birth, food, sleep, love, death . . .

E. M Forster said that "The main facts in human life are five: birth, food, sleep, love and death" . . . I definitely have enjoyed the first four and am trying to keep the fifth at bay. But I have mentioned before that I wonder if somehow my love of food (and particularly the garden pea) came from the womb. My mother had been eating fresh raw peas for the last few weeks of her pregnancy; indeed at the very moment I started to make my entrance into the world.

I have often wondered whether my love of cooking and of reading cookery books is somehow preordained or just another part of my formative experiences.Is it nature or nurture?

As a child, I would watch my mother carefully, although at a slight distance - from a kitchen doorway or the kitchen back step. I watched and I learned, soaking up information, a sort of kitchen osmosis, until I was often shooed away, but not before I'd been able to experience the smells, colours and sounds that so intrigued me. "What's that? What does that do? What does that taste like? Why?" I would think, as my mother choreographed a meal in front of curious small eyes.

Both my brother and I are not bad home cooks, but nothing to do with learning at my mother's knee. That isn't meant as any kind of criticism and I am sorry if that sounds a bit gloomy, it shouldn't. Evelyn was a brilliant cook herself, but she didn't really encourage a hands-on approach to learning to cook. The kitchen was very firmly her domain and she liked to cook alone, unfettered by husband, children and pets. It was a solitary activity, completed as quickly and efficiently as possible.

That sounds a little soulless but it wasn't. It certainly doesn't do justice to the delicious meals that came out of her kitchen, I just think there were other things that felt less of a chore and interested her more. I can appreciate the need to be alone too. While I love sharing my cooking with other people, there are times when I like to be alone. I do my best thinking and sometimes I just want to sing and dance around the kitchen, bopping away as I am doing something I love, such as making bread. And in the interests of safety I think it's probably better that I am totally alone in order to preserve the eardrums of those around me.

By the time I was eight years old, we had moved from England and had been living in Malaysia for a year. This was an experience not least in food terms that has affected me quite profoundly, and at some point I am sure I'll be writing about it. But if you can imagine, a small child growing up in a quiet Nottingham suburb, whose garden was full of almond trees, cherry trees, rhubarb, peonies and roses, moving to the heat and bustle of Kuala Lumpur - a growing city that was part building site and part old colonial town made big. It was hot, often dusty, noisy, colourful and full of life. I found the place entrancing; slightly scary but exciting too. Everything looked, sounded, smelt and tasted different. It was exhilarating.

That first summer, my family came back to England "on leave", visiting family and friends around the country from Surrey and London to Nottingham, my birthplace. There was a lovely trek up to Scotland, to visit my mother's relatives. And not to be outdone, my father decided that a trip to Ireland was in order, as we hadn't been since I was a toddler. My parents wanted to take my grandmother, then about 70 years old, back to the village of her birth in County Kerry, a place she hadn't been back to in some 50 years.

We had stopped off in Dublin for a day or two, and my mother took my little brother and me off to a large department store. Well it felt large to my childish eyes. I was dawdling, as I often did. I had a magpie attraction to things that were new and unfamiliar. I lagged behind, distracted by new sights and sounds, revelling in their newness.

I had got to the end of an aisle, expecting to see my mother and brother. I stopped dead. Looked left and right and ran across to the next aisle, and then the next and the next. I couldn't see them at all. I ran back the way I had come and searched again. Nothing. And then the panic started to set in.

Where were they? Where had they gone? Why had they left me behind? Would I see my father again? My dog? My friends? How was I going to get back to Malaysia? I was going to starve!

I made my way calmly to a perfume counter and caught the eye of a friendly looking woman working behind it. I solemnly said in my best "BBC English" accent “Hello. My name is Rachel Kelly. I am English but I come from Malaysia. I've lost my mum". At which point the solemn facade completely slipped on the long drawn out wail that was the word "m-u-u-u-u-u-m"!

