Some years ago I had an idea for a kind of cookery book memoir, telling stories about events associated with some of my favourite dishes. A bit like ‘Fever Pitch’, but with food instead of football.
In the event, it proved harder to write than I thought, and other people got in first with similar books. But some recipes and events stuck with me. Here is the first, which sets the scene for others to come, explaining why for me cooking and emotion are so closely linked.
Anyway, enough preamble. This story is called
‘The Corn Chowder of Love’
For this story you will need:
1 large onion
2 large potatoes (say 1.5-2 lbs)
A chunk of butter
About one and a half to two pints of vegetable stock
A tin of sweetcorn
Salt and pepper
It’s a Monday evening in November. Laura and I are both very tired. Mondays always seem harder than the rest of the week. There is so much pushing uphill to do before you start to coast downhill again into the next weekend. We both get home late and it is after eight by the time we sit down to our meal. That comes soon enough.)
Neither of us says much as we eat. We are just shedding the strains of the day, starting to relax. I sit across the kitchen table from Laura. She has her back to the window. Behind her, the garden is dark in that way only wet November nights can be; cold dark, thick and unfriendly. Rain is whispering against the window pane and running in bright lines down the glass. The thin branches of a bush thrash around beyond the window. When the branches whip against the pane the leaves light up bright green in the light from the bright kitchen.
Behind me the gas fire purrs softly. It is a not a night for gardening. It is not a night even for opening your front door to take out the rubbish. It is a night for sitting under a blanket on the sofa, watching an old movie. A night for going to bed before nine and holding each other close under the duvet. Perhaps sharing a warming glass of malt whisky. Yes, a glass of Oban would slip down just fine tonight. Really it would.
When we finish eating I stand and clear the plates from the table and stack them in the dishwasher. Laura leaves the room to phone a friend while I make us some coffee. I put a CD in the portable player which sits on our kitchen counter. It is “Dubwise”, a collection of particularly heavy dub tracks by Prince Far I. The sound of unfeasibly deep bass guitar throbs through the kitchen. High above it in the mix a trebly guitar chimes occasionally and someone plays a set of drums with a hi-hat that sounds like someone whisking an egg inside a cup with a small fork. Piano chords echo in and out of the tune like they are bouncing slowly around inside a tin hut while the gruff voice of the Prince chants occasional swooping and righteous phrases. O love divine, he sings. How sweet thou art.
I stand at the kitchen counter and stare down at the deep blue tiles. I love the blue tiles in our kitchen. They are probably the thing which more than anything else made us decide to buy the house. Maybe not so much in my case. The deciding factor for me was that it was only a mile from the house my two daughters lived in with their mother. After three months of separation from them I might well have bought anything in the area that had walls and a roof.
Laura really didn’t want to move to Lewisham. Didn’t want to live on what she saw as my wife’s doorstep. Wasn’t too keen to be dragging down into south London on a cold March evening househunting when she’d rather have been running a hot bath in her luxurious bathroom in St Albans. For Laura, the friendly seaside blue tiles and sunshine yellow paintwork of the kitchen in this house gave her the first hint that maybe life this side of the Thames could be good. It was a lovely warm kitchen, made more so by the fact that the people selling the house practically lived in this room. They had a sofa in here, and the gas fire seemed to be the only heating in the house.
Staring down at those tiles I feel deeply tired. I press the backs of my hands against my eyes. I need to sleep. I want to curl up in bed with Laura and forget the whole world beyond the bedroom. But I remember tomorrow and so I shake my head and move into action. I pull a large saucepan out of the cupboard and put it on the stove. I chop up some onion and cut potato into small cubes. I melt a chunk of butter in the saucepan and put both the onion and the potato in with it to fry gently, with the lid on the saucepan.
While it is frying I fill the kettle and boil some water. I pour a pint of water into a measuring jug onto a vegetable stock cube. By this time the smell of sautéed onion is filling the room. It makes me feel happier. I love that smell.
