Day Ten: Happy (Insert Special Occasion Here)!
Today’s Prompt: Tell us something about your favorite childhood meal — the one that was always a treat, that meant “celebration,” or that comforted you and has deep roots in your memory. Feel free to focus on any aspect of the meal, from the food you ate to the people who were there to the event it marked.
Today’s twist: Tell the story in your own distinct voice.
If I am honest – when I first read the prompt for this assignment, I thought – Oh crap! Really? And for a teeny tiny nano second – I even considered inventing a believable tale of how my sister and I would help Mum to rustle up oodles of home baked goodies in the kitchen, mesmerised by the tantalisingly tasty treats on offer; of how we would revel in that childish privilege of licking the spoon clean, whilst our fingers and faces became all mucky and sticky with chocolate, butter and flour; or even a story of how we would watch Mum in her pretty apron, humming a song as she basted the chicken ready for roasting – the aromas of gravy and stuffing sending our senses into a wild spin of anticipation. Later we would gather around the family table, talking about this and that, sharing our highlights of the day over our shared love of great food… But, (and I know Mum wouldn’t mind me saying this – she’d be the first to admit it) the truth is – Mum couldn’t cook for shit!
I know that sounds a little harsh, maybe even a little ungrateful – but it’s the truth! Mum’s cooking has been the brunt of our family jokes for years – so why disguise the fact that my childhood memories of food are anything less than, shall we say, unsavory? The thing is – we were never really a meat and two veg family, and I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t touch a single vegetable until I was fifteen years old! (That’s when Gran decided to put an end to our dietary disasters once and for all.) We weren’t even an easy spaghetti bolognaise or lasagna kind of family – the only spaghetti we ever ate came from a tin and were shaped like rubber rings. Pizza? No problem – Mum would pull a pizza straight out of the box from the freezer, bung it in the microwave for two minutes, and buon appetito! Italian city eat your heart out! …Except, we would then bite into said pizza, and the hot cheese (which was now a melted, microwaved mess) would slide off the top, flop onto our hungry little chins and burn the crap out of us in the process! Not bad if you’re in need of a chin wax – but at six and eight years of age, that most definitely wasn’t the case.
Since pizza wasn’t working out, Mum tried her hand at chicken burgers. What could go wrong with chicken burgers? Well – let’s just say, that after Mum had finished with them – the chicken content, which was punching around zero to begin with, was now pushing well into the negatives. Mum would cook the breaded burgers for so long, that any chicken that once existed had completely evaporated into thin air – leaving behind an empty black sack of breadcrumbs (which she would then disguise under a dollop of spaghetti hoops.) Mum got good at hiding her crispy concoctions beneath hoops and beans. She regularly told us that charcoal was good for us!
So with Mum’s culinary skills leaving much to be desired, it might explain why, for four entire years of my childhood life, each night for tea I ate nothing but chicken flavoured two minute Super Noodles and Campbell’s tinned meatballs in gravy. I know I know, I am hanging my head in shame as I write this. (I must also point out that I wasn’t force fed such mush day in day out – I actually asked to be served this less than palatable dish.) To put it bluntly, it was the only meal that Mum didn’t screw up! If you’ve ever cooked instant noodles, you’ll know that over cooking them simply produces a sort of noodle soup. The same is true of canned meatballs (which, I remember, had an unnatural resemblance to the food our cat was eating at the time – and a similar sort of smell) – but they had just enough jellied gravy to withstand a good intense stewing before running the risk of total cremation. So this is what I lived off for four years. Partly because Mum was a pushover, and partly because she had so much trouble mastering boxed freezer food, that all refusal from my sister and I to eat anything remotely resembling a vegetable, simply relieved Mum of the arduous task of producing a home-cooked dinner!
Well, it all came to a head when I was fifteen. Gran, who had grown tired of making Christmas dinners only to be asked by Mum to serve, for me, a separate plate of Super Noodles (‘super’ merely referring to their miraculous inability to burn!) with Campbell’s tinned meatballs (which were not, in fact, balls of meat), and to leave any vegetables off of my sisters plate, finally said to my Mum – “That’s it – if these children won’t eat proper food, then they will eat nothing at all!” My sister, who at the time was edging the strategically hidden swede to the side of her plate, almost cried. And so it began, Gran made it her mission to teach Mum how to cook and to invite us round for tea once a week so that she could wean us onto real food.
Not long after, when I turned seventeen I moved to Spain, where my love of real food and full flavours blossomed and bloomed even further. I delighted in Mediterranean dishes such as Paella’s, Tapas, calamari and albondigas (that’s Spanish for meat balls – and yes! They contained actual meat!) It was in Spain, that I discovered my love of seafood, salads and all things fresh. I also learnt how to cook, since my job as a waitress required me to help out in the kitchen if we were missing a chef. I cooked carbonara, omelettes, entrecôtes and bocodillos – so many delightful dishes that, up until then, were completely alien to me. There was no end to what I was willing to try. My fussy food days were over!
As my travels expanded, so did my palate. In Australia I discovered fresh sushi and Japanese food (available on every street corner and one of my absolute favourite dishes); in Thailand I fell in love with the harmonious combination of flavours that constitutes Thai cooking (and thus, my love of curries and all things spicy grew); my love of spice led me to try Indian cuisine, which I simply adore for its rich and succulent mix of diverse flavours.
As for my Mum, you will be pleased to know that she has also graduated from crispy charcoal and microwaved mush! She has been a vegetarian for eight years now (whether that’s a firm stance against cruelty to animals, or a ploy to avoid the responsibility of rustling up a joint of meat, I have yet to decide!) Just kidding…Mum genuinely loves animals – and whilst some of her dishes do arrive straight from a frozen Linda McCartney box – she has mastered a handful of home cooked meals – one of which is Christmas dinner! And yes – we all gather around the table, my Gran included, talking about this and that, giggling at the memory of Mum’s disastrous cooking.