Food and drink: The leanest times, the fattest times . . . and all the suppers in-between: 'I dreamt I served up goldfish'
Loaves & Wishes celebrates the 50th anniversary of Oxfam, whose field workers are today facing the immediate crisis of feeding millions of starving people in Africa. None of the writers asked to contribute questioned the ethics of writing about food to help the starving. Some took their cue from it, such as Germaine Greer, whose piece we reproduce here. She writes unsentimentally of her experiences among starving people in Ethiopia.
Our other piece comes from the world of our daily experience. It is by Margaret Drabble, who writes a witty and honest account of the anxieties she feels when faced with the daily burden of providing good meals.
Loaves & Wishes is published by Virago on 24 September (pounds 7.99). A percentage of the proceeds goes to Oxfam's literacy projects around the world.
Food and the cooking of food have been the source of some of the most powerful anxieties of my life. I regularly have food nightmares from which I wake in terror - I dream that I present guests with boiled goldfish, that I have 12 to feed and nothing in the cupboard, that objects on the plate come alive and run around the table. Sometimes, more prosaically, I dream that I have bought a leg of lamb and the dream is so realistic in every detail (though occasionally the butcher's shop is totally fictitious) that I believe through half the morning that the lamb is already in the refrigerator. Clearly I am not a relaxed or confident caterer.
While pondering what to attack in this contribution, I glanced for inspiration at my old friend Dusty Wesker's unconventional Cookery Book. It has recipes, but it also gives detailed accounts of real meals prepared for real people, and real things that may go wrong with them - a friend who is allergic to onions, sugar that refuses to caramelise, chicken terrine that doesn't slice properly, a rejected bread- and-butter pudding that may have reminded someone of school dinners. Dusty takes all these minor irritations in her stride. Over the years she has done a great deal of entertaining for her playwright husband Arnold and she claims to enjoy it. She is, she admits, over-generous, often offering three choices of dessert, and she explains this in her foreword by saying that she was 'born poor and never learned how to be careful'. She is upset if people don't ask for seconds.
I cannot exaggerate my admiration for this lavish, friendly, hospitable spirit. I would dearly love to share it. But even reading her book makes me feel anxious. I am a compulsive reader of cookery columns and they all make me feel anxious. I wish I could be cured of these fears. I wish I were more like Dusty, or more like another friend with a large family and a large house often full of guests that her husband has forgotten to say he has invited. She never bats an eyelid. Down they sit, politicians and academics and lawyers and novelists and children and lords and ladies and eat what they are given, straight from the Aga. Sometimes it makes me want to weep at my own inadequacy. I don't want to give the impression that I am a really bad cook, or that I don't like food. I enjoy eating, I can do some things quite well, and I like to see friends and family enjoying what I have prepared. But I continue to worry about it, and know I will never learn true insouciance. And naturally I am fascinated by the sources of my own obsessions.
I use descriptions of food a great deal in my fiction because I think the way we cook and entertain - or fail to entertain - reveals a great deal about our characters. I may be dreaming again, but I think somebody once published a learned article on my works which concentrates on the symbolism of the Missing Cake which, it seems, my heroines never manage to provide for tea.
I am particularly proud of two anxious cooks - both, significantly, lower-middle-class housewives brought up to believe that the successful dinner party will compensate for all other failures, intellectual, sexual or maternal. (Could these characters come from my eager schoolgirl reading of my mother's favourite magazine, Woman, with its little hints on how to lay tables and compose salads?) One of them, Janet Bird in The Realms of Gold, is seen preparing a feast of mushroom soup ('One could not go wrong with mushroom soup, Di had told her, if one put enough sherry and cream in it. That was the kind of advice people were always giving her, and it was all very well, but sherry and cream were expensive . . .') which is to be followed by a new recipe for chicken with peaches.
Janice Enderby, 13 years later, in A Natural Curiosity, has graduated to chicken liver pate with juniper berries, quails with cabbage and prunes, and lemon mousse: clearly in the Britain of the Eighties she has acquired a food processor and fancy notions, but she has not got rid of Janet's uncertainties. But in Janice, they have hardened into disgust.
Many novelists enjoy writing about dinner parties, disastrous and otherwise, and it is by no means a female or feminist preserve. There is far more culinary detail in Zola and Proust than in Jane Austen (whose own preserves, one suspects, may well have been horrible, like the porridge and potatoes of the poor Brontes and the mutton pies of Dorothy Wordsworth which make one's nostrils stop and one's teeth ache two centuries later). Dickens and Trollope give us some superb descriptions of ill-judged social gatherings. Particularly delightful and reassuring are the inept efforts of the upwardly mobile David Copperfield to entertain and impress, first as a bachelor about town, then as a young married man.
