My dear friend Chantal over in Chicago recently posted a picture of one of her mother’s recipes and that reminded me that I have none of Mum’s. I regret that bitterly, because she was a wonderful cook, was Constance Ernestine Sally East-Goodwin, and I would love to try to reproduce some of her dishes, and pass them on to the next generation. I know nearly everyone says that about their own mothers, but she really was good, as my cousins will no doubt testify. Nothing very fancy, you understand, but great pies, stews, cakes, marmalade and chutneys. I particularly remember her cheese and onion pie. It was delicious, a real treat. Once or twice in my life I’ve tasted something very like one of her creations and those were bittersweet moments…
I have so many memories of my Mum, but the happy ones often involve food. Coming home from school to the smell of baking; licking the spoon when she made a fruit cake; ‘helping’ her by pushing pieces of apple through the Spong mincer when she made mincemeat in the autumnal preparations for Christmas… stirring the mixture when she made another batch of coconut ice for a fund-raiser… finding what seemed like every wasp in East Suffolk congregating around the kitchen door as her chutney bubbled on the stove, making good use of our windfall apples and Mrs Maguire’s green tomatoes… I suppose it’s little wonder that many of us associate maternal love in the same way; after all, aren’t the first moments between a child and a mother about nourishment?
Because she died when I was fourteen, I never really got to learn about cooking properly from her. I had begun to bake, but not prepare meals. And we never had a chance to have the sort of adult conversations I crave now. I missed out on so many of those, but especially ones about food. I think that like me, she was an emotional eater. She struggled with her weight, I know that, and I remember her doctor encouraged her to try to lose some not long before her death. It must have been so hard for her in those five short years she lived after Dad died; she was incredible, actually. She was grieving but she soldiered on, did so much unpaid work for the community as a councillor and a school governor. How she managed it while so unwell, I can’t imagine.
As in many families, food and love were intertwined in ours. I like to feel I have carried on her legacy in that I love to provide a groaning table of food for visitors, especially if I know it includes the guest of honour’s favourite dish. It was a running joke at home that we only had lemon meringue pie (Mum’s was especially good – made from scratch, of course) when my elder brother Richard came home for a visit. So much so that on one memorable occasion when it appeared unannounced, my other brother John looked around, saying, “Well, where is he, then?”. Whatever happened, however unwell she was feeling, Mum always made visitors welcome and, most importantly, fed them. Ours wasn’t the smartest or the neatest house, but you never wanted for a meal or a hot drink.
Of course, there can be dangers when food is so tied up with love and emotion. For decades – and still, sometimes – I tended to reward or console myself with food. I don’t do it so much now, although I can still veer towards eating my feelings when I am low or very anxious. I suspect Mum tended to do the same. I can’t blame her. And we must remember that eating is one of the basic pleasures of living; we meddle with that at our peril. It is little wonder that so many of the ‘slimming’ companies make millions from repeat business, when people are made to feel guilty about fulfilling a basic human physical and psychological need.
So… in recent months I have decided to eat what I want to eat, when I am hungry. It seems to be working for me. My current anti-depression medication stops me eating too much, which helps, but throwing off the guilt is the most important factor. This past year has been a time of reassessment, and stopping my relentless worry about food and only intermittently successful attempts to lose weight has definitely been a positive change. At time of writing, I am preparing a roast chicken dinner – with roast potatoes, roast carrots, puréed celeriac, green beans and peas, and gravy – for our dear friends. It is a regular Sunday date. They live just across the road, so one week we cook for them, the next they return the favour. During the lockdowns we had here in France, we exchanged take-away meals, cooking for each other and delivering a bag of goodies (sometimes including a special cocktail!), to keep up the sharing of food, even when we couldn’t be together.
To me, there are few things more joyful than sitting down and breaking bread with friends and family. It is one of the hardest aspects of the current situation that so many of us have been deprived of that simple pleasure. We are lucky that we can do it here in France again, even if with a limited number , and we have to be back home by six pm or we turn into pumpkins… And every time I cook a meal for guests I feel I am honouring my mother’s memory, and remembering her love.