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. 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.
Whilst the industry has tried to adapt to the pandemic with streaming and those heady days of in-club seated social distancing, it’s a far cry from being packed onto a sweaty dance floor at your favorite venue. For Zak, the venues themselves are important, and worthy of preservation. ‘A space dedicated to art, culture, or music culture - I don’t feel like it’s ever revered in the same way that political buildings are, or scientist’s homes, or whatever … the way things are going, we’ll build all these houses and then we’ll be like oh shit, we probably should have kept that actually, it was quite nice - if you look at places like Berlin, they gave Berghain a protected status, so they actually see it as intertwined with their culture, whereas here we see London as London and we have club cultures on the periphery.’ So does he think there are more positive models out there? ‘There definitely is, there absolutely is - it’s going to be sad when we realise, when we turn around and we’re like, we should have kept that.’
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.