To Cook or not to Cook
Some people love to cook, others have no interest in the workings of the kitchen, and there can be many reasons for this. For instance, the overbearing mother who never allows her child near the stove or the mixing bowl for fear they might make a mess, and knowing she can do it better herself, is unlikely to rear a happy chef. By contrast, the mum who bakes fairy cakes with her three year old, with flour clouding around her elbows and pink icing in her hair, may well produce the next Nigella Lawson or Jamie Oliver.
There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and from time to time there will be someone determined to strive against discouragement to become a master at the craft.
Another reason many people don’t cook is lack of time. There are many frustrated gourmet chefs sitting in stuffy offices dreaming of steamy kitchens, planning the dinner party they would throw if they only had the time or funds.
Some learn their craft at their mother’s side, others in a school of Haute Cuisine.
The popular film, Julie & Julia, contrasts the life of chef Julia Child in the early years of her culinary career with the life of Julie Powell, a young woman in New York who sets out to cook her way through the 524 recipes in Julia Child’s cookbook. She aims to do it in one year. That’s 365 days for 524 recipes. She describes her efforts on her regular blog.
The screenplay, by Nora Ephron, is adapted from two books, an autobiography by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme, called My Life in France, and a memoir by Julie Powell, Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen documenting her daily experiences cooking each of the 524 recipes in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
In Julia Child’s book, My Life in France, she describes how she signs up for cooking classes at the École du Cordon Bleu where she learns the art of French cooking.
While the books and the film, Julie and Julia, are not completely fictional, I think the film, in particular, made a very interesting drama and could be used as inspiration for writing food into your fiction.
If you don’t know what to write about, here is a suggestion for you:
Perhaps you could write a short story about attending a cookery class. It could be a class in the local village hall or in a College kitchen. Ask yourself, why does this character want to learn to cook? Perhaps they can already cook, but want to improve. Perhaps it’s to pass a rainy Thursday night in good company.
Or a story about someone’s first attempts at following a recipe.
There’s a lot of potential for humour: mishaps and disasters are common in a kitchen setting, particularly with inexperienced cooks, and can sometimes be very amusing.
I hope you find this next excerpt, from an as-yet-unpublished novel I have written, falls into that category. I always think it’s dangerous to claim you’ve written something funny. Humour is such an individual thing. But I hope it at least makes you smile.
Sauce for the Goose
By the time she turned into the communal stair of the flats, Sandra had built up a fair head of steam in her boiler, fuelled by the indignity she suffered at work set against the memory of Hugh lying warm and sleepy in their bed when she left him this morning and sitting with his feet on the coffee table all day watching day-time trash on the unlicensed box, as she imagined he had most of her long, torturous day. ‘Sauce for the goose…’ Colleen’s remark flared in her memory. ‘Equal opportunity…’ She was ready to blow.
A blanket of fresh, enticing, foodie smells doused her anger as she opened the door.
“Don’t…em, don’t come in the kitchen!” Hugh yelled. “Surprise! It’s… it’s a surprise.”
Sandra still had her key in the lock, the door still standing open, the sudden cooling of her anger leaving her frozen in disbelief.
“Guessed it must be about my turn,” Hugh planted a kiss on her cheek as he busied past her with candles for the table.
“But you never cook. You hate cooking.”
“I didn’t say that, or not exactly. It’s just that…” he ran his hands through his floppy hair, pushing his swimming goggles onto his forehead. “It’s just that you do it so much better. Onions,” he added in answer to her unspoken enquiry about the goggles.
“Yes, I see. But the candles, wine?” She closed the door and followed him through to the living room.
“A sudden pang of conscience. You out there every day working for us. Me in here watching tele.”
A weary snort of recognition escaped from Sandra.
“One of these interminable talk shows. ‘Is your man a loser?’ Suddenly saw that, yes, your man, me, was… am… a bit of a loser Wouldn’t be watching that dreadful program otherwise. Decided to do something about it.”
“A job would be nice.”
“Yes. Yes, I suppose that would be nice. The ideal really, I imagine.” Hugh stood with his hands on his hips, his hips girded with a tea towel, nodding his agreement.
“I did… I er… did go… to the job centre again.”
Sandra looked up expectantly.
Hugh spread his hands. “Nothing.”
“Suitable, I mean. Nothing suitable.”
“If it pays money, it’s suitable,” Sandra muttered.
“Mustn’t lose sight of the big picture, as it were. You know, the right job, best career move.”
Sandra sat down wearily. “Oh, Hugh. What are we going to do? I know you want a career, but, right now, it’s a job you need, just a job. One that pays money. One that pays off the overdraft.”
