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Monica Porter

Food of Love

Daily Express, 1 September 2005

If your relationship is cooling down then head for the kitchen together to add some spice

They say that the heart of every home is its kitchen, but only in recent years have I have come to appreciate the truth of this adage.

I’ve been out of synch with the times. Decades ago, when it was still normal and necessary for people to toil a bit over their dinners, I had an aversion to cooking. This was because: A) I wasn’t very good at it, and B) I had little incentive to improve. But now that far fewer people have the time or inclination to cook and toil-free options abound, I have discovered what a valuable activity it is. You see, the joy (or otherwise) of cooking is less to do with food, than with people. It’s all about who you are doing it with, and for.

I grew up in a home suffused with delicious aromas. My mother was an enthusiastic cook, excelling in her native Austro-Hungarian cuisine. But she would spend all day in the kitchen, preparing ingredients and slaving over hot pans, and this rigmarole put me off. I rarely entered the kitchen. So, when I got married in the 1970s – at the green age of 22 – I was an absolute novice. Still, I had to get on with it. It was a different era – McDonalds hadn’t yet opened its first UK branch. Wives cooked.

One evening, not long into my wedded state, I decided to prepare a traditional dinner of fish and chips. I’d never made chips before, but my husband was fond of them and I was eager to please.

He sat down at the dinner table, picked up a chip and took a bite. Then he tossed it back on to the plate. ‘I can’t eat this,’ he announced. ‘It’s disgusting.’ I ran into the bedroom and bawled for an hour.

It’s true, the chips were disgusting. I didn’t realise the oil had to be really hot before you plonked them in, so they were soggy and limp. I was willing to learn. But his reaction was so upsetting that I never attempted to fry chips again. Ever.

Needless to say, my husband couldn’t cook, either. In those days most men could only make student grub: baked beans on toast and spaghetti bolognaise. And anyway, he was far from being what we nowadays call a ‘foodie’. For him a meal was mainly a pit-stop for when he was hungry. Once I realised this, I decided I needn’t be too ambitious in the kitchen.

My father once remarked that my husband’s tendency to eat what was put in front of him without paying it much attention (except for those soggy chips) was very lucky for me. Dad’s own opinion of my cooking was fairly low, ever since the notorious dinner I once made for him and a visiting friend while my mother was away. The rump steaks came out an alarming grey colour and looked like something from a mortuary slab…

And so it was that I slipped effortlessly into the image carved out for me by husband, in-laws and family, of the hapless cook bumbling about in the kitchen. Always one for self-irony, no doubt I helped to foster it. But years later, when my culinary skills had significantly improved, I was irritated by the difficulty of shaking off this defunct image.

When our two sons came along, I made them the sort of food kids like, which they scoffed before hurrying off to their football matches, computer games or TV. In the end – typical of modern life, perhaps – all four members of the family would be eating different things, at different times. As for me, I merely nibbled on left-overs, rarely sitting down for a meal.

I say ‘in the end’ because, after 17 years, I got divorced. I’m not suggesting that our chaotic eating habits were the reason for the marriage breakdown, but I’m sure they played a part in it.

Fast-forwarding to the present, my partner Nick and I have been living together for the past four years. Nick enjoys cooking and has a plethora of well-thumbed cookery books. He can turn his hand to most dishes, but is particularly passionate about puddings. At the first dinner he ever cooked for me he made bananas flambé, and as I marvelled at the flames dancing on the rich Cointreau sauce, I knew that this relationship was going to be a different can of beans, so to speak.

Whenever I cooked him a dish from my own limited repertoire, he was appreciative and complimentary. ‘You’re a good cook,’ he’d declare. Words I never thought would be directed at me, and which made me giggle in disbelief.

A peculiar thing happens to a lackadaisical cook when someone values their effort. It makes them want to try harder, branch out a bit, be experimental. Not long after Nick and I started cooking together, I began to cut out recipes from newspapers and suggest that we try them. Pork-and-sage meatballs in tomato sauce. Chicken and mushroom fricassee with snow peas. Very weird behaviour for me.

We’re an unusual couple for our generation: busy working people who nevertheless shun fast food, takeaways and supermarket ready-meals. Most evenings we’ll cook dinner together ‘from scratch’, as it’s so quaintly put. Usually it’s something simple like an omelette and salad, or chops with steamed vegetables. Takes less time than sending out for a pizza.

On weekends we’ll do special meals. Nick is the adventurous one, whipping up soufflés and producing exotic risottos. I like making soups and casseroles, because once you learn the basic principles you can’t go wrong. We also give occasional dinner parties, feeling that entertaining friends at home is a greater expression of friendship than meeting them in a restaurant.

For us, cooking isn’t a tedious, po-faced duty. It’s fun. We’ll open a bottle of wine, put on some music, light the candles and chat about the day’s events. Admittedly, our cooking styles are very different. Nick does everything by the book, poring over recipes, weighing butter, measuring out the flour to the last ounce. I prefer to wing it, chucking ingredients into pots, mixing and stirring, slapping on the spices, until it all ‘feels right’. We complement each other, like all good double-acts.

Sitting down to a meal that has been prepared together with care and enjoyment is a totally different experience to producing routine fodder as a lone, reluctant drudge whose partner has been reading the paper with his feet up or watching the snooker on TV. There is an intimacy about it which strengthens and enriches a couple’s relationship. You don’t have to cook together in order to be close, perhaps, but it does help. Because in the right circumstances, cooking is an act of love. My mother understood that.

However, there is a downside to our culinary coupledom. As I no longer merely nibble on left-overs or grab a bite on the hoof, but sit down to proper home-cooked meals, I’ve been putting on the pounds. Ugh.

Ah well, I’m old enough to know that in this life nothing comes for free. So, with apologies to Shakespeare, if bananas flambé be the food of love, cook on…