'The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for 30 years she served nothing but leftovers. The original meal was never found.' Tracey Ullman, The Observer, 1999.
It was similar at my house. My parents had ten mouths to feed and both worked full time in order to put food on the table. Although my father was a professional chef, he did his training in the navy. This was reflected in some of the meals we were forced to endure. Huge vats of indescribable 'stew' were left to boil for hours before they were dished up. Refusing to eat the bowl of 'slops' was considered an act of mutiny and would result in walking the plank to our bedrooms without watching The Monkees.
Food was prepared in a regimented military manner. We all had set tasks, like peeling potatoes, slicing cabbage and washing pots. It was never a particularly pleasant experience and cooking the meal was just one of the many jobs that needed to be done.
Today, with the advent of the celebrity chef and the multi-million dollar industry that encompasses all things culinary, more people are heating up their woks, grinding spices, basting, stuffing, marinating and drizzling than ever before.
Cooking is no longer just about opening a tin of baked beans, or bunging a few snags on the barby. Its all about style, image and presentation. When in the kitchen we need to think, act and look like a foodie.
Nigella Lawson, of the 'food goddess' fame may well have heeded the following advice. 'Cleanliness is all important in cooking, and your personal appearance is very important. Apron or smock should be freshly laundered, hands should be clean with short, clean fingernails and hair should be tied back neatly, or worn with cap or head band.'
Mind you I am yet to see Nigella wear a 'smock' and Jamie Oliver wore a crumpled old shirt and scruffed-up jeans when he met the Queen recently.
When cooking to impress, the choice of what to cook is all-important. For inspiration, turn to The Two Fat Ladies for dishes that will shock and possibly delight (or revolt) your dinner guests. 'Tripe is wonderfully digestible and very nutritious.' One recipe calls for parboiled pig's trotters, hot chorizo sausage and Spanish ham. Whack in a kilo of tripe and you've made a dish that will surely impress your family, friends and cholesterol.
Clarissa's late great partner in cookery was the rum-swilling, red-lipsticked Jennifer Patterson. This woman oozed style and one of her favourite things to fry up was eel. She recommended that you purchase an eel live, however, to retain the succulent and delicate quality of the flesh. Jennifer warned, 'If you do the killing yourself and then chop up the eel, be aware that the pieces will continue to jerk about in a rather disconcerting way.' What a great party trick.
When I was a kid I went on a camping trip with my brother, sister and the boy from down the road. We caught a huge eel and decided to throw it on the fire and have it for dinner. It was very Lord of the Flies (Golding, W. 1954).
A charred rubbery mess, there was nothing 'delicate' about the flesh. 'Burnt tire' was the texture and a sort of 'muddy charcoal' was the flavour. We weren't wearing aprons either.
Young people today are encouraged in all things epicurial. I think that Jake Farriss would know how to cook an eel with style. The 16-year-old is the latest 'bright young thing' on the cooking scene. Farriss has published The Teenager's Survival Cookbook, aimed at his peers and he 'reckons that if you like to eat, you should like or at least learn to cook.'
His real ambition however, is to be a rock star, just like his dad, (INXS guitarist Tim Farriss). Jamie Oliver is probably getting a bit long in the tooth and respectable (he met the Queen for goodness sake) to remain the larrikin crown prince of the food world. Farriss could easily make a challenge for the throne.
A new face on the ABC is Kylie Kwong. Jim Schembri describes her as 'rather prim, straight, not-very-charismatic.' I can't decide if I like the show or not and I asked a friend what she thought it. 'She's a wanker.' Well, maybe she is, but she does have a certain way with crustaceans and I do like her glasses, so I'll probably keep watching.
Perhaps chefs are trained in wankiness. According to gourmet chef Charlie Trotter, 'Food can be thought of not only as sustenance, but as art. And the art of cooking the Charlie Trotter way is also an expression of the Trotter philosophy that creating elegant gourmet cuisine involves more than just using sophisticated cooking techniques. The essence of preparing outstanding gourmet dishes is to use the freshest, finest ingredients available and combine these first-rate goods in ways that surprise and delight the palate.' Well, that eel was pretty fresh and certainly surprised our palates.
Charlie goes on to describe some of the 'sophisticated cooking techniques.' We can 'shock' our peaches, 'break' our sauces, set our eggs adrift on a 'raft' and 'dredge' our chicken through flour. It all sounds rather violent and I pity the poor morsels subject to the rigours of the gourmet bully style of conquering, then cooking.We are even given lessons in how to pronounce the terms. Mirepoix is pronounced 'meer-PWAH'. Quenelle is 'kuh-NELL' and remoulade is 'ray-moo-LAHD'. So we are not only taught to cook fiddley bits of obscure ingredients (really, where am I supposed to find these carambolas, pomelos and enokis) and stack them up in ridiculous teetering layers but we can intimidate our friends and family by sounding like complete wankers. 'May I present 'baked-BEEEAAHNS' on toast.'
The good women of the Presbyterian Women's Missionary Union had a slightly less ostentatious approach to cooking. They advise us to go for 'cheaper cuts of meat' and to cram as much into the oven as possible to save on electricity bills. There is nothing too fancy in the P.W.M.U. Cookery Book and the ladies tend towards no-fuss, nutritious, economical meals. On page 214 you can find a recipe for 'gruel'. I'm not sure how Charlie would like his 'gruel' pronounced.
With a veritable feast of advice, cookbooks and videos on the subject, we should all be experts on the art of getting food on our plates with style and ease. As a very passionate foodie once said, 'Never eat anything at one sitting that you can't lift.' Miss Piggy, Woman's Hour, 1992.
- Fiona Tunnicliff