of hoping that eating the cores of the apples I chop up for the boys' packed lunches counts as one of my 5-a-day helpings of fruit and veg...

I go out of my way to make sure the kids have a healthy diet but by the time it comes to me, I'm usually out of motivation and energy. Also, chocolate bars taste good.

I can cook. That isn't a problem. I taught myself when I was a student and I've come a long way since I first arrived at my grotty accommodation armed only with a packet of cheese sauce, a cauliflower and a copy of Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course. Quite why I thought cauliflower was a good place to start, I have no idea, but that night I learnt an important culinary lesson:

Almost everything tastes good when coated in warm cheese.

Dubious fish, soggy chips, wilting salad, dodgy burgers, stale bread, burnt Krispie cakes, anything (even over-cooked cauliflower) can be made edible with liberal coatings of melted cheddar.

This lesson helped me survive the initial few weeks as I experimented with recipes and techniques and generally got the hang of things. Since I took it in turns to cook evening meals with my flatmates and I didn't have to cook all the time, I could afford to go to town when it was my night. I made everything from lasagne to stilton soup to some strange vegetarian concoction involving lentils and a vast supply of aubergines. As the year wore on, I even learnt to cut corners. Three different kinds of meat in lasagne isn't essential, for instance. Neither is sieving the white sauce. Any recipe which asks you to sieve beetroot isn't worth starting.

Then I got married, got a job, began a family, became a housedad and lost several years somewhere. More corners were cut. It began with buying jars of sauce rather than making my own. Then it moved on to bags of frozen vegetables. In the end, I discovered ready-made frozen lasagne was cheaper than making my own and tasted almost as good. It also took a heck of a lot less time to prepare and didn't create anywhere near as much washing up.

It's been a while since I made anything from scratch other than birthday cakes and omelettes.

The other day I realised, however, that once again, life is moving on. I went to put the remote for the DVD recorder away on top of the TV unit with the other controls and suddenly wondered why I was bothering. The kids are now old enough that I can leave all the remotes on the table by the sofa without fear of them mucking about and accidentally over-writing the entire contents of the TiVo with forty hours of celebrities bickering at each other in a jungle. This has probably been the case for a year. It just never occurred to me before.

Similarly, I can keep eggs easily accessible in the special rack for them in the fridge door for the first time since Fraser was eighteen months and he decided to see if they bounce. (Hint: They don't.) I can also think about being a little more adventurous with food.

At the moment, the kids live on raw fruit and vegetables, various bread products, cheese, sausages, fish fingers, pasta, pizza and crackers. They've done so since they were small because Fraser hates sauces of every kind. Preparing anything complicated for him is a waste of time and ingredients. I don't have much incentive to persuade him otherwise either, since the kids need fed before Sarah gets home - I have to make one meal for them and one for us anyway, so I might as well make them simple stuff I know they'll all eat.

Lewis and Marie can often be convinced to eat normal, 'adult' meals, though, so some proper cooking at the weekend seems almost worthwhile. More than that, the children are now old enough to entertain themselves while I'm busy in the kitchen. There's no reason for me to feel I'm neglecting them by slaving over a hot stove to provide them with a tasty, nutritious masterpiece.

I can't quite be bothered yet but maybe sometime soon.

Another sign that life is moving on is that it's much more feasible for us to invite guests round for food. Getting the kids to bed is no longer a two hour operation which swallows the evening. Fraser can even get himself to bed without any physical intervention whatsoever. (Constant verbal goading is still mandatory but it's a step forward all the same.) Having friends over for dinner is possible once more without constantly having the conversation interrupted by crying babies, stroppy toddlers and pressing childcare issues.

In theory, anyway. Finding the energy is another matter...

Nonetheless, Sarah's sister Catriona and her husband Chris came over to visit with their teenagers Lisa and Ned the other Saturday. It was a while since we'd seen any of them other than Ned and it was definitely our turn to host. I met them at the door. The 2 Cs were dressed just far enough to the smart side of smart-casual to make me look shabby and Lisa had really pushed the boat out with a sequined blouse and plenty of make-up. Ned shuffled in, wearing his hoodie.

"We picked this up in Peru," said Chris, handing over a bottle wrapped in tissue paper. "The owner of the bodega recommended it himself. It's got rather an interesting taste; not like the normal stuff from Waitrose. It was made using traditional methods..."

"Child labour," grunted Ned, kicking off his shoes.

"For the last time," replied Chris, exasperated, "getting the children of the village to stomp the grapes during a festival is not child labour."

