I was 32 when I started cooking; up until then, I just ate.
— Julia Child
Growing up in the 70s and 80s, and being the offspring of someone who enjoyed neither cooking nor eating ‘different’ foods, meat and three veg reigned supreme in our house.
Grilled sausages or chops served with mashed or boiled potatoes, boiled carrot and boiled peas or beans were the order of the day — every weekday. I was an adult before I realised that vegetables didn’t need to be mushy and peas and beans could actually be bright green, not khaki in colour, when cooked.
Saturday was for ‘something different’ — a bright yellow Vesta Curry and Rice out of a packet; barbecued sausages, onion and potatoes served with a salad of iceberg lettuce, tomato, cucumber and cheese; stews; vegetable soup or, in later years, spaghetti bolognaise made with Dolmio pasta sauce.
Sunday was roast day. Some sort of roast meat (usually always lamb, rarely pork, never beef); roast potatoes, roasted carrot, boiled peas and Gravox gravy. I have this enduring memory of my Dad hanging around the electric frypan towards the end of the process, salivating with white bread in hand ready to mop up all the pan juices — bread and dripping. To this day, my stomach churns at the thought and my mind despairs at the thought of lost gravy opportunities.
We were not poorly fed. Nor were our meals low in nutritional value (however, I do question how many nutrients went down the sink when the boiling water was tipped out). The food was not disgusting or inedible … despite my mother saying the reason she doesn’t invite us over for meals is because I don’t like her cooking.
That being said, there are certain foods I will not, or will rarely, eat these days — something I attribute to my childhood experiences and possibly having to eat way too much of them over an 18 year period: mashed potato (which I desire once in a blue moon); any sort of boiled vegetable (we just don’t go there) and frozen peas (fresh peas in a salad are a totally different beast, and occasionally I will pop some frozen peas into a curry or casserole).
Many of my friends were from other countries: Vietnam, The Netherlands, Croatia. What they ate was very different. I craved this sort of food and considered our food to be rather bland and boring in comparison.
My mother was not to blame for this. She was a product of her generation: a generation where cooking classes at school taught you how to grill meat, boil vegetables and bake biscuits; a generation where you simply could not find international foods in the supermarket; and a generation where the only ‘restaurants’ in Canberra were pubs, serving Aussie (English) pub food, or the local ‘Tradies Club’ which served schnitzel with a choice of about 40 sauces (along with boiled vegetables and mashed potato).
I think I was about 10 when a Chinese restaurant opened near our home. Scandal!
To my delight, Dad developed a taste for this cuisine, so once a fortnight or so it became part of our meal repertoire. Mum refused to eat it because she ‘wouldn’t like it’, but the rest of us did. Then, seemingly overnight (although in reality it took a lot longer) more and more international restaurants opened up. The rest is history.
Anyway, right through my primary school years our meals differed only marginally each night. A meat, something white, something green and something orange. The exception was the meal I secretly nicknamed ‘the anaemic dinner’ — pickled pork or silverside (the pale pink of this meat was the most colourful item on the dish), boiled whole chat potatoes, boiled cabbage and white sauce.
I realise I am sounding very ungrateful here. I also realise some people may be reading this and thinking, ‘That’s what I cook,’ or ‘I would have loved food like that as a kid.’ We were fed good quality, nutritious meals, which is more than I can say for some of the children I went to school with. We never went to bed hungry, or rocked up to school with only a packet of chips for lunch. What I am doing though, is trying to paint a picture of how my childhood meals influenced what I cook and eat today.
When I started high school I discovered Home Science (these days I believe it’s called Food Tech; whatever you call it, it is essentially ‘cooking’). I enrolled in Home Science every year, from Year 7 to Year 10. Looking back now, the food we cooked was not brilliant, but it gave me enough knowledge to realise there is more to eat out there than meat and three veg.
So, I thank my mother for giving me the impetus to learn how to cook.
At university (and beyond) I came across people who lived on two-minute noodles and toast because the sum total of their ability in cooking came to boiling a pan of water and pushing down a lever. I am not kidding. Now, I wonder if these people had no need to learn how to cook as teenagers. I wonder the same about my daughter — which is why I forced her to enrol in Food Tech for one semester this year. (Maybe she will listen to her Food Tech teacher more than she listens to me when we are in the kitchen together. She makes a mean French Toast though, I’ll give her that.)
I like to think I can cook well, but at the same time I do not consider myself to be a brilliant cook. This is because, while I can follow a recipe, I do not create anything of my own. I need the recipe. Admiration flows for the contestants on Masterchef who cook most of their dishes sans recipe. I know they study up and practise (apparently) in between taping, but I need the recipe in front of me for constant referral. I could never go on this show.
Recipes are the reason I find it hard to believe people when they say they can’t cook. If you can read and follow instructions, surely you can cook? Apparently not.
As a legacy from my childhood, I crave variety and hate repetition. (Thinking on it though, maybe this has as much to do with my character as it has to do with my upbringing; I also get bored if I have to teach the same grade or topic more than twice.)
I have maybe five or six recipes I cook on a regular basis — not every week, but they are favourites which get pulled out once a month or so. I used to keep a folder of go-to recipes, but I don’t bother anymore because I have multiple cookbooks, so I can always find something I haven’t cooked before. I also subscribe to Taste.com magazine, so each month I have new recipes to try.
Trying new foods and different recipes every week is essential for me. I am very selective; the end product has to taste brilliant, but also be quick and easy to prepare — which is why Jamie Oliver and Adam Liaw recipes feature heavily in my week. A recipe that takes hours to ‘prepare’ (not including the cooking time), has more than 10 ingredients or is ‘fiddly’ (which cuts out most baking except muffins and some cakes) has to be pretty damn special to get me to try it. That’s what a restaurant is for.
I would not go as far as to say I enjoy cooking — but I do enjoy eating what I have cooked. My mother did me a huge favour, without realising it.
All I need now, for my life to be complete, is a maid to do the washing up at the end of the meal. And maybe to do the weekly shopping.