About six months after I started teaching myself how to cook I realised something: in order to be a good cook you have to be organised. And you have to be tidy. The best cooks are always incredibly neat and tidy. Even Jamie Oliver, I bet – open his wardrobe and there will be 40 identical pairs of distressed jeans, hoodies and trainers all lined up neatly.
(Incidentally, I saw Jamie Oliver at a party the other week. Saw, not met, you understand. Later in the evening, when I was feeling less shy, I put a hand out and very lightly stroked the back of his jacket as he passed me in the throng – so lightly that he wouldn’t be able to feel it. He’s incredibly tall, by the way – he must be six feet two at least. And broad. Huge! He’s like a bear. You’d never think it.)
Anyway I have never been especially tidy. Not some awful great fucking slob, but not tidy
. So I was going to have to smarten up my act. You know the sort of thing I mean, get things out of the cupboard and weigh them out before you start. Read the recipe ALL the way through. And clear as you go so that your kitchen isn’t such a fucking scum hole by the time dinner is ready that it puts you off cooking anything more complicated than toast ever again.
My heart sank at this. Did I really HAVE to be tidy? They don’t seem to do anything as prosaic as clearing up on telly. Ah, telly. I see, that’s why I thought that cooking requires no effort beyond dumping things in a pot and stirring – because TV cooks don’t tend to wash up on telly because it doesn’t make good telly. Telly, you see, is not real.
But cooking is mostly about getting things out, weighing them, finding a clean bowl for them to sit in for a minute and then when it’s all done, washing every damned thing up and wiping down all your flipping surfaces. Did I have to? Have to, have to? Maybe I could just leave it and someone else… my mum… would come along and do it. No wait a second I was not living at home anymore. And although my husband will happily clear up after me, the payback is that I have to then hear about it for the next week.
However: that was nothing, NOTHING to how bloody organised you have to be when you have kids, especially when taking them anywhere. When I had only one baby I would complain long and hard to anyone who would listen about how going away for the weekend was like putting up and taking down a fucking circus. Now I have two, the monumental amount of shite we need when we go away beggars belief. We arrive, set everything up, have a cup of tea, then it’s time to pack everything away and go home again. But, listen to me: I do not overpack. If anything, I under pack. I never used to take any toys, for example. Other people turn up for the weekend with great laundry bags full of toys, which Kitty
has to then steal like a latter-day Artful Dodger.
My husband looks at the bags and bags of stuff in the hall waiting to be stuffed into the boot of the car and always says “God what a lot of stuff”. He doesn
’t question it, because he values his life, but he boggles at it all the same. I know he is thinking: “If I had married someone more relaxed she would pack less stuff and then we could go on the train.”
And sometimes I think that, too. But I look at our things and I know that there is nothing in any of these meticulously sourced and packed bags that we can do without. Without the Dream Tubes Kitty
will fall out of the single bed that she will be sleeping in. Without the packet of soup pasta, Sam will not be able to have tea on Sunday night. Without his Lamaze Elephant that plays tunes when you squeeze the hand, Sam will be sad. Without his bath chair, Sam will not have a nice bath, which is a vitally fun twenty minutes in his day. Without Kitty
’s new travel dollshouse she will be bored and demand to watch
TV and show me up in front of our hosts. And so on. It’s enough to drive you to drink, let alone anything stronger.
People look at the amount of crap you have in your car when you go away with two small kids and they laugh and sneer and say “In my day we didn’t take that much stuff” or “where’s the kitchen sink ha ha” or whatever and they mostly say it because they have forgotten or never experienced what it is like to travel with small children. Or they never had to do the packing in the first place. Or they have never had to deal with the consequences of having not packed enough formula, or the correct stuffed toy or the DVD wallet or the iPad charger. And no-one else can do it for you, only you know what you need and where it is. And if you did happen to have someone else in your life who could do that kind of stuff for you, well, you can’t put a price on that kind of service.
I know how my husband would do it if he was packing for everyone: he would take nothing. A handful of nappies, maybe, and Kitty
’s toothbrush. He does this when he takes Kitty
to the park – just hoofs it only taking things he can fit into his pockets. Everything, he reckons, can be begged or borrowed off other people or bought from a shop. If he runs into trouble he just clutches the upper arm of the nearest woman and hopes she will sort it out (she will, because that’s what we’re like).
This attitude makes me feel perfectly sick to my stomach. What, just rely on borrowing shit off other people? Rely on there being a shop that has the thing that you need? What an almighty stress. I have, in fact, a few times been caught short when I have been out with my children – mostly lacking suncream, but once also nappies. It is true that other people fall over themselves to help. And whenever I am approached by someone and asked for a spare nappy or suncream or anything, I hand over fistfuls, shrieking lies like “Oh my God that happens to me ALL THE TIME” so that the borrower won’t feel inadequate.
But the fact is that I cannot really imagine anything worse than flimsying about having to constantly beg things off other people for my kids. I forgot spare pyjamas for Kitty at my sister’s house
the other weekend and she donated an old pair of her youngest’s and, although she’s my sister and everything and I’m sure I’ve helped her out of a tight spot in the past, still – it made me feel like a gypsy. No wait, that’s not fair to gypsies. It made me feel like some stupid fucking hippy idiot who naffs about forgetting everything and saying pathetic things like “Oh it’ll be fine”, meaning “I will just take advantage of more organised people who spent 3 days packing while I wafted about my house
vaguely, gossiping on the phone.”
Anyway *wipes rabid foam off chin* so what I mean by all this is that don’t sit about wondering if cooking is less of a hassle for other people – or if other people are doing quite so much fucking washing up. It isn’t and they are.
Washing up is a major contributing factor, often, to my not eating dinner when my husband is out. I don’t need to worry about him so I can just drink a huge glass of Chardonnay, eat a handful of pistachios and then spoon Nutella directly into my gob from the jar until I feel sick & then take whatever non-prescription, (or prescription, if I am lucky), sedatives I can find lurking in my bathroom cabinet in order to pass out.
But last night, despite being tired and overwrought, (because who the fuck isn’t), I actually made myself a small curry for dinner, using up an alarming collection of ancient things in the fridge and it was terrific, thanks to a clutch of store cupboard essentials.
Because sometimes just surviving gets boring. It isn’t enough. You have to try to drive yourself on and make the best of things, using whatever dodgy bits and bobs you can lay your hands on.
Dirty curry, for Nigella Lawson
3/4 pack chicken thigh fillets, 3 days past sell by date (don’t tell my husband)
10 day old purple sprouting broccoli, chopped up
1 tsp dried chilli flakes
2tbsp light soy sauce
leftover peas from toddler’s dinner
200ml chicken stock, open for 1 week
1 small can bamboo shoots, 3 months past sell by date
1 70m can organic coconut cream
1/2 tsp chinese five spice
1 small, quite rubbery garlic clove, grated
1 nest of vermicelli noodles, if you feel like it
1 Wash chicken thoroughly, ignoring any funny smell, chop or snip into bite-sized pieces and fry off for a good 10 minutes in some groundnut oil. Google the symptoms of salmonella
2 Add broccoli, peas, chilli flakes, chinese five spice and grated garlic and fry on a low-medium flame for 5 minutes
3 Add chicken stock, coconut cream and soy, allow this to simmer together for 10-15 minutes
4 Steep the noodles in boiling water for 3 minutes and then drain and add to the curry for 5 minutes.