The kindly woman I had approached rushed around the counter and hugged me tightly, kneeling down to try and get the full story from a distraught and incoherent blonde cherub. Apparently I wasn't making a lot of sense at all.

I found myself in the store manager's office, surrounding by women who smothered me with clucking platitudes, until the manager broke in with the words "Rachel, do you like to read?" And while I was still hiccuping tears at this point, I was able to nod in agreement.

One of the women was sent away to the book department to find me something to read. I (ungrateful wretch that I was) wasn't feeling terribly optimistic at this point - either from the likelihood of ever seeing my family again, or indeed of the store finding me a book that I actually wanted to read.

My mother rushed into the manager's office about five minutes later, with the words "oh, you silly girl!" But by then my tears had dried and I was happily absorbed in a book. Not just any book. A book that in fact, given the opportunity, I would probably have walked past; it was Ursula Sedgwick’s My Learn to Cook Book.

Now it wasn't that I didn't like cook books. I did. My mother had a whole collection that I used to browse through, looking at the pictures and trying to work out what things actually were. (1960s and '70s cook books usually had a rather peculiar Technicolor styling that sometimes made it hard to tell whether the food had ever been animal, vegetable or mineral!) At first glance this book looked like a picture book and I thought that I was beyond these things.

Nor was it that I didn't like food. I did. I loved it. And it wasn't that I didn't want to learn how to cook. It just hadn't really occurred to me that this might even be an option. Our kitchen was a very busy place. What with our housekeeper, Siew Yong and my mother, battling it out for kitchen supremacy (and fortunately deciding that the honours were even, both respecting the other's talent and skill), it had never seemed like a good time to add my neophyte abilities to this rather holy mix.

But this book enchanted me from the moment I saw it; Martin Mayhew's gorgeous "blocky" illustrations - the adventures of a dog (Nicholas) and a cat (Lucy) in the kitchen. Ursula Sedgwick made the recipes sound so easy, not that I knew what half of them were. What was a Croque Monsieur? Why was the cat wearing a beret? What was Baked Alaska or Ox-Eye Eggs? Knickerbocker Glories? Kebabs? Many of these recipes weren't the sort of food that we ate at home, where we ate a mixture of traditional British mixed with a bit of modern European (French and Italian) - my mother's influence, and curries and noodle dishes, including my favourite mee goreng - Siew Yong's influence. But the unfamiliarity of Ursula Sedgwick's recipes had a romance to them. I was captivated by the idea of making Apple Snow, possibly because living in a tropical country with a distinct lack of snow or apples, made this recipe seem quintessentially English.

Of course, I survived my adventure in the Dublin department store and left clutching my new-found treasure. The rest of this magical holiday was spent dipping in and out of the book; enjoying the illustrations as well as much as the recipes and a sense of anticipation quickening inside me. The idea that once we finally got home to Kuala Lumpur I might be able to let myself loose in the kitchen. Although knowing what I knew about both my mother and Siew Yong, this did seem a bit of a faint hope.

However, unwittingly, my little brother, Justin, became my champion. In those days, and with hindsight this does seem bizarre, Justin was quite a faddy eater. (He was also very skinny, with bottle lens glasses and masses of thick curly hair - so much has changed. Sorry, J!) While he was quite particular about what and when he ate, I was the omnivore who would try just about anything, sometimes with disastrous consequences (The memory of the "teaspoon of chilli powder" debacle still brings tears to my eyes!)

Yet seven year old Justin liked conformity; he liked the comfort and predictability of simple, familiar dishes eaten at regular intervals. I remember bowls of Frosties cereal, crinkle cut chips and masses of scrambled egg on toast. And scrambled egg was the very first recipe in my new cookbook. So armoured with this new treasure, I had a ready-made hungry mouth ripe for feeding. Is this karma, baby? Was this, in fact, my destiny?