“Mmm, know what you mean.”
“Do you, Hugh? ‘Cos I wonder sometimes. You’ve had this great Public School Education. The Stiff Upper Lip, English Gentleman, Posh University kind of stuff, but, really, has it prepared you for living in the real world? Has it taught you how to put meat on the table? Has it dickie-bird!”
“Meat on the table, yes, see what you mean.” He sniffed the air, “Sorry, back in a mo. The meat. Need to do some stirring.” And disappeared into the kitchen.
“Smells nice.” She sat up, alarmed by sudden realisation. “How? where did you get the money for meat? We can’t afford…”
“Sold the picture.” Hugh shouted.
Her eyes flew to the empty place on the wall.
“My grandmother’s painting! You sold my grandmother’s painting.” She was on her feet, her anger reignited.
“Don’t come in,” he yelled as she started to push open the kitchen door.
“You sold my grandmother’s painting!” She shouted, her forehead against the door, her fist banging it in frustration. “You had no right.”
“Hunger!” he shouted back. “Hunger gave me the right.”
“It was mine.”
“It was ugly,” he asserted as he squeezed through the door, barring her entry to the kitchen.
“It was mine.”
He looked helplessly at her. “We needed food.”
“I was bringing food.” She held up the carrier bag. “Bread, cheese, pasta.”
“Yes. Yes, I see. The thing is, actually… well, I’m… well, I’m sort of fed up with macaroni cheese, as it happens.”
Hugh took off the goggles and ran his fingers through his untidy hair again, reinforcing his air of perpetual bewilderment. “And I was… I was sort of… I was fed up with that hideous picture staring down at me all day.” He tossed a petulant glance in the direction of the offending, now absent, painting.
“It could only stare down at you all day, if you were here all day.”
“Yes, of course. Yes. Well. It seemed the ideal solution, killing two birds with one stone, so to speak. Instead of Capercaillie on the wall, we’ve er… we’ve sort of… sort of got chicken in the… in the er, wok, so to speak.” his voice trailed off the way it often did, though he smiled shyly at his own wit. “You’ve got to admit it was a particularly ugly painting,” he added bravely.
“It was my painting.”
“Chicken stir-fry. Lots of peppers and mushrooms. Garlic,” he cajoled, waving a hand in the general direction of the smell of cooking.
“Painted for me by my grandmother.”
“Spring onions, ginger. Oh, hell! Something’s burning!” He dashed out to the kitchen again. “Don’t be cross about it, darling,” he called back through. “Think of it as, well, as sensible use of resources, so to speak.”
“Why couldn’t you have sensibly used some of your own resources? Oh good grief, what on earth is all this for?”
“I told you not to come through.”
“How many are you expecting for dinner?”
“Just…eh… just us.”
“But there’s so much. All these peppers.”
“I thought it seemed a lot,” he frowned. “But that’s what the recipe said.”
“Which recipe? Let me see.”
He lifted the book to show her.
“Feeds six,” she read out.
“Oops, indeed. But, even for six, it’s an awful lot.”
He took the recipe back and pointed to the ingredients list. “Look, six chicken breasts, fourteen oz of potatoes. Oz, I knew that was ounces,” he informed her with some pride. “And I knew sixteen ounces equals one pound, so I weighed out nearly a pound, then half as much of peppers, same of mushrooms.”
“But I don’t have ounces on my scales.”
“Yes, you do. ‘Course you do.” He drew them over. “See?”
“Grams and Kilos,” she showed him. “It measures in grams and kilos. You’ve cooked a kilo of potatoes, four chicken breasts and there are several kilos of vegetables chopped up here.” The sweep of her hand indicated the heaps of vegetables covering every available work surface in their little kitchen. “For two of us.”
He scratched his head. “I wondered how it was all going to fit in the wok.”
“Well, it’s not, is it?” she said, weariness giving an edge to her voice.
“No, I suppose it’s not. Sorry.” He shrugged his apology like a child caught in some minor misdemeanour. “What… er… what do you… er… should I…”
Sandra sighed. “Let me get my coat off.”
“Sorry,” he said again, his large brown eyes begging her forgiveness.
How could she be angry with this gentle, schoolboy of a man? “Oh Hugh,” she said, drawing him into her arms. “What are we going to do?”
“I thought, perhaps, eating might be a good idea?”
And, in the end, the meal was delicious. That evening, the next evening and, in various forms, the next three evenings after that: stir-fried; curried; roasted; the vegetables liquidised as soup, and finally as sauce.
So how about you having a go at writing a story in which food plays a leading role. It might be fun. Let me know how you get on.