I am trying to remember what I ate as a child when I was at home, and I can't. I think my sister is the same - last year she said to me, I can't remember anyone cooking for me except you. If this were true then she would have lived on fridge leftovers mixed with baked beans and curry powder - and own-style chappatis. I sometimes cooked that kind of thing when we were alone. There obviously were people who cooked for us, but because life was so episodic the kind of thing we had one year would be completely different from the next. My mother used to say that she didn't cook: she prepared food, and this is consistent with what I remember. Cervelat slices from Panzer's delicatessen, asparagus in spring, strawberries in the summer. There was no sweating over a hot stove. Ryvita and Marmite was as close as she got to regular, mundane fare, and she was often a busy, working woman. Meals were prepared by whichever au pair was on duty or by my stepfather, who worked from home. But au pairs changed annually or with the season and my stepfather was only with us for five years.
I can remember exactly the kind of thing I ate for school dinner at one of my primary schools because I was there for three years (the longest stretch at any school). I was still getting used to English food after three years in Germany. My idea of lunch was a salami sandwich on slightly sour, densely-textured bread, with radishes and raw carrots on the side. I liked sauerkraut, dark lentil soup, frankfurters with mustard. English school dinners with dead man's leg, rank cabbage and scoops of lumpy mash were a daily obstacle. I even hated the steamed puddings and custard at first. But at least I remember the type of thing there was. It locates me in time and place.
I taught myself to cook on a Baby Belling in a West Hampstead bedsit. I didn't have a cook book to look things up, I just experimented. When I was given a copy of Georgina Horley's Good Food on a Budget I learned how to make a white sauce. Elizabeth David taught me to marinate and I got to know Delia Smith because for some years she had a regular column in the Evening Standard. I think Nigel Slater said something about having learned to cook because he was hungry. I was hungry - not just for food, but for home. Cooking something in a pot was a way of making a hearth. Long before I had children I cooked, and was known for it. Friends came knowing there would be something good. I was lucky that my children never really had food fads, they usually liked what I made and meals gave significant rhythm to our lives. I always said that I could never understand people who didn't bother to cook properly if they lived on their own. I would always, I said, take the time to make something - take the trouble and do it properly. It was part of who I was.
I don't know when it happened, the passing from one way of being to another. Perhaps when my son, my youngest, began at university - but that wouldn't quite explain it because I always cooked. Perhaps it was having to give up regular teaching work because of illness, seeing how precious my small measure of strength was, reconsidering what I might spend it on. And losing the taste for meat. Whatever, I don't much like cooking any more. I like food and convivial meals, and blood sugar levels cry out if meals aren't regular. But all of a sudden, it seems, I am happy to have baked beans for lunch several days in a row, fish fingers for supper (quite healthy with fresh steamed veg) twice a week. And lovely free range eggs, poached or boiled, with toast. Finding good, cheap places in Brighton where I can eat out and avoid cooking at all makes me happy.
It is the birthday of Mr. Signs tomorrow. We will have cake and sandwiches with neighbours, and again on the weekend in Brighton with children and others. I won't be baking anything, not even a batch of Betty Crocker's Brownie's. I may even use Waitrose deli fillers for the sandwiches. I will choose nice things and there will be raw carrots, celery and cucumber to dip and crunch.
The mater will understand this sea-change. At last - a chip off the old block.