I have tended to write more about growing food than cooking and eating it, which is a little odd considering the amount of time I devote to the latter compared to the former, but there you go. Zoe has asked me to expand upon ideas I expressed in response to her discussion of a talk she went to at ANU. Zoe is in the building where they theorise the food, which made me incredibly jealous when I read it. I study in the building (at a different university, in a different city) where they theorise the art, then kick on to a wine bar, or talk about which galleries get in good booze for openings. Which is not such a hard life either come to think of it.
I received a ‘joke’ email some months ago, from someone who doesn’t know me very well, which I have sadly deleted. ‘Sadly’ because I didn’t anticipate it being useful blog fodder, and now I will have to try to remember it rather than just copy and pasting. It was a series of comparisons between the “working mother” and “Margaret Fulton”, suggesting that romantic Fulton would cook all day, while the working mother in the real world would upend a can and frisbee it towards her children and husband in a mad rush. It really grated on my nerves, mostly because the writer had failed to notice that while Margaret Fulton was writing food books and appearing on television she was a “working mother”. I’m sure Fulton provided her own daughter with plenty of very quick meals over the years, just as most parents who work outside the home (and indeed, most who stay home fulltime) would. Fulton was set up as the “baddy” for having written about anything other than beans on toast, or combining pasta with something other than a jar. There are certainly problems with the way food writing, and food television, are presented, especially in relation to mid-week family food. That an anonymous emailer expected Margaret Fulton to carry the can for it upset me perhaps more than one should get upset about a minor slight on a person one has never met.
On a related note a friend recently reflected, while eating at my house, that she’d “like to have the headspace for cooking” the way I do. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but it bugged me later. The meal I’d cooked that she was remembering had been prepared while my toddler threw raw potatoes around the kitchen, climbed on our rather unsafe folding kitchen chairs, fiddled with the coffee machine (spreading grounds hither and yon) and tried to turn the oven on. “Headspace” is unfortunately not a concept I’ve attached to the active production of food in my house for some time now. My cooking is as rushed and slapdash as anyone elses because one eater* in my house loses his composure completely, and the will to eat at all, if dinner is late. Despite this we manage something other than cheese on toast most nights. Is it because I love food? Partly. Because I have brilliant domestic goddess-type skills? Yup, there’s a bit of that too. However, my friend loves good food, and knows how to cook, but generally she does not eat so well. Is it because my friend is single and childfree and cooking for one sucks? Yeah, it’s a factor, there are certainly tired evenings when my motivation to prepare vegetables is based more in being a Good Mother than doing what’s right by my own body, that said, when I lived alone I ate pretty well and enjoyed the quiet of cooking after a long day.
It’s only fair to mention that in my youth I spent several years working in catering, and was taught to manage multiple dishes, cleaning up & serving a large number of people in an environment where one was paid a flat rate. I had a seriously good incentive to get all the desserts out and the dishes done ahead of schedule and be off pub-wards before my four hours was up. In a similar vein, my friend is much quicker at de-boning chicken than I am because she worked in a poultry shop in high school. If I had fewer skills would I cook less, or cook a smaller variety of foods? Possibly. Is it just a matter of professional skill? No. My friend rarely de-bones chicken, even though she knows how. My Dad apparently knows how to butcher a lamb should the need arise, but I’ve never known him to do it. He has easier ways of getting a lamb dinner in adulthood (he married a woman who goes to the market & cooks it) and he doesn’t enjoy using the skill for it’s own sake.
In essence the email suggested Fulton had set the bar unreasonably high by assuming that food is important, when “we” all know that work and the rush rush rush at the end of the day means that food is merely fuel and we need the cheapest and quickest fuel there is. In this schema good food is for special occasions and ye olde stay at home mothers who have hours and hours of free time (yeah right). Good food is a luxury, something to put on the to-buy list after “nice house”, “television”, and “holiday in Queensland”. For my friend good food is about time, for looking for new recipes and considering possibles changes, for shopping, and for the actual preparation. All of that requires physical and mental energy that she just doesn’t feel she has anymore. So good food is for the holidays if you have an Important Job in your real life. For my Dad the formula is clear, (if you leave my Mum out of it for a minute) he works out how long jobs he doesn’t enjoy will take him to do and how much he can make working for that time, then compares it to how much the finished product costs to buy. Buying meat already butchered makes sense, in fact, buying the meat cooked and combined with veggies starts to look pretty sensible too. But he does cook every now and then, nothing terribly complex, even though he can afford not to, even though he is married to a retired lady who cooks, he cooks just because it is pleasurable. It’s a quiet time away from the desk, phone and computer, it’s beer-in-hand conversation time, it’s time to focus on what nourishes you.
So, why do some of us insist on cooking and eating well, even though cheap pre-prepared food is all around? Planning what we’ll do with our box of fruit and veg each week is generally a pleasurable experience for me, it’s a relaxing way to spend the evening after toddler bedtime, to wind down, to think only of what will go in the pot tomorrow. It’s a meditation of sorts, something to sit still and focus on, to still the mental chatter of work, mothering and all the other stuff. I’m inclined to put good food at the top of my to-do and to-buy lists. Living well is non-negotiable. I don’t see the point of the work and the rush rush without living and eating well as a reward. The rest, for me, is just noise.
Which leads to reading cookbooks in bed, which I think I will save for another day.
* Surely if a performance has an audience a cook has an eater-age? A consumer just sounds too commercial.