The smell doesn’t make Laura happier. She comes back into the room from her phone call and I can tell at once that she is unhappy about something. She has a slightly frozen look on her face, and a reluctance to meet my eye that usually suggests that something is wrong. More specifically, something is wrong and it is my fault. I take the lid off the saucepan and stir the potato and onion to prevent them sticking. I sprinkle in some salt and grind in a generous helping of black pepper before putting the lid back and leaving it to fry gently for another few minutes.
I wonder if Laura is bothered by the sound of Prince Far I. She wouldn’t be alone in that. I love that deep reggae sound but not everyone does. I stop the CD and switch it for something lighter and more upbeat. An album by Dubstar. Whatever happened to them? A kind of mutant sound somewhere between Madonna and the Pet Shop Boys. They made this one great album and then disappeared. (The album was Disgraceful. Notable for the cover picture of a fluffy purse with its zip undone and the pink inner lining exposed, resembling nothing so much as, well, a vagina, actually. They must have had complaints because later copies of the album appeared with a replacement picture of a fluffy slipper with bunny ears.)
Laura stands with her back to the kitchen door while she sips her coffee. Her hair makes thin scratchy lines in the blush of condensation on the dark window. She blows on the surface of the hot drink to cool it. I stir the potato and onion again and then pour in the stock. I put the lid back on the saucepan and leave it to simmer for a while. I stand in front of Laura, leaning back against the counter. I sip my coffee. The only sound is Dubstar playing quietly on the CD player. “We’ll take our hearts outside,” they sing, “Leave our lives behind. And watch the stars go out.” Louder than the music, you can hear the wind outside, growling around the walls of the house. The kitchen seems to hold its breath.
“Great night for not being outside,” I say.
“Yes,” Laura says.
We both fall silent. Laura looks at me and I smile. She returns a very thin smile indeed and looks away.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
This is a question Laura never answers first time. She shrugs and takes another sip of the coffee. Unlike me she is not very direct in talking about difficult feelings. She prefers to think that people who love each other will usually know what is bothering the person they love and won’t need to be told. To be fair to her, she is pretty good at knowing what bothers me. I am not so good at it with her. I need to be told.
“Come on,” I say. “You seemed fine while we had our dinner. Now you seem upset about something. What’s wrong?”
“You just never seem to want to be with me,” she says.
“What do you mean? I love being with you.”
“But why can’t you just concentrate on being with me sometimes? We’ve just had a weekend together, just us. But even then you seem to have half your mind on the children. And now we should be spending a little time together, maybe going to bed early or cuddling up on the sofa together. You’re exhausted, but you’ve started cooking late in the evening.”
“I just thought I’d make some corn chowder,” I say, weakly.
“I know what you’re doing,” Laura says. “The girls are here tomorrow and you’re cooking because it’s something they like.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing,” Laura says. “It’s just that the children take all your attention when they’re here, and I understand that. But even when they’re not here, you’re thinking ahead to when they are.”
“I can’t help it.”
“Can’t you just have some time and space with me? There’s so little time in our lives and you spend so much of it cooking special meals for your daughters. They wouldn’t mind a sandwich sometimes. It seems like you think you can use food to give them something they’re missing because you left.”
“I left their mother, not them.”
“I know you did. And I know how much you love them. And so do they. They’d know it whether you cooked them corn chowder or not. They won’t stop loving you if you give them a pizza occasionally.”
I don’t speak. I go to the stove and stir the chowder. The potatoes are close to tender. So I open the tin of sweetcorn and empty it into the saucepan. A few more minutes and it will be ready for me to blend a couple of cups of it to give it a thick and creamy texture. Then it will be done, give or take a little seasoning. And I can leave it in the saucepan and go to bed to get some sleep before I get up early in the morning so I can get to work early, work through my lunch break and leave early to pick up the girls from school.
