FOOD IN THOUGHT
PAINTINGS BY ESTHER PALMER
Figs remind me always of eating them sun warmed and fresh from the tree in Croatia. Plums: juicy and soft from the tree in my father’s garden; rich goat’s cheese tastes like France; lemon and garlic pasta is sublime summer food to be enjoyed strictly with red wine, friends, sun just dropping to dusk, air cooling. Food is the time, place, people, and joy. Although I am impatient, and lazy with my meals, this doesn’t mean that I don’t know good food when it comes my way. And it has been coming my way, thanks to an enforced return and proximity to my (beloved, hard headed) mother. I know that much has been written already on the peaks and troughs of lockdown - the conflicting voices telling is to slow down, be present, but also be productive, create, power through all those things we’ve never had time for - but it’s really not like that at all. I am not reading French novels or doing yoga to the dawn chorus, I’m watching Too Hot To Handle in my dressing gown and arriving at 10pm each evening somewhat surprised that another day has slipped by me. But I am also cooking.
It is just my mother and I at home, and she has taken it upon herself to teach me some culinary life lessons that she evidently thinks I’m lacking. I thought we’d been through this before I went off to university: a memory arises of us together in the kitchen, myself, sullen and monosyllabic, my mother, brisk and determined that I was not going to leave without learning how to make bechamel sauce both ways. Despite my protestations that I was off dairy, she persevered. I am not a very good vegan but I also never again made a bechamel sauce, which I count as a partial win. How awful when our mothers are right. Our kitchen is tiny - there’s not really enough room for more than one person, so we have to dance around each other from cupboard to sink to fridge. I’m not just trying to be whimsical: you can’t open the fridge and the oven at the same time, or any cupboard and the door together (although thankfully I can’t think of a situation where either would be totally necessary to a dish). So cooking together involves a lot of huffing and getting in each other's way. Even when I am left alone to cook, sometimes I will turn around to see my mother surveying me through the glass of the door. I’m not sure what she’s hoping to catch me in the act of - cutting an onion wrong? Mixing up my teaspoons and tablespoons? I am twenty-two, but I am at once a child again. It is infuriating, and in some ways intensely comforting to be taught.
Our kitchen is tiny - there’s not really enough room for more than one person, so we have to dance around each other from cupboard to sink to fridge.
We start with bread. I thought that I simply didn’t have the knack - whether cursed at birth by some malignant spirit or just a catch in my genetic makeup, but every loaf I’ve ever made, irrelevant of flour type, proving time, or kneading technique, has been decidedly sticky in the middle. I learnt a week ago that this is because I am too eager, so beguiled by the idea of a still-warm loaf, that I cut the bread too soon after it has come out of the oven. I had to pause for a moment, temporarily overwhelmed by the memory of all the potentially perfectly good loaves I have stunted through impatience. But now I am learning the tricks of the trade, there is a sudden wonder in bread-making. It’s the childlike joy in putting one hand in a bowlful of flour and yeast and water and salt and scrunching it into a doughy, sticky mess, until it starts to come together and you get a sense of your loaf-to-be for the first time. Then, leaving it to rise, and the magic of that rising. I sit out in the sun to read with my dough well-swaddled in tea towels next to me, like a silent but animate companion, a sleeping cat or an elderly relative, swelling softly. Folding, stretching, kneading, my mother forcefully correcting my tentative first attempts. She pummels it with what can only be described as rigour. Leaving it to rise a second time and I can’t let it alone, sneaking into the kitchen to lift layers of tea towel and clingful. Now it’s more like a newborn baby, sleeping, and I am an anxious parent. At last it is slapped unceremoniously onto a baking tray, turns golden brown and beautiful in the oven and fills the house with its warm yeasty smell. And there is absolutely nothing more totally lovely than homemade bread. Except when I forgot to put the salt in.
I am also finally cooking onions properly. I seem to be always in a hurry at uni, throwing onions and garlic into the very much no longer non-stick pan onto a wildly unpredictable electric hob, whose settings are very hot and less hot. The result is always slightly burned (if I’m feeling optimistic I could stretch to caramelised, but it really would be a stretch), hidden in whatever sauce I am making or mixed in with the meal so I can ignore them. Ignore onions! No - now they are sauteed, softened properly (which, by the way, always takes longer than the two minutes that recipes all seem to prescribe - make it ten), in butter or oil, with crushed garlic, salt. Everything is better with good onions - categorically, even if you can’t taste them. You know you made it beautifully. Living beautifully is also easier in this new, strange, time frame. I do not sit with my meal balanced on my knee in front of an episode of Avatar in our dark and grubby student living room, or even (so horrible) at my desk in my bedroom (horrible!). The table is always set at home, clean, neat, dishes warmed. Wine poured. In this unseasonable and golden warmth we have been eating on the balcony, a luxury never taken for granted. The wrought iron table is peeling and precarious on the uneven flagstones, but as with the onions, food is almost always better outdoors. Salads, stews, unblended soups made with stock and pearl barley. Fresh bread. Our neighbor calls round and leaves us a gift of purple sprouting broccoli wrapped in a rhubarb leaf like a beauty queen’s bouquet on our doorstep. It is steamed with great love, then butter, pepper. We have our own rhubarb growing, the first few stalks just ripe. I stew them with a little sugar so they’re soft and tender, and make a crumble, squatting to watch it brown through the glass of the oven, the syrupy liquid from the rhubarb rising up and bubbling luxuriously. A lot of the time I feel out of touch, like I’m hovering slightly above everything. Cooking is very here and now, the results not only visible but concrete, and immediate. One of the delights of crumble, unlike my poor loaves, is that you are permitted to eat it still warm.
We grow herbs in the garden, and my mother has been drying them in the sun. Any spare moment will find her out there, working mostly - but sometimes I will look out the window and catch her down by the pond, just sitting in the quiet and teeming always-happening of it. She is watching the frogs, investigating caterpillars, taking a shine to weeds and letting them grow: forget-me-nots, red campion, cow parsley are all welcome and at home. I take coffee down to her and we sit, often in silence, eyes closed against the sun. We have two kinds of sage, thyme, rosemary, a bay tree, applemint just coming up with small purple flowers and downy leaves, the sharper spearmint we grow in pots on the terrace. She has spread them out on trays in the garden and then put them in little jars for me to take back to Bristol, whenever, if ever, that will be. It is sweet, and touching, and perhaps even a vote of her confidence that I have progressed enough to use these precious home-grown herbs properly. Perhaps.
A lot of the time I feel out of touch, like I’m hovering slightly above everything. Cooking is very here and now, the results not only visible but concrete, and immediate.