I’m not entirely sure why I like feeding people so much. Perhaps it comes from my rural childhood. My mother, as an unhappily transplanted Liverpudlian in the back blocks of the East Coast of the North Island had to learn to cook as an adult and although she enjoys it now, I don’t know if she did then. But I always remember the full tins of baking and delicious flavours of curries (mostly recipes my father had picked up in his travels); the full roast lamb or mutton dinners which we had regularly as part of my Dad’s pay as a shepherd; the birthday cakes, beautifully decorated (the soccer pitch for my brother was a stand out) and of course going to anyone’s house in the country there was always home cooking on offer. I was exposed early to some wonderful food. I remember swapping my Vegemite, cheese and lettuce on white bread sandwiches for my best friend’s smoked eel on Maori bread ones. Yum. I can still taste those sandwiches.
Perhaps the urge to feed others comes from my Irish heritage. On my first trip to Ireland, I learnt the error of accepting (and eating all of) the first full breakfast I was offered one morning. I didn’t understand that at every house we visited we would be offered bacon, eggs, fried bread or sourdough and a cup of strong hot tea, so by lunchtime I could barely move. Refusing the food was tantamount to a cardinal sin. It’s how we were welcomed into someone’s home and there was certainly a feeling that if we left feeling hungry, we hadn’t been treated properly as guests.
Perhaps it’s that I recall the strange parade of people my grandfather brought through his house. Each one was greeted by my grandmother with the same politeness, cup of tea and food offer no matter whether they were nicely dressed society matrons, down on their luck and often somewhat unwashed men or dreadlocked rastas. Her upper middle class, turn of the century upbringing prompted her to show excellent manners to all guests, no matter what she privately thought. Some of those manners have rubbed off on me. Perhaps it was my grandmother’s Russian fudge, still the best I have ever eaten, cooked in a pressure cooker and sugar laden or her Christmas cake, alcohol laden.
Prehaps it’s that we often had a waif or a stray at our dinner table. We always made just a little more than we needed, and were masters of stretching a meal by adding a couple more potatoes to the pot or another cup of rice. Christmas was a time when we often had an extra who had nowhere else to go.
Perhaps it’s that recipe books hold such promise. All those colourful pictures of food that you can almost smell as you turn the page to see a new and even more fabulous dish. Perhaps it’s a need to nurture others – certainly my response to a crisis in someone else’s life is to feed them. Perhaps it’s simply that my enquiring mind likes to see what happens when you mix this with that in this order or that order.
It could simply be that I have a long association with cooking. When I was a young child, Mum was in charge in the kitchen, but I was allowed to do a little baking. She and my father separated when I was 11, and my father, having taught my mother the basics of cooking, then proceeded to teach me the same. He worked full time and as a single dad with three kids 11 and under at home, he needed someone to get the dinner on. For me that was a way of caring for the rest of my slightly shell-shocked family. I became very proprietorial of my kitchen very early on. My grandmother (who lived in the back garden!) would pop in while I was making dinner and offer helpful suggestions and tips which were often rudely ignored. I remember one day when I was 12 or 13 firmly telling her it was my kitchen and that if I needed help I would ask. She huffed loudly, unsure of whether to be offended or proud! When my Dad remarried the year I was 17, I was faced with the ultimate indignity of having several very bossy aunt-types (one an old friend of Dad’s, the others related to my new stepmother) take over in my kitchen. I had to go for a walk to get some distance – not, as some thought, upset about the stepmother coming on board, merely annoyed that I wasn’t being allowed to do my thing in my kitchen.
A summer holiday stint as a kitchenhand in my first year in Auckland gave me a few more tips and tricks and a very nice chef’s knife, which I still have 25 years later. My first couple of flats proved that all children should leave home being able to cook. I was in a flat with 8 others and only 3 of us could cook. One of the three did a great job (with a cookbook his mother had written for him when he left home) but took forever, followed recipes slavishly and refused to cook if the exact ingredients weren’t available. Another cooked wonderful meals, but certainly not every day ones, and managed to use every dish in the kitchen at the same time. Others knew nothing, so there are a few people out there who I helped along the way with cooking.
About this time, I started eating out more. A very dear friend was somewhat financially better off than most of the rest of us and he had a ‘local’ restaurant run by a Swiss couple, Christine and Robi. It was called Our Contribution, up on Symonds Street, and had the best chicken livers Sylvie I have ever eaten. Also such delicacies as blue steak and ricotta chocolate chip ice cream. It opened up my palate to a whole world of wonderful tastes and textures. Robi and Christine were Swiss, and when they returned to Switzerland, they kindly left me with some of their recipes. I managed to get the chocolate mousse as good as theirs but could never quite get the chicken livers right.
In the early 90s, my soon-to-be husband and I did a Mexican cooking course. This changed the whole way I cooked and combined flavours. I did a few other courses through what was the Epicurean Workshop in Newmarket. You’d choose your course, pay your money and rock up to their demo kitchen to watch dishes being made step by step by chefs. You’d then eat the food and take home the recipes. Aside from the Mexican course, I recall the wonderful Greg Heffernan who was at Huka Lodge then, and also a session on Christmas gift making, which gave me the recipe forIndian spiced nuts which I make every Christmas as gifts and are eagerly anticipated by the whole family.
Lots of dinner parties (some quite complicated!) later, much cooking for friends and family, and I had children. A whole new cooking experience. With 6 kids, we have quite a range of tastes and preferences. The three younger boys still like simple food, but all adore Mexican. The girls and older boy now eat very widely, My 12 year old daughter has a strong preference for Indian, partially fostered by swapping her sandwiches for her best friend’s Bombay aloo. Shades of her mother there! The girls are both excellent cooks already and the 12 and 10 year old boys are learning more all the time. I think my 10-year old may be a dessert chef. That is where his current expertise is.
Not only do kids make for a new cooking experience, but it’s been wonderful teaching them how to cook. When my first child was a baby, I’d prop her in her bouncer on the counter (not terribly hygienic I know!) and describe every step of what I was doing while I cooked. We lived with my father in law for three months when she was a brand new baby and I cooked and baked almost constantly. My much-loved mother-in-law, Tricia, was terminally ill, and my father in law wasn’t well either, so we had people through the house constantly. The tins were never empty and cooking meant that I never had the time for idle hands or too much introspection about how awful things were. I’ve loved sharing my knowledge with the kids, and am developing a cookbook for them when they leave home, just as Tricia did for her sons. We cook the dish together a time or two and then I add the recipe to their collection.
One of my favourite times of the year for cooking is Christmas. When I married (for the first time) I instituted a family tradition of making a Christmas cake. For the first couple of years, my best friends and I made an event of soaking our fruit and making our cakes and mince pies together. I continued to make cakes every Christmas and even give them to friends and family as gifts. Our tradition is that everyone in the family stirs the cakes as they’re being made and we think of those we love – it makes them taste better! Every year as I mix, stir and bake those cakes, I feel my grandmother and Tricia watching over my shoulder and approving of my traditions. And so at the end of the day, perhaps that’s why I love cooking and feeding people so much. Because it connects me with them, with my family, my friends, people I have loved in my life. And I am very thankful that I have this rich heritage of food and cooking – even more so now that I am learning about being gluten free.