My mum is good at a lot of things, but cooking isn’t one of them. Growing up, a ‘home-cooked meal’ felt more like a trial than a comfort. Not that I ever resented the concoctions that appeared on her table. I knew the unwieldy mixes of meats, vegetables, and a surprising number of grapes offered something more valuable than nutrition or pleasure. They were lessons in how to navigate the world – and an impetus to learn my way around the kitchen by the age of 10.
After all, maintaining the status of a terrible cook takes a lot of commitment. A lesser person would listen to feedback and attempt to improve their fare, but not my mum. She approaches food with a mix of apathy and unshakable confidence that flies in the face of traditional ideas of what a wife, mother or caregiver should look like. She isn’t the picture of selfless domestic servitude. Sure, she loves her family, but always points out that she’s got more interesting things to do than spend all day in the kitchen.
Her self-belief was most infamously expressed with the creation of a “Mexican fish bake”: her take on high/low fusion cuisine inspired by a momentary connection to Jamie Oliver. Over a decade later, she still insists the dish was as charming as anything he ever made. A big call considering it was a pile of half-frozen fish fingers coated in salsa and baked in a brownie tin.
I regularly think about that soggy mound of reconstituted fish product. Not when I’m hungry, of course, but when my own work is questioned. I see her across the table, facing her critics, backing her vision. The attitude was inspiring – even if the meal wasn’t.
I was less moved by the plastic fork she forgot in a pasta bake. It was one of the rare meals I flatly refused to eat, even after she assured me that, despite the toxic taste, she got most of it out. We debated the danger of petroleum products in food for a while, before she graciously admitted defeat and ordered a pizza. Mum knows when to fight for her work and when to move on.
How to handle mistakes is a theme in many of her meals. She understands that when life doesn’t go the way you planned, you need to create your own reality. At least, that’s what I assume she was thinking when a chocolate cake she was driving to a friend’s party slid off the front seat onto the floor. That cake was the one thing she could actually make well. Understanding its value, she wasn’t about to bin it.
Instead, she rearranged the icing (and considerable grit) and delivered it to the host with a smile. When questioned about the debris, she called it “decoration for a rustic woodland look.” Everyone nodded thoughtfully, impressed by her whimsical touch. They devoured it in minutes, only pausing to compliment her and pick pieces of bark from their teeth. As always, confidence was the secret ingredient. Well, confidence and a lot of home-brand margarine.
Beyond tricking other people’s guests into eating dirt, cooking is rarely about joy for my mum. Rather, it’s about love. Not the exciting, warm ‘n’ fuzzy kind, but the plodding, daily devotion kind. I think about that when I watch her cook a steak. Growing up, I never got the hype surrounding the popular cut of meat. In our house, steak was thin, grey and so tough that chewing alone couldn’t break it apart – you needed to literally reach into your mouth and tear it with your fingers. But I looked forward to it. We didn’t have a lot of money and I understood the cheaper pieces of meat were bought as a treat. So, I savoured them as a reminder that there are countless ways to love another person – and not all of them are delicious.