I didn’t cook my first meal until I moved into a share-house with my best friends. I was 19. My dish of mince, frozen veg, dried Italian herb mix and half a bottle of tomato sauce was a raging success. The night before, my friend Bec had carefully crumbed and cooked chicken pieces straight from the freezer, so my “savoury mince” was a guaranteed win. It was on high rotation after that.
I remember feeling bloody proud of myself and I basked in the compliments. It was a complete revelation that I could cook.
Growing up, I hadn’t been allowed into the kitchen. My sister and I had a challenging relationship with our mum – the kitchen was her domain, a space where she didn’t have to parent. She had her stool, radio, smokes and a cask of wine hidden under the sink.
If I walked in asking for something to eat there would be sighing and tutting. If I used a glass I’d wash it immediately under her impatient gaze. Other than doing the dishes each night or making a toastie if Mum was at work, it was not a space I wanted to be in. It was too fraught with disapproval.
My mum was a good cook but the only meals she taught us were lifted from her handwritten recipe book, which we found after her death. She was just 55.
Her sweet corn fritters and pikelets are still favourites. Beyond this, she didn’t teach us the basics, she didn’t let us experiment. Like a martyr she cooked dinner every night, without coaching her children to help share the load. Our job was to clean the house – she ran a tight ship in that department.
Complicated relationships have consequences and an absent parent meant I missed out on life skills I didn’t realise I needed until later.
A few years after Mum’s death, when I was in my early 30s, I was having lunch at an aunt’s place with my young family. She asked me to peel and boil the potatoes, and teased me when I didn’t cut them evenly. I didn’t know you were supposed to.
They were the days before Google, YouTube and RecipeTin Eats and, as a new mum with my own home to run, I learned the basics from my sister. I’d often ring her and ask how to make a white sauce, or how long to cook a steak, or how to rescue a dish I’d over salted. In fact, I didn’t know to add salt to food for a long time.
We learned how to cook from each other; Mum played no role. When I watch a food show and contestants tear up cooking “Nona’s [insert dish]”, or say they “want to do their mum proud”, I respect it but I don’t feel it.
Today my kitchen is a flurry of activity. Thanks to my three sons, aged 17 to 22, the pantry is constantly being raided for snacks, the toaster is on at all hours and the dishwasher frequently needs emptying.
My eldest asked for a charcoal barbecue and smoker for his birthday and loves nothing better than a cook-up with his friends. My kitchen is functional, the fridge and cupboards are full, and the bench is usually messy. There are no doors, there is no impatience, nor tutting and all are welcome to cook, experiment and learn.
When I do cook, my sons love my spaghetti bolognese. The recipe is from Mum’s cookbook and I follow it religiously. I’ll pass it to them one day and show them how to make it. It’s my quiet ode to her.