There are certain combinations of words that are deeply disturbing. Some are obvious, such as government employee and human resources specialist and diversity trainer.
Some are more subtle, such as insurance advisor and relationship counselor.
A select few are downright terrifying. For the cognoscenti perhaps the most dread-inspiring of all is the simple combination of two otherwise harmless words that when joined together deliver the deadly outcome of:
The Scots are known for many things: wearing blankets around their legs instead of trousers, being fierce warriors, and torturing the ear with the world’s most annoying musical instrument. But most of all these days the Scots are known for one awful irredeemable defect: they are by far and away the world’s absolute worst-ever cooks. Never, ever, let a Scots person perform any form of food preparation because if you do you’ll regret it for the rest of your now-foreshortened life.
The Scots deep-fry everything, even chocolate bars. While someone from the US Deep South could find Scots food appealing, everyone else on the planet recognizes it for what it truly is: a culinary abomination with lethal health consequences.
My mother was a well-intentioned woman. But she was a Scot.
Her entire culinary repertoire consisted of taking a large pan full of congealed animal fat, turning on the burner, and then as the fat melted she would drop various hapless items of food into the pan and let them remain until such time as she’d finished her cigarette, upon which she’d extract the items and put them on plates.
Breakfast consequently comprised mostly-raw egg in congealed lard, surrounded by semi-cooked bacon and grey soggy mushroom, all garnished with a delicate sprinkling of cigarette ash.
Even at the tender age of six I understood that my survival depended on learning to cook. And learning quickly.
Unfortunately, there were few resources about the house by means of which I could lessen the inevitable hazards that must always accompany a small child dealing with flammable items and limited ingredients. There were no cook books, no instruction manuals, and very few useful implements. From Day One my attempts at cooking were pure improvisation.
The upside was I learned a lot, quickly, about what combinations of flavors worked and what combinations resulted in very unhappy mealtimes.
The downside was there were a lot of very unhappy mealtimes.
Nevertheless, I persevered and as a side-effect discovered how resilient young hungry stomachs can be when put to the test.
Curries were an early favorite, though it took several attempts to learn just how much water to add to rice and at what degree of gas flame it should ideally be cooked. After that, thanks to a neighbor lending me a slender cookbook, I worked out how to create a roux base. Omelets came next, and after them I learned to make meat sauces, cook pasta, and roast potatoes. My brother greatly appreciated the increase in successes and the decline in scraped-pan catastrophes, though most of the time we were so hungry we’d have eaten practically anything.
This was because my mother, who wasn’t cut out to be a parent, would periodically reach a point where she could no longer cope and seek respite by walking out. Sometimes she’d be gone for only a few hours; at other times days could pass. This was a problem because my father was working in another country and we knew no one in our new location. Whatever happened to be left in the pantry was what I had to work with: perhaps half a bag of flour, some dried peas; if we were fortunate an egg or two. Improvisation was the norm and in retrospect this definitely made me a more creative and adaptable cook.
At the time, it didn’t seem like an unalloyed benefit. But we survived, and as I learned to save my allowance and do odd-jobs around the neighborhood I amassed a sufficient number of coins to permit the purchase of essential items on those occasions when my mother departed for an unknown duration.
And then, aged seven, I learned to bake and my life changed forever.
My first attempt at baking was courtesy of another cookbook I’d found in the town library. It was a basic Madera cake and surprisingly it turned out well; so well in fact that my brother and I devoured it in a matter of hours. For some reason I can no longer recall I decided to make a second one but this time encase it in Royal Icing. This was a rock-hard sugar layer that was delicious to crunch between youthful teeth and which I’d discovered for the first time the previous Christmas when it encased a layer of marzipan within which a rich dark fruit cake lay waiting.
The recipe book said Royal Icing was made by dissolving icing sugar in egg white. So that is what I did. I then applied, somewhat skeptically, the resulting slime to the top of the hapless Madera cake. The results were not good.
What the recipe book neglected to mention on the recipe page (but did mention elsewhere in the Skills and Techniques section, which I belatedly discovered afterward) was that an absolutely enormous amount of icing sugar along with a little lemon juice was necessary for the icing to set. Furthermore, Royal Icing is applied over a period of weeks, a millimeter at a time. Apply a thin layer, leave for several days to dry, apply another thin layer, leave for several days, and so on until eventually a hard white layer about a centimeter deep has been achieved.
Alas for my attempt, all the slime was deposited onto the cake at once. This created a very unpleasant appearance and the taste was worse. Leaving things for a day did not improve the situation. Even my brother, normally willing to consume anything I created, judged the experiment a failure. Worst of all, this was an unwelcome loss of much-needed flour, butter, and eggs. We salvaged what we could and binned the rest.
After this I abandoned the idea of Royal Icing and stuck to the basics. Soon I was turning out delicious lemon cakes, chocolate cakes, almond-raisin cakes, and all manner of cupcakes. There was a month when magically there was ample food in the larder so I could bake more than was needed for me and my brother and my mother. Feeling generous, I shared some sweetness with the neighborhood children.
And that, dear reader, is when I discovered the power of food. With food, and most especially with cupcakes, a seven-year-old boy can briefly become irresistible to seven-year-old girls. I stored this important fact in the back of my mind to await the day when puberty would change my life forever.
As the years rolled on and we moved from country to country, I expanded my repertoire considerably. I developed the ability to imagine combinations of new flavors and I invented my own recipes. I learned to rescue sauces and how to salvage seemingly hopeless mistakes. Most of all, I learned to have fun with cooking. It was no longer a matter of survival; now it could be enjoyable.
This meant that by the time puberty made its appearance I was ready. Perhaps not ready right away, but certainly by the age of fifteen I could offer what no other boy in my social circle could match: I could invite a girl home for dinner and cook it for her myself.
Do not under-estimate, gentle reader, this seemingly lightweight superpower. For young women in Europe (which is where I was, thankfully, by my mid-teens) the apparent sophistication of a boy who could cook and serve a three course meal, pour just the right wines with each course, and maintain amusing and attentive conversation throughout the entire process, was nearly irresistible.
I say nearly because alas there were a couple of discerning young women who did indeed resist; happily most did not. And so by my sixteenth year a pleasing meal would usually be followed by an equally pleasing few hours of mutual exploration and periodic rapture.
Today, in my sixtieth year, I no longer cook to seduce. For nearly two decades I had the deep satisfaction of cooking for my children. I’ve frequently cooked just for myself, and it’s no less relaxing and pleasant than cooking for a dinner party of eight. As I learned all the professional skills of chopping and maintaining stocks and so on a long time ago, I can prepare a seemingly complex meal quite quickly and with minimal effort. My specialty is adding a little extra something to make the flavor pop unexpectedly. Many a woman has told me she’d do nearly anything for my chocolate-Cointreau mousse recipe but despite the temptation I always give it freely.
It’s a curious fact of life that as we approach the end of the journey our thoughts turn more and more to our beginnings. This evening, as I prepared a meal of poached salmon in a creamy tomato-dill sauce, I remembered that six-year-old boy desperately trying to think how to stop his brother crying from hunger while staring at a row of empty shelves. I wished I could have told him that, amazingly, it would all work out alright in the end.
Even better if I could have given him and his younger brother some of the salmon. I’m sure he’d have loved it.
And for brief a moment or two, his life wouldn’t have seemed quite so tenuous.