As someone who was a vegetarian for nearly 20 years, and has very rarely cooked meat, I realised that it was a bit of a strange situation. So, how did I become someone who knows how to turn meat juices into gravy?
Well, all through my childhood I watched my mother (and grandmothers) make gravy, and often helped them. Stirring the gravy is the kind of job another pair of hands, however small, can help with when there’s all the other things to get ready and on the table for the Sunday roast. And, even when I lived in Africa and the Middle East as a child, my mother would try, quite regularly, to recreate some of those family traditions through roast dinners, pies and puddings served in the equatorial heat. Living abroad meant that, at times, the modern convenience foods were not so easily available, and cooking from scratch was essential.
I picked up a huge amount of knowledge and experience about how to cook from my mother, alongside the expectation that food is at its best when freshly prepared and enjoyed at a table with others.
I realise that, these days, this is not all that common.
Yes, I ate a few Fray Bentos pies and plenty of frozen peas and fish fingers as a child. But these were emergency foods for when we were camping, sailing or back home late. As a student at university I was surprised how my flatmates scarcely cooked beyond heating up baked beans. I have had many friends and clients with eating disorders, where their relationship with food has become painful and destructive. Many more have struggled with their weight, and seen food as calories to feel guilty about or avoid. I have seen meals such as pasta salads (slathered in mayonnaise) and diet chocolate bars and drinks (full of sweeteners and additives) labelled as ‘healthy’ and dried fruit, nuts and proper meals containing good fats and protein labelled as ‘bad’. There was even a tricky moment with my boyfriend, now husband, who tried to impress me with an apple crumble – made from a packet. For so many people the pervading mentality around food is still one of self-denial and discipline, or comfort and convenience. And trying to change this, if you were brought up on takeaways, oven chips, ready meals and processed snacks is very hard to do.
My mother’s version of a diet was to eat a bit less for a few days. My mother’s attitude to food was that if you could pick it fresh from the back garden, then it would taste even better. My mother accepted that cooking from scratch takes time, and planned meals and menus in advance, making chutneys and jams (and yes, she also worked much of the time). I remember the smell of pizza dough rising in the airing cupboard and looking forward to dinner time. But most of all my mother’s attitude to food showed me that cooking nutritious, fresh, tasty food is a tremendous way of showing love and care to yourself, your family and friends.
So I am so grateful, on this Mother’s Day, for the good food habits that my mother has instilled in me through her example and own good habits. I am grateful that I crave broccoli and brown rice at least as often, if not more, than I crave crisps or chocolate. And I am grateful that I know how to cook pastry, roast dinners, cakes, desserts, pies, quiches and, of course, gravy.
Thank you Mum!