“Doesn’t it look good?”
“Yes. You’re a great cook, Sarah. In fact, I’d call you a chef.”
They are simple words, and yet they meant the world to me. They came from my dad, upon seeing me take tonight’s dinner – of stuffed peppers and courgettes with homemade garlic bread – out of the oven. They meant a lot for two reasons. My dad and I have always had a strained relationship. Compliments or praise have always been rare and hard earned. I distinctly remember telling him my GCSE results, beaming with pride, and seeing him nod once and walk away. A-levels were better; and in fact, calling him to say that I’d secured my place at Cambridge was the first time I can remember him saying he was proud of me. As I get older, I’m working on mending my relationship with him. It’s a slow process, and a difficult one. Knowing that he enjoys the food I make means a lot to me.
But there is another reason why his words pleased me, and that’s because I love cooking. I love food. I love it the way that other people love their families, or their partners, or their sport. I wake up thinking about what I will cook later, and I fall asleep planning meals (last night, I fell asleep planning salads for an upcoming barbeque I’m catering.) When I was bullied at school, there were two things that never failed to comfort me when I got home: writing and cooking. Writing took over my nights. I would huddle in my room, pouring my soul on to the paper. It was something that the bullies couldn’t touch. I created my secret worlds, and I filled them with friends, with magic, with love. The rest of the time, I spent in the kitchen. I cooked my first full meal when I was eleven. It was pasta with tomato sauce, but I made the sauce from scratch. I spent hours peeling the skin from tomatoes, sautéing them with onion and garlic, adding a little wine, a pinch of oregano. It was average at best, but it sparked a passion in me that has yet to be rivalled.
My days are built around the food I eat. I plan my lunch as I eat breakfast (while reading a cooking book at the same time, of course.) I shape my social life around cooking for friends, cooking for my housemates, cooking for my boyfriend. At school, several days a week, I would bring in tins of cakes or cookies, and watch them disappear among my friends. Coming home from school, I would put music on in the kitchen and start baking again, the rhythm and process always managing to soothe me. At university, my final year, I finally got an oven. I had the pleasure of five housemates more than willing to consume what I was making, and I fell into the habit of baking around my work. I would spend a morning making a loaf of bread, working on my laptop around kneading, proving, shaping, baking. The week of Lent bumps, I baked every day, under strict instructions from our coach that my boys had recovery food. Oat cookies, fruit loaf, chocolate cupcakes (at the end of the week), the leftovers devoured by my housemates.
I love to cook. I love selecting the ingredients as I walk around the supermarket. I love weighing the courgettes in my hand, selecting the brightest tomatoes, the firmest carrots. I love hunting through the meat aisles, looking for anything discounted, anything I can freeze. My store cupboard is always full, of beans and pulses, herbs and spices, pasta and rice, cous cous and noodles. I love trying new recipes, new ideas. When I cook, it is chaotic, I take over the whole kitchen. I taste as I go along, a pinch of turmeric here, a cinnamon stick thrown into a beef casserole at the last minute, a grind of pepper into a risotto. I grow herbs in the garden (not in a pot – I can’t keep them alive for longer than a week in a pot) and I love to run my hands over them, inhaling their scent, deciding what to do with them.
Nothing excites me more than cooking new food. One of my friends is vegetarian, and I love looking for new recipes when I cook for her. It has led me to vegetable curries, stuffed peppers, vegetarian lasagnes and inventive stir fries. Another friend is a vegan, and it recently led to vegan brownies, soft and rich and crumbly. Last summer, I taught myself how to make a selection of Indian curries. I spent hours researching them online, reading as many recipes as possible, looking for the similarities, how I could make them the best possible. I tested and perfected them, one at a time, changing the levels of spice and chilli and fire. By the end of the summer, I could make nearly half a dozen different ones, all distinct, all (in my humble opinion) delicious.
When my dad ate the stuffed peppers, he didn’t say anything. But he smiled, and that’s enough for me.