Tuesday, 31 March 2009
Cooking for the fussy eater
My mother had her seventh baby when I was about 15, during the summer holidays, and while she was in hospital I managed the household. The task fell to me rather than to my older sister because she was training to be a nurse, and in those days the trainees lived in the nurses' home attached to the hospital.
I woke early on the day the youngest baby was born, to the sounds of the washing machine pounding away, and my mother doing things in the kitchen. I staggered out bleary-eyed. What are you doing? I asked. She said labour had started, and to be quiet so that my father would not wake. Once he knew, he'd want to take her to the hospital. It was too soon to go, and there were things she wanted to get done beforehand. She'd started the load of washing - a daily task - and was busy preparing a rice pudding. My father loved his puddings. Rice pudding, sago pudding, bread and butter pudding, and lemon pudding. He tucked into them happily and then say, "Not bad what there was of it - such as it was!" Apart from the lemon pudding, I thought the rest of them were quite disgusting, and fortunately was not compelled to eat them. We had tinned fruit instead. But while Mum was in hospital my father ate that reheated rice pudding, night after night, until it was all gone.
My father woke up at his usual time, and sure enough insisted on Mum going to the hospital, where she gave birth to my youngest sister later that afternoon. In those benighted times mothers were not sent home a day or two after the birth, but stayed in for perhaps ten days and then went to an aftercare place as well. We'd been farmed out to friends and relations when the other babies were born, but this time everyone stayed home and I managed the house. I knew basic cookery. Roasts, chops, steak, boiled vegetables, chips, etcetera, and I could manage basic housework - although I think I washed the floors and the toilet only once! I can't believe I managed everything, but I must have done. Once Mum came home with the new baby I did less but still did a lot of the domestic work.
When I was married, I was not daunted by domesticity. Although not a Domestic Goddess, I felt competent. I had The Women's Weekly Cookery Book, which I still use from time to time, someone had given us a casserole cookery book, and I had recipes from home written down. We started off with the usual chops, steak, roasts etc, but gradually I tried different recipes. Although I was working full time, and quickly became pregnant - and very nauseated, the modes of thinking were such that the domestic tasks naturally fell to me. My husband said he hated doing dishes! (Did he think I liked doing them? I am sure I would have washed many more thousand dishes than he would have done. I used to come home from university late at night and then do the washing up for at least eight people.)
But I did enjoy cooking. We had no money to spare, entertainment was scarce in Canberra in the 1960s, and so we saw friends at weekends, taking it in turns to have dinner at our houses, and, being young brides, the wives liked to try new recipes. We gradually learned new dishes. Mastering the Art of French Cookery became our bible. We ventured into Italian food. There was a brief flirtation with fondue, but it was very overrated and pretty dreary stuff. Cheesecakes became fashionable desserts. We then discovered curries, using whole spices rather than curry powder. That led to cooking Asian food from many countries. As my daughters grew older, we cooked together, although the younger one protested about the Chinese recipes. But I was a good cook, with an extensive library of cookery books.
The years passed. Along came Dr P. He has very strange food tastes. I blame it all on the fact that when he came to Australia at the age of 14, he was immediately sent to an agricultural boarding school, and I can just imagine the standard of the food. Probably all pure slop. And I don't think he was ever taught that it was polite to eat what was put before him on the table. Although he liked Chinese food, and curries, most recipes I offered were deemed unsatisfactory. It was a sad trial to me.
Left to himself, he would eat eggs, cheese, ham, potatoes, pasta, and continental frankfurts. (The smell of them makes me gag.) He likes cauliflower. (Ditto.) I have learned to cook cauliflower cheese. Pea and ham soup is a favourite. He did, and still does to some extent, fend for himself. He can't cope with steak any more. The food has to be soft. I do most of the cooking now.
Tonight we had rissoles with mashed potatoes. A smash hit. Sigh.
I don't think I am a very good cook any more. There is too little customer satisfaction. If I do cook steak, the smoke alarm is likely to go off - the exhaust fan seems ineffective. When friends come to dinner, the menu is rather limited. Apart from Dr P's idiosyncracies, one friend does not like garlic. Another can't eat chillies. Some are very picky about their vegetables. And so it goes on. Food tastes seem to vary according to generations. Two of Dr P's children are vegetarians. Some days it all seems too much effort. But then other days I have a really good cooking binge and it feels great. The glory days briefly reappear.