It was because I was panicking, as I often do in the kitchen, that I made the mistake of telling Matthew that he only had himself to blame for his current crisis, thereby triggering an automatic and immediate Basil Fawlty reaction. With wild, swivelling eyes he sarcastically barked: "Oh, it's my fault is it? Of course! And I must be punished! Look, here I am punishing myself already, look!" and he slapped himself on each cheek with a copy of TV Quick magazine.
"Well," I said, "if you had been prepared to listen with good grace to your mother re-telling the story of your birth, none of this would have happened."
It all started a week ago in a Thai restaurant. We were tucking into the chicken satay starter when, for the benefit of Louis, her grandson, my mother-in-law embarked (not for the first time) on the story of the birth of Matthew, her son. It is a long, mildly mawkish tale that begins with the commencement of labour on the day John F Kennedy was shot in November 1963 and ends, with the eventual appearance of Matthew in this world, during the televising of the Arlington Cemetery funeral two days later. ("And you dare wonder," says Matthew often, "why I am prone to melancholy.")
His mother was just approaching the climax of her anecdote – the midwife sobbing over the tragically dead president rather than hailing a new life so full of promise, when Matthew's patience snapped. "Please, please, I'm begging you," he said, head bowed wretchedly. "Let's please change the subject."
A terrible silence followed. I was about to mention a recipe I'd seen for deep fried placenta with garlic and tarragon when Louis said: "Mum made coronation chicken the other day, and Dad said it was the best he's ever tasted."
Matthew's mother and I have never been competitive over our cooking skills before. There has never been any need because until recently I have not been much use in the kitchen. However, in the past 18 months or so I have become quite passionate about cooking and, while I would never dare to dispute that my mother-in-law does make the absolute best chopped liver (Michael Winner, no less, agrees on this and has written about it in one of his books), I do think there are some areas in which I might be permitted to say I excel.
What I didn't know until that evening in the Thai restaurant, after Louis's pronouncement, after I'd helped Matthew's mother recover from her subsequent near-choking on her gai pahd tow sei, was that Matthew has always told his maternal parent that it is she who makes the best coronation chicken ever.
And so, as she gently sipped from a glass of water, her son urgently dissembled, saying that what he had actually said, but Louis must have misunderstood him, was that my coronation chicken was as good as he had ever tasted, which is very different from "best he has ever tasted".
"Whose recipe do you use?" asked Matthew's mother, ignoring him. Although what I meant to say in reply was Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's, what I actually said was: "My own, actually. I like to follow my own instincts."
"How clever of you, dear," she said. I knew there was trouble afoot with the use of the withering "dear". I'm sure she picked that up from Michael Winner.
It was Louis who suggested a cook-off. "Dad can be the judge," he said, helpfully and not at all mischievously. My only problem with this was that not only had I lied to Matthew's mother, I had also, earlier that week, lied to Matthew, telling him I made my own mayonnaise for the recipe as recommended by Hugh F-W, when in fact I use Hellmann's. I avoided embarrassment, however, by suggesting that instead of a cook-off, it should be a blind tasting. We would make the coronation chicken unobserved in our own kitchens, "in the familiar surroundings so necessary for a really good mayonnaise, which can curdle if the vibes aren't absolutely as they should be". A date for the tasting was fixed for the following week. We parted amiably, agreeing that I would provide the blindfold.
Matthew's mother proceeded to phone two or three times a day for the purposes of intimidation, letting slip some of the complexities of her own coronation chicken methods; the peeling of white grapes and the making of a perfect, clear and, apparently, "lucid" chicken stock.
And Matthew grew terrified. Faced with the task of making a judgement between his mother and his wife, he seemed not to notice me emptying a jar of Hellmann's into my sauce.
"I feel like Louis Mazzini-Ascoyne-d'Ascoyne, Duke of Chalfont," he wailed, referring to the Kind Hearts and Coronets serial-relative-murderer who has to choose, the morning he is due to hang, if there is to be a reprieve, between his wife or his mistress. It was an analogy far too Oedipal for me to comment upon, and it was at that moment that I panicked and told him that he only had himself to blame and he began slapping himself with TV Quick.
The chickens have had their coronations; the moment is over. Yet we have no winner for the simple reason that the placing of the blindfold conveniently triggered that fail-safe Fawlty reaction in Matthew and down he went, face first on to his parent's dining table, in a dead faint from which he only recovered after a good slap with a Radio Times.Reuse content