I’m sitting down to write this having just cleaned fox poo out of the tiny grooves in the soles of my four-year-old’s sandals. She also, somehow, smeared it all over her legs, her dress, my legs, my shorts. The only plus I can take from it is that, for once in our crowded corner of south London, social distancing was not an issue.
Of course, even in non-coronavirus times, 98% of anecdotes about young children end in someone being covered in something or other. But for many parents – at which point I insert an enormous caveat to make it clear that I’m talking about those who haven’t been infected, or made redundant, and aren’t frontline workers, and are extremely lucky enough to still be operating in a strange bubble of “normal” – I’d suspect that the greatest challenges of the past few weeks, and moments of profoundest despair, have come in the kitchen.
Cooking for your children can be a dispiriting experience. There’s often a magical window when they are around two, where they eat all sorts of exotic things: green vegetables, non-white food generally, Italian dishes that don’t begin with “p”. But gradually, imperceptibly, I have found my kids becoming entrenched in their tastes, suspicious of the unfamiliar. I’m not talking about olives and kimchi; just getting them to eat some courgette involves agreeing to a Peppa Pig all-nighter in return.
Not long ago, but BC (before coronavirus), I was moaning to a colleague about it, a serious home cook, a tweezers-and-soda-siphon guy. Also, his children are older, teenagers. I wanted to know if it got any easier. “You have to think of it like being a line cook,” he replied, years of pain in his voice. Your job is not to be showy. It’s to do your bit and get the job done: to make peace with cooking the same meal again and again. Innovation or experimentation were neither expected nor required from your customers (that is, your offspring).
I have thought about this conversation from time to time after coronavirus took hold, and especially since the schools closed in March, when two major changes became apparent. First, demand: I went from having to supply my children not with two meals a day, but three, plus morning and afternoon snacks (though they helpfully remind me of snack-time by growing fangs and clawing at the fridge, without fail, at 11am and 3pm). The other disruption was supply. Just before we realised how serious the pandemic was, my girlfriend and I raised our eyebrows at friends who went to Asda at 7am on a Sunday morning to stock up. Within days, we were flooded with images of whole aisles of supermarkets cleared out. Toilet roll went first, then pasta, rice, flour, tinned tomatoes. You know all this.
The experience of seeing this unfold did, I understand looking back, send me a bit mad. It’s a cliché (most things about parenthood are) but when you have children it’s hard not to become convinced that your main responsibility now – perhaps the only thing that really matters – is to keep them alive and well. Coronavirus may have made this more real and present than usual for me, but in truth it’s hardwired. I’m happier when my kids have eaten well, secure in the knowledge that whatever else I’m getting wrong, that part I’m not screwing up.
I didn’t stockpile or panic buy – not particularly for moral reasons but, in part, because we’ve only got a small freezer and limited shelf space. But I did find myself checking the websites of online shopping companies obsessively: first thing in the morning, my last act before bed, and some days a dozen times in between. I should add here that the online food suppliers and their delivery drivers have done an incredible job of reorganising their systems and keeping things as smooth as they could. My children will never know, or appreciate, how close they came to two days in a row without bananas.
Many days, cooking and clearing up after the kids has felt like a full-time job (actually worse: it starts at 7am, goes on till past 10pm, and you don’t get half an hour to mull over the perfect phrasing of an email). It is exhausting, relentless and relentlessly thankless, as any parent without additional childcare in the normal run of things already knows well. I’ve been, frankly, astonished at my kids’ inability to sit at a table for longer than 4.5 seconds without breaking out into song, or wrestling each other, or nipping to their bedroom to get something “very important” like a small piece of string, or a plastic fish, or a Sylvanian Families Halloween slide set (don’t ask). In order to speed up the four-year-old’s eating, my girlfriend has invented a game in which she pretends to be a toothbrush (from Texas, I think) who wants nothing more than to “stop” our daughter having any more dinner (full rules available on request), which is ultimately very effective but also makes me want to jump out of the window.
But as time goes on, I’ve started to make my peace with the situation. Accepting my role as, in Bill Buford’s words, a kitchen slave, I listen more to what my kids want to eat, rather than bending them to my will. Feeling consulted, they seem to become more open to trying things. Some dinners have been disasters – an attempt to pitch aubergine parmigiana as “pizza without the crust” didn’t fly – but the next morning they just eat a double breakfast. And it’s made me more resourceful: we found a huge patch of wild garlic in a nearby wood, and the kids just about tolerated the pesto we made with it. I dug out various packets of dried pulses from the back of the cupboard, one of which had a best-before date of 2015 and I could only cook by putting instructions through Google Translate, but which were, nonetheless, delicious.
On the radio, I heard someone compare life during coronavirus to being on a cruise ship: the three meals provided a structure to a day that otherwise might be disconcertingly free and unhinged. As the weeks became a month, we’ve tried to differentiate the days, or at least the weekends. Sunday night is dress-up dinner night: we do it not to be la-di-da so much as to ensure that our tracksuit bottoms don’t wear out from overuse. Baking kills time and we do some of that: banana bread, soda bread, lots of biscuits. The kids are interested for around a minute and a half, drift off, and return to lick the spoons. I haven’t made sourdough, unlike everyone else on social media apparently, mainly because it’s too much of a faff, but also because I haven’t got over my Electra complex of killing my “mother” back in 2017.
If there’s been a focal point so far, it was my eldest daughter’s seventh birthday, which fell on Easter Sunday. Obviously there’d be no party, no friends, fewer presents, but I could still make her a cake. When I asked her what kind, she requested “mint choc chip” with “marshmallows”, which sounded totally disgusting, but which turned out – by some miracle or misfortune – to match the exact description of grasshopper pie, from Christina Tosi’s Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook. It’s a book I’ve never previously cooked from, because every recipe contains so many sections that even reading it is exhausting, but if ever there were a time when you conceivably could spend three days baking it was now. (Plus it only required 40g of flour, which was all we had.)
At 3pm on my daughter’s birthday, we lit seven candles and brought it out. Watching her eating her brown, sludgy dream-cake seemed to put her gag reflex well and truly to the test, but she made polite noises, ate a slice, and we put the rest in the freezer, where we will probably rediscover it in 10 years’ time.
Of course, the cake didn’t really matter. It was just one of hundreds of meals we will make during this strange period. Many people are asking themselves how their lives will change after lockdown. I hope I will be more relaxed about cooking for myself and others, appreciative of and resourceful with what we have. As for cooking the same meals over and over again, I’ve decided that I’m not going to think of myself as a line cook. Instead, I’m recasting myself as a chef with a small range of signature dishes – macaroni cheese, pizza, fish fingers – and a couple of grumpy regulars who are, nonetheless, fiercely loyal.
Source: Thanks https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/may/17/family-cooking-under-coronavirus-ive-become-a-chef-with-two-grumpy-regular-customers