They are at this time nine and six years old. They live most of the time with their mother, my soon to be ex-wife, in a house on the other side of the town centre. In school term times they stay with Laura and me at alternate weekends and one night during the week. They will be with us the next night. And Laura is absolutely right: I can’t wait to see them. I haven’t seen them since Friday morning when I took them to school.
I spoke to them on the phone last night. They seemed to have had a nice weekend with their mother. I always find those phone calls more painful than pleasurable. I worry at times that having me call up after a few days for a few minutes chat may make the girls uncomfortable too. Maybe they’d rather not be reminded that I’m not there. But I have occasionally probed casually in talking to them to see whether they welcome the calls. They seem to, so I keep making them.
Laura leaves the kitchen to go upstairs. It strikes me suddenly very clearly how right she is, and my eyes feel tight and moist. My daughters are not here with me. But I’m cooking for them. And tomorrow evening they’ll be pleased to have one of their favourite dishes served up fresh on a cold evening. Laura is right: I am serving up a little bit of my love for them in the meals I prepare them. When I see them I want to fill them up with my love, send them away again with the warmth of my home cooking in their tummies.
I think about this while I finish my cooking and clear up the kitchen. I have always enjoyed cooking. Laura’s words have really struck me. I think of other occasions when I have poured my feelings into the food I have cooked. The meals I have cooked for her. The food I used to cook when I was married, dishes I can remember making in the past with other friends. When I think about it, it seems to me that the meals I cook most frequently have memories attached to them. Some emotion blended in among the herbs.
Bread pudding – my dad used to make it and it always reminds me of him.
Mussakka – a delicious Greek combination of aubergine and chick peas, which was the first meal I cooked for Laura when we got together. Cooked in Laura’s kitchen in St Albans, using my new copy of the Bean Book by Rose Elliot, bought that day to replace the one I left behind at my marital home. Bought in London during the first Saturday Laura and I spent together. A meal prepared and eaten as we trembled on the threshold of a new life together.
Any number of vegetarian meals, full of healthy, complex carbohydrates, perfect for diabetics – which I have cooked for Laura, who is herself diabetic. As though I can make her healthier through the food I cook for her.
The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the effort I put into preparing meals represents far more than my desire to eat food I enjoy. Through my cooking am I trying to express my love for those close to me? Trying to make their lives that tiny bit better and healthier? Trying, quite literally, to fill them up with my love?
I take the saucepan of corn chowder from the stove. While it’s cooling I tidy up the kitchen surfaces and wipe down the top of the cooker. Laura says I’m a messy cook, and I am. It’s just one of those things. I don’t feel it’s a real meal unless your plate is full. Rice isn’t cooked properly unless some of it has to be scraped from the bottom of the pan. And I don’t feel I have really cooked a dish if the top of the cooker is not spattered with bits of it at the end.
After a few minutes I blend a little of the chowder and mix it back in with the rest and add seasoning. Then I pack away the blender and leave the chowder in the saucepan to cool overnight. As I go upstairs I know Laura is right. There’s a feeling of satisfaction in me that the saucepan is sitting there full of nutritious soup that my girls love to eat. They’ll be here after school tomorrow night and they’ll love their dinner. I know they’ll eat their fill. And it was made with my own hands. Made with love.
The bedroom is dark when I get upstairs. From her breathing it sounds as if Laura is already asleep. I undress quickly on the cold landing and slip quietly into bed beside her. I lie close but try not to wake her. I can feel her warmth next to me.
I know she is upset with me. But there’s nothing I can do at this moment. She’s asleep and, even if she wasn’t, I feel too tired to talk. It will have to wait. I’m sure we can work it out.
I turn away on my left side and feel sleep begin to pull me down. A car’s headlights from the road outside throw shadows across the bedroom wall. In the distance I hear the lonely rattle of a late train.
I’ll find a way to patch things up with Laura, I think, just before I fall asleep.
Maybe there’s something I can cook her.