"Sounds like it."

"Listen, young man..."

Catriona interrupted them. "Ned, please don't wind your father up before we've even got our coats off."

I took the wine politely and resisted the urge to point out to Chris that the only thing I really cared about was what colour it was. I'd made that mistake on a previous occasion while he'd been telling me about his latest car.

"Do you have a whisk?" asked Lisa.


She waved a heavy shopping bag at me. "You wanted us to bring dessert. I'm going to make pavlova. I need a whisk."

"Pavlova? That's rather ambitious..." I'd been expecting them to pop into the supermarket on the way and buy a trifle or something.

"Don't worry. She makes it all the time," said Catriona. "She does most of the cooking in our house. I'm always having to travel to fundraisers, Chris gets home late and Ned can't work a tin-opener, so Lisa's had plenty of practice. Haven't you, dear?"

Lisa blushed and Ned sloped off to my study to play Tomb Raider. Chris and Catriona went upstairs to find the others in the lounge. I hunted around and found a whisk. Lisa eyed it up suspiciously, tested its weight, wiggled the loops a little and then frowned. "Do you have a different whisk?"

As it happened, we did. The kitchen cupboards are full of obscure utensils and unlikely implements which I haven't touched in years. I hunted around amongst the fondue sets, baking dishes and cake tins and eventually produced a heavy-duty egg murdering device which was to Lisa's satisfaction. She set to work and I put together the ingredients I'd prepared for the lasagne I'd been making.

It shouldn't have taken me long but I'm out of practice. Somehow, Lisa finished first and made far less mess. She carefully put the pavlova on the bottom shelf of the oven and then asked, "Is there anything else I can do to help?"

"You could lay the table," I said, wiping white sauce off the toaster. I pointed to the drawers. "Cutlery is in there."

"What about napkins?"

"We don't use napkins."

Lisa looked at me like I was slightly strange. "Where do you keep the place mats, then?"

"Er... We don't use place mats either. We used to but Fraser kept trying to eat them when he was a toddler. Doesn't seem to be any point going back now. The table has survived fine and it would just mean more stuff to clean."


I didn't reply. I merely put the lasagne in to cook and left the room, chuckling to myself.

I went to check on the others. The boys had found Ned and dragged him off to play Nintendo. Marie was showing Catriona her collection of pink jewellery. Sarah was trying to appear interested as Chris told her about Peruvian wine. I sneaked away again.

I swear I was only gone ten minutes. Lisa had searched through the cupboards and found all manner of stuff I'd forgotten about - coasters, crystal wine glasses, some paper serviettes left over from a party, the good place mats (i.e. the ones without bite marks) and a flowery tablecloth. She'd set everything out immaculately. The serviettes had been folded into swans. I was amazed... and a tiny bit scared. I began to grasp why Ned has given up trying to compete.

The meal itself was chaos. Our kitchen is a reasonable size but getting nine people round a table which is only designed for six is pretty cosy. Fraser told Knock, Knock jokes he'd heard at school, Marie sang songs about the alphabet she'd learnt at nursery and Lewis felt left out and made up a story about a chicken that went through a door to cross the road and then exploded into a pile of 'M's.

Near the start, Ned tried some of the wine his mum offered him and his dad jokingly had a go at him for enjoying the output of an underage workforce. The lad didn't say anything after that. Chris and Catriona pretended not to notice and filled us in on all the wonderful things they'd been up to. Somewhere during dessert, Lisa was forced to tell us about her latest successes in the school orchestra and how well she thought the admissions test for Cambridge had gone.

Everyone was polite about the lasagne but it was the pavlova they had second helpings of. Then the kids vanished. All the boys disappeared to play computer games some more and Marie insisted Lisa help her get ready for bed. There was space and peace again. I made some coffee.

"How was Peru?" I asked over my shoulder as I filled the kettle.

"It was so encouraging watching the charity's work in action," said Catriona. "It will really help me focus appeals in the future."

"How did Chris get to go?"

"He joined me for a holiday at the end of the trip. Don't worry - it's all above board. He paid his own way."

"I didn't mean that, I, er... Was the weather good?"

"Very pleasant," said Chris. "Not so sure about the food."

Catriona nodded. "The scenery was spectacular."

"Yes," said Chris. "We brought the photos."