As instructed by Ursula Sedgwick I scrutinised the recipe very carefully before beginning, actually memorising all the steps to take. My first attempt to make scrambled egg was a success. Despite both my mother and Siew Yong hovering a little anxiously (there to ensure that I didn't burn either myself or the kitchen - something that even today some people are a bit nervous about around me).

I managed to create a beautiful plate of soft, yellow, eggy curds - just the way Justin liked them. And that was it. For what felt like months, but was probably only a week, I made scrambled eggs on toast every afternoon after school for my little brother insisted. No-one else's would do; (much to Siew Yong's chagrin, despite her smiling face beaming "pandai" - clever!)

This was my very first experience of cooking for someone who genuinely enjoyed my food. And cookery slowly (very slowly in my case) got its claws into me. I didn't actually cook very much or even experiment very often but I did gravitate towards cookbooks and to the food pages in the "lifestyle" sections of newspapers and magazines. So I didn't really learn to cook until I had to feed myself, when I had left home for university. It was learn to cook or starve. I didn't like the alternative. But by this stage, My Learn to Cook Book had long been lost, probably in one of our many house moves.

Despite losing the book, I never forgot it, although I did forget what it was called, who had written it, who illustrated it and in which country it was originally published. (For some reason I had thought it may have been America). Well, thank god for the internet! I am not known as the Queen of Internet Research for nothing. So armed with nothing more than a very strong 30 year old memory of what the book looked like and a somewhat uncanny, if I say so myself, ability to ferret out arcane information, I finally found my treasured cook book. But by the time I had tracked it down, it had been out of print for several decades and second-hand copies were fetching a massive 100 quid on e-Bay. I may have wanted to relive some of my childhood experiences, but not at that price! However, I am nothing if not persistent and over the next few years, I would occasionally do a quick internet search to see if the book was more reasonably priced. A more recent search has led me to an affordable copy in great condition. Unwrapped, it was exactly as I imagined. I couldn't stop smiling - Scrambled Egg and Apple Snow - just as I remembered. Nicholas and Lucy gambolling about on each page with their useful hints and tips.

I know that I would have always enjoyed cooking. It is just the way I am, but I am quite curious about the role of nature and nurture in all of this. Or is my love of cooking and reading about food and cooking not about my history, just a nice case of serendipity!

p.s:

There are two small footnotes to this story. My recent research had led me to the sad news that Ursula Sedgwick had died.There is a rather nice obituary here.

Secondly, a few years ago I went for a job interview at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (defra). A little bird later told me that my somewhat jokey answer to the question "How do you deal with difficult people?" to which I replied "I bake chocolate brownies" may have been what swung things to my advantage. It's a dangerous strategy being facetious during an interview, but it seemed to work as I was offered the job. Within days I knew that the people I was working with were funny, intelligent, dedicated and simply fabulous. A better bunch of people I could never have wished for as we quickly discovered a mutual love of literature, humour, music, beer and of course, food.

A conversation with Alison, the "tree lady", about childhood food memories turned up our mutual obsession with My Learn to Cook Book. Lucky Alison hadn't lost her copy and had even shared it with her daughter as she grew up. (Although I notice that she hasn't actually relinquished it to her daughter). Alison's obsession had led her to actually memorise the dedication at the beginning of the book, where Ursula Sedgwick thanked all the children who had helped her to test the recipes. They are listed in age order by name, and Alison knew them all. Some were Ursula's sons and the rest were some of their friends, ranging from seven to twelve years old. On arriving at university some ten years later, Alison discovered that she was sharing a room at her halls of residence with one of the girls who had contributed to the recipe testing. She was more enthused at meeting this teenager than in seeing David Bowie.

I was was oozing with envy!

3 comments:

  1. Rachel,another piece of truly evocative writing. I do so look forward to your posts. Please don´t tell me you wrote this epic on the bus?!!!!!!!!!

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  2. Beautiful. :-)

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  3. Thank you, thank you! :) All true of course!

    Rupert . . . er . . . I wrote SOME of it on the bus! I was going to say, the bits where you can't read my writing!

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