On the first occasion, his landlady having refused to attend to anything but potatoes, he sends out for vast quantities of food from the pastry cook (some of which mysteriously shrinks in the preparation) and employs a youth and a young woman to wait: he eagerly opens far too many bottles of wine and ends up with one of the most magnificent hangovers ever described. On the second, he and child-wife Dora order a barrel of oysters - but have no idea how to open them. And whose heart does not go out to Trollope's young couple who plan a quiet, jolly, informal wedding eve celebration for immediate old friends and family but find themselves adding to the gathering unnecessary relatives and courses, culminating in some highly coloured round cakes from that lethally tempting pastry cook? They know they are making mistakes, they know a simple meal of roast lamb would have been much more acceptable and enjoyable to all concerned, but they cannot help themselves, they are led on by a dangerous mixture of goodwill and ambition to destruction.
This is all rich material for writer and reader, and makes one honour all the more those who can feed others confidently. I suspect that my own troubles stem from my mother. She did not like to cook for anyone outside the family, because of her own profound social insecurities, and I remember terrible scenes with my father on the rare occasions when he prevailed upon her to invite any of his colleagues to dinner. (Friends he had none, or only one; she wouldn't let him.) Hysterics and bitter anger would cloud the house for days before, to be dispelled in disarming mildness as soon as the feared interloper arrived.
Yet my mother was a good cook - far better in her prime than I have ever been - and had nothing to worry about. Her roasts and poultry, her Yorkshire puddings, her cakes and pastries were all excellent. And she was also quite adventurous: she would launch merrily out on a lobster from our trusty Sheffield fishmonger, and was game to struggle with aubergines and garlic.
In later years her cooking deteriorated, as she and my father ate less and more carefully. Or was it perhaps the food itself that got worse, or one's memory that glorified the roast goose, the lemon puddings of yesteryear? I think the flavour and quality of meat have deteriorated very significantly, which goes some way to explaining why more and more of us are vegetarians, and why even good cooks fear the tough or tasteless (and very expensive) piece of beef. But I think this sense of diminishing plenty is something that many of us associate with the failing powers of our parents.
When I was a child, our home may not have been hospitable, or happy, but at least we within it all ate well, in stark contrast to school food and the food cooked by some of my friends' families. So we could think of it as a nourishing place. Revisiting, as a young and then middle-aged adult with a home and children of my own, and with my own culinary preferences, I began to find it less and less sustaining. I recall a particularly nasty jar of instant powdered coffee, and my mother's astonishment when I dared to point out that the reason why it wasn't, as she admitted, very nice, was that it was a cheap and nameless brand. Oh, do they taste different? she innocently enquired. Food is power and the power was passing to us. (My elder sister, incidentally, is a very good cook: in 1960 she gave me a heap of cookery books as a wedding present, which may or may not account for something. I certainly feel I have never lived up to them.)
There is a poignant description of this power-passing in Angelica Garnett's heartbreaking account of her childhood as the daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Deceived by Kindness. She recalls the generous hospitality at Charleston in Sussex, where her mother (in sharp contrast to her much more anxious and nervous sister Virginia Woolf) dispensed good food and painted fruits and flowers and bottles of wine - heroic days, which have become an image of plenty for many of us who never knew it at first-hand. Then, returning as an adult, Angelica found her magical parents mysteriously aged and diminished and the refrigerator empty. Gone were the feasts, shrivelled the bloom of the fruits, and overgrown the kitchen garden. It is a peculiarly powerful transformation scene, which not only reduces the parents to mortal size but makes them retrospectively vulnerable. And it is largely done, or at least in my recollection, through the image of that empty refrigerator.
So, how do I cope with my kitchen neuroses? First of all, I exorcise them by writing about them, which helps me and I hope comforts others. I don't let them get in the way of seeing friends and family. I swallow my Sixties Superwoman pride and occasionally employ caterers or order, like David Copperfield but I hope more judiciously, from our local delicatessen. I never - or hardly ever - make a pudding. And I tend to stick to nice safe meals which don't require last-minute attention or frequent visits to the kitchen. (I hate being watched while I cook, largely because most of the time I don't know what I am doing, and I worry that people will notice. This means that I am also very hard to assist.) So here is a recipe for lemon chicken which really cannot go very wrong. (Chickens never go as wrong as lamb or beef or potatoes. Potatoes can be a real disaster. I have never mastered the potato.)
Roast or boil a chicken until it is done. If you don't know how long that is - well, neither do I. You just have to keep an eye on it and prod it when you think it is about the right time.
Wait for it to cool. Make a pint of sauce with butter, cornflour and a mixture of milk and juice from the chicken. (No fat off the chicken, though.) Then add to the white sauce the juice of one or two lemons and, if you wish, one of those nice chicken stock cubes. You can also add cream if in the mood. Then joint the chicken or take it all off the bones and put it in a fireproof dish and pour the sauce over it. This can then be gently reheated at will. Serve with rice which may be enlivened by pine nuts or almonds, or anything you think goes with lemon and chicken.
You may or may not wish to serve it with a green vegetable. Or a green salad. I never know which I am going to do. But I do assure you that this dish cannot be really awful. Good luck.
Margaret Drabble was born in Yorkshire and went to a Quaker school. One of Britain's foremost novelists, she has also written studies of Wordsworth and Arnold Bennett and edited the 'Oxford Companion to English Literature'. She lives in London.
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