There are few places that are so forgiving or rewarding as in front of our own cookers.
I can remember the first time I ate spaghetti bolognaise. I was eight and in my mother’s friends’ house. The friends were sophisticated. They had travelled. He was an architect and she worked in the civil service. There was something about them having lived together before they got married because she was in the civil service during the marriage ban. I didn’t understand it, but they were edgy.
And how the spaghetti tasted! It was freshly made. I don’t even think there were pasta sauces to buy. With the tinned plum tomatoes, onion and tonnes of garlic and herbs I thought summer time had exploded on my tongue. Tackling the spaghetti was a different challenge. Being handed a fork and spoon to eat your dinner with was like being asked to write with a hammer. I finished the meal with tomato sauce all over my face, t shirt and hair! But I can still taste it. I have had some lovely spaghetti since, but none sticks in my tastebuds’ memory like that made by Rita MacDomhnall.
During the same summer I tasted a green pepper for the first time. My teacher and my mum were friends, so during the lazy summer we walked up to her flat in Ranelagh and she cooked lunch. The halved green pepper was cooked in the oven with mince, rice and tomatoes and I am not sure what else. I do remember I pushed the rice to one side and devoured the pepper. After a winter of boiled potatoes, boiled carrots, hateful watery white cabbage, this was like nothing I had ever tasted. And to this day if I smell green peppers in an oven, the sweetness that comes from its’ roasting still makes my mouth water.
In our house before that summer, green and red peppers were illustrations on kitchen tiles. Garlic came in the form of a rope of plastic ornament. Ingredients like this were for posh people, with careers and who had travelled. After that summer all of that changed. While my father remained a meat, spuds and two veg man, we began, slowly, to have our culinary tastes expanded from my mother’s now global cooker.
I open my fridge door now and I worry if there is only one bulb of garlic. The kitchen presses have four different types of pasta. The basil on the window sill doesn’t last nearly long enough and I have three different types of smoked paprika, each one treasured for its different Bababing. I have travelled in the world in my pots and pans if not on airplanes or ships, like the eight-year-old me thought I would.
Cooking is where many connect to memories of childhood, and it’s where the world is better understood. Learning about a country’s food means learning about its people and how they share their joy from the heart of their homes. Every time we cook we connect to the global generations in tradition, experiment and love. At 5.30 on a weeknight it might not feel like it but for me, when the onion and garlic go in the pan and the tin of plum tomatoes is opened I’m reminded of that eight-year-old’s wonder and excitement.
*In Memory of my mother, my Nana and Anthony Bourdain, whose inspirational words always reminded me of so much I need to do, taste, see and experience.