"Oh, good..." I couldn't think what else to say. Time was, that bringing photos meant handing round a couple of packets of prints, half of which were duplicates or out of focus. Everyone could dutifully shuffle through them in a couple of minutes each and those who were really interested could go huddle up a corner with the photographer and discuss the geographical features of the Andes to their heart's content. These days, bringing photos means a dozen memory cards crammed full of the bewildered faces of everyone encountered on the trip, the meals eaten, a million scenic views and at least two blurry videos - one of street theatre and another of an amusing squirrel. Everyone gets to watch a slideshow on the telly for an hour.

Sarah slyly made some excuse about checking on the children and slipped away. I couldn't blame her - she'd probably heard all the details of Peru while I was making dinner. The topic unexpectedly changed, though.

"Thanks for dealing with the trouble Ned had at school while we were away," said Catriona. "It was very good of you to speak with the headmaster about his behaviour. It must have been a trial fitting it in amongst all the school runs."

Chris laughed. "He was probably glad of the chance to get out and about. I know I'd go mad sitting around the house all day."

"Just ignore him, Ed," said Catriona.

"Uh-huh," I muttered, counting under my breath. I concentrated on making the coffee. "Do you take milk?"

Chris shook his head and took his mug from me. "Ned won't be any trouble again. I've had a few words with him. One more slip up and he'll been on his way to Lochinver Academy. They'll teach him what's what."

"I'm not sure a military-style boarding school in the Highlands is really the best idea. As I said on the phone, the fight wasn't entirely his fault. Besides, I thought the deal was that he could stay at Malton House if his science grades improved. They've picked up quite a lot."

"Because you're doing his homework for him."

"I'm tutoring him. I'm helping him understand and clarifying concepts. I'm not telling him what to write..." I thought back to the previous week and some difficulties with the combined gas law. "Er, much. Look, I know Malton House isn't that great but..."

Chris interrupted me. "It's a fantastic place - good academic results and large playing fields. They've turned out several rugby internationals and I work with a couple of old boys."

"The headmaster has a real vision for developing children," chipped in Catriona.

"It's not as good as Lisa's school, I'll admit," said Chris, "but it's not like Ned would have got in there even if he was a girl. Still, it is a good school. Whether it's the best school for Ned right now is another question. I don't think they're giving him what he needs."

I couldn't help agreeing with that. "Have you tried asking him what he needs?"

"He's a teenager. He doesn't know he's born, let alone what's good for him."

"Maybe..." I said but I thought loudly that it might be worth at least investigating before packing him off to boot camp. Telling other people how to raise their children is a tetchy subject, however. I wasn't up for a fight - certainly not without consulting with Ned first. I let the matter drop for the time being and brought out a box of After Eights.

Chris changed the subject again. "So, I hear you got to register Marie for school. What are you going to do with yourself once she starts? Have you learnt to knit yet?"

Catriona elbowed him in the ribs. "As I said, Ed, ignore him."

"What?" said Chris, smirking.

I gave them my usual spiel about having a lie down for a few weeks and then catching up on nine years worth of chores and Oprah. Sarah returned to claim her fruit tea and minty chocolates and let us know that the boys were in their pyjamas and Marie was in bed. We drank our hot drinks, chatted about this and that and then it was time to go upstairs to watch the squirrel. I grabbed another bottle of wine on the way. It was very cheap but, to be honest, by that point I didn't even care what colour it was.

Next time we'll have Rob and Kate round, play Wii Sports and order in a curry. It will be so much more relaxing.

Can't really see Rob making pavlova, though, which is a shame. That was tasty...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Remember to eat some vegetables this week.


Gwen said...

I'm struggling with finding the right analogy to express empathy for your situation - walking on a tight rope and walking through a mine field are the 2 top contenders, but neither seems perfect...

I'm glad that Ned has you in his life. I don't envy you your position "between" him and his parents. The fact that you don't want to speak up on his behalf too much without talking to him first says a lot about the fundamental difference between you and his parents - treating him with respect.

As for dealing with all the snarky comments and "jokes", it takes a strong and secure person to maintain a sense of self worth and control feelings of defensiveness in the face of constant "jokes" from all sides for years and years...

On both counts, you have my respect! :)

PS - I work for the US Navy - I have connections - I still say that if we had JUST ONE of these men snuffed out, the others would treat you with a lot more respect! Or, at least, a lot more caution.... ;)

DadsDinner said...

Woh! Thanks for the offer but tell the SEAL team to stand down. After eight years, I've got pretty thick skin.

Besides, if push comes to shove and I want someone to 'disappear', I just need to tell Scary Karen that they had a go at a mum for breastfeeding in public...

Gwen said...

Hmmm... Scary Karen versus a SEAL team - that would be a difficult one to call... ;)