Zoë Ball: 'I was never a cook, and I chewed rubber bands when pregnant'

The TV and radio presenter on her early diet of spam, soup and cheese – and cheating with shop-bought cookies on children's TV

My parents split up when I was young and I stayed with my dad [TV presenter Johnny Ball], which was quite unusual in those days. He didn't cook and still doesn't to this day; to this day he can barely boil an egg. Probably the only time he ever cooked was one day in 1976 when he burnt potato croquettes in fat and stank the kitchen out and I laughed hysterically. I think I ate things like Heinz tomato soup with cheese in. I drank a lot of evaporated milk out of cans.

I remember cream cheese in celery, with a sprinkling of paprika, served at my dad and stepmum's "soirees" in the 70s, where people danced to Slade in long tartan dresses. I'd go down and eat the cheese cubes left over from cheese and pineapple on sticks, because guests would only eat the pineapple.

I was one of those kids who ate everyone's school dinners. They used to call me "Pig of The Year". I ate 18 spam fritters in one sitting at Farnham Common junior school in some sort of popularity contest. At Holy Cross convent school, aged 12, I always wanted to take the bread. I was desperate for the flesh of Christ.

When I worked on a ham counter in the VG store in Farnham Common, I sliced part of my thumb off into someone's luncheon meat. At 17, I was also a waitress at St Christopher's wine bar there. I loved it – the social scene, and meeting boys. I remember my friend Katy's mother coming in and having chicken liver and she put the fork in and it exploded green goo all over her.

When I moved to Manchester, to work as a runner for Granada, I shared with a researcher called Vicky who took pity on my inability to cook and made me meals for three years. Put in charge of cookery on a live kids' show I'd buy cookies from a shop to show as "ones we made earlier".

On one of my first dates with Norman [Cook, her husband] he had crab which he dug into primally with his hands. It was quite gross and bits were flying everywhere, and I remember thinking "My God, the way he eats is not ideal." Now I'm fine about it. He was a party boy then, mainly living on a liquid diet.

Our son Woody was conceived in Mexico after we ate amazing ceviche on mother's day after seeing dolphins and with raccoons appearing over our wall at night – we'd feed them chips and guacamole.

My first pregnancy was what caused Norman to start cooking, with help from Jamie Oliver, who he had on speed-dial at the time, to ask things like, "What's a lug of oil?". I went up to 15 stone 7 lbs (98kg), pregnant. People used to congratulate me in the street; "Can I just tell you – It's nice to see someone sooo fat".

The second time I was pregnant friends would give me rubber bands to gnaw, because the first time, I had chewed things like a rubber bit that fell off the dishwasher. I remember driving once in the rain and the smell of my rubber-soled shoes in the damp caused me to pull over and start chomping on the rubber mat.

At home, it's very much Norman's kitchen. One of his favourite things to make us is fish stew, with eight different types of fish. He often goes mackerel fishing with the kids and we buy fish practically off the boat at the shop "Fish" in Hove.

Sometimes I say "I'm going to cook today, Norman, and you're going to back off," and then I call in Danny the chef who lives next door to get him to come and help me when I butcher another chilli con carne.

Although we don't drink any more, we have a lot of wine in our cooking. I can literally stick a straw in a tirasamu and go "Give me it!". I dream about alcohol a lot. I had a great one the other day in which I was at a BBC party drinking champagne given to me by Terry Wogan and I was saying "No, no, no" and trying to tip it back into the bottle.

I always eat after a show and I love a big fry-up. I love a full English – although "full English" used to be our name for a full post-festival party meltdown – "Oh, you're having the full English, aren't you? With a side order of self-loathing and an extra helping of paranoia."

One of the reasons I had to stop drinking was because I'd wake up in the morning, having rented out a house and wrecked it in a food fight, playing croquet with potatoes or something. The most difficult thing to clear up is crusted cream; and lemons, oranges and peaches that have dried on to paintings. These things don't happen any more. Oh I miss those days. Norman, me and my friends Snowy, Damien and Jose used to play a game of hitting each other on the arse with pans and wooden spoons, to see who would get the biggest bruises.

Our breakfast bar looks out onto the sea. There's a naughty drawer in the dresser, which has sweets and chocolates in it and a tricky catch and magnet, so the kids can't get in it. I have sometimes found myself on middle-of-the-night raids with knives trying to prise it open.

To this day, if I hear the theme to Cheers, I can smell peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, like me and Erin – an American friend at convent school – made when we'd go into her parents' pantry after school and then watch Cheers on a loop.

Zoë Ball presents Isle of Wight Festival Live at 6pm, 22–24 June, Sky Arts 1, and Sky 3D


John Hind

The GuardianTramp

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