When asked what my favourite food is, it’s practically impossible for me to choose just one thing. I can’t even pick one meal, let alone one ingredient. I love the flavours of my go-to recipe, a delicious pork and bacon lasagne while the scents of a Sri Lankan chicken curry can drive me to distraction as it simmers away on the cooker. When I was in treatment for breast cancer, sometimes plain pasta and peas with a knob of butter and a grind of black pepper was the only thing worth crawling out of bed for. A light, fresh and vibrant stirfry is my favourite thing to tuck into when I’ve been a bit overindulgent and there’s really nothing better than a Sunday roast and all the trimmings, whatever day of the week it is. Put a block of cheese in front of me and I’ll happily nibble away at it, whether it’s cheddar, Wensleydale, Applewood smoked or, even, if the mood strikes me, a Babybel. Food, to me, is life. And I find solace in pretty much everything I eat – not just the classic comforts of Shepherd’s Pies and chocolate bars. In a perfect world, I think comfort can, and should, be found, whenever you transfer something from fork to tongue.
Cooking too, is somewhat of a salvation for me. Our little kitchen doesn’t have room for fancy gadgets, nor does it have room for more than one person to be in there at any one time, but the process of taking ingredients in their constituent parts and creating something that makes my mouth water has always appealed to me. When making meals, I so often seek new recipes for inspiration and then find myself thinking that I know better than the chef who wrote the recipe and end up freestyling. I’m an absolute tornado in the kitchen – often throwing not only food but pots, pans and bottles on the floor in my haste to whip up a taste sensation. Surfaces represent food war zones and the cooker top is splattered like a Jackson Pollock work of art but where his colours are varied and vibrant hues of paint, my works of art are made up of slices of leek, splatterings of tomato puree and sprinklings of herbs and spices decorating the cooker top as they miss the pan. If I’m baking, you can expect to find floury footprints on the carpet as I’ve spilled on the kitchen lino and proceeded to absent-mindedly trample it through the house. I once managed to get soy sauce on the ceiling, something I consider to be an accolade. I am never clumsier, nor more sweary than I am when I am in the kitchen, but the experience still has some kind of meditative quality about it. My camera roll is filled with poorly captured photos of dishes that I created that tasted incredible but which I could not translate to film.
At the start of my Boobettes talk, in an effort to introduce myself to the audiences and position myself as a real person, I share a few facts about myself. The line that always gets a laugh, or a slight smile of agreement is one of the most honest statements I can possibly say about myself. I tell them “I love food. If I’m not hungry, I’m thinking about being hungry. And if I’m not eating, I’m thinking about what I’m going to be eating soon.” And I really do love food. I love everything about it. From deciding what to eat (though admittedly, sometimes this flummoxes me more than it should), to carefully selecting the ingredients from the supermarket, to chopping and slicing and cutting and grinding and adding and stirring and tasting, to the slop of a saucy dinner as it is transferred from spoon to plate and the sitting down, knife and fork in hand, taking a moment or two to admire whatever I’ve created. Then I adore the way I can dismantle each mouthful to pick it apart with my tastebuds and identify the tastes and flavours of the ingredients I took in their raw, individual form and made into a meal. The way food brings people together is one of my favourite things about the human race. Family meals on mundane Mondays, everyone crammed around a too small table on Christmas Day, trying a new restaurant with old friends, meeting new friends at an old favourite. These are the details that make up the tapestry of my love of food. There’s nothing I like more than inviting a friend around for dinner and feeding them a home-cooked meal. It is, in fact, probably my only maternal inclination (I have come to realise that I may well be lacking in every other department, genetic or societal, for what it takes to want and to be a Mum – but that’s a story for another time).
But so often women are castigated for an open love of food. A passion for pastries can lead to a squishy stomach. An often fulfilled craving for a casserole can result in rounded edges. A big appetite can lead to a loss of abs. And we are told that these things are not good things. We are told that women should be slender and perfect and not gluttons who eat too much food and need to learn some damn restraint. Far too many times I hear or see women withholding food they want, the food they deserve, from themselves because they don’t want to put on an extra few pounds here and there. They restrict their access to, what I believe is one of the purest pleasures in life – the taste of an indulgent pudding on the tongue; the warm fulfilment and comfort offered by a bowl of pasta, that no other food can offer in quite the same way; the satisfaction of giving into a craving every now and again, because it’s your body’s way of telling you what it needs right now. And it is that want that is important. They are choosing not to eat what they want because society is telling them that they shouldn’t.
There is so much darkness in the world and it feels to me like food is a light that we shouldn’t hold back from ourselves, for fear of us growing spindly and yellow like a plant growing in a dark box. We need to seek out light and joy wherever we can find it, and I genuinely think one of the first places we can find a bit of that light and joy is in the kitchen, at the bottom of a tin of soup, or even under the chicken breast on an empty plate at Nando’s. And we should, if we can, allow ourselves that joy, despite what society tells us we should be doing.
This piece came about as a result of a conversation on Twitter about the incredible food writing of former Bakeoff star and all round food hero Ruby Tandoh and other female food writers. Check out Ruby’s latest piece in the Guardian here and the conversation it led to here.