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Saturday, 16 April 2016

RR as chef: a brief life

VR retired two years after I did. I occupied myself in the empty house writing freelance articles and preparing evening meals for the five days of the working week. Ironically the freelance work became financially, if not intellectually, successful but even the extra £12,000 a year it brought in wasn't sufficient encouragement to keep going into old age. I turned to fiction from which I haven't made a penny.

That left the kitchen. You'll notice I say "preparing evening meals", I don't say "cooking". That doesn't mean I heated a Tesco's made-up cottage pie, only that my work in the kitchen was perfunctory, rigid and dismissive. My repertory consisted of fifteen predictable dishes (fish pie, lasagne, vegetable soup, macaroni cheese, meat loaf, eggs mornay, etc) all created from scratch and repeated twice a month.

Did I risk boring my wife to death at the table? No sir! She maintains neither the limited range nor my lack of imagination mattered a scrap. The fact that someone other than she was producing dinner was all that counted.

My view is I "assembled" these dishes, I didn't "cook" them. In cooking, constituents change radically, a cake being the obvious example. Cooking also involves risk. One assembles  bolognese sauce, one (riskily) cooks hollandaise sauce. The nearest I came to cooking was putting together béchamel (Or was it the preliminary roux?) that is the basis of the white stuff in lasagne and fish pie.

I look back on this period of my life as faintly heroic, outside established norms. VR regards it wistfully, wishing I’d resume. If pressed hard enough I agree to lunch out.

Most men have never made béchamel/roux and I enjoy the sense of exclusivity. Male achievement is not confined to hairy-chests or self-indulgent work with spanners.


  1. One of the reasons I have gotten as much done as I have--sometimes it seems very little, but it could have been less--is that my husband cooks dinner. He is an ingenious and imaginative cook and baker, so that I am constantly contemplating how soon it is before I must diet. He started to take over when our second child was a toddler, and it has been a great thing for me. All those hours....

    He gets on jags. Once he made a cheesecake just about every day for a month so that he could perfect his mode. For a while, he just cooked right through issues of Gourmet magazine. At times he goes on bouts of foreign cookery. It's fun and so helpful for me. I can't begin to think what my favorite dishes he has made were, though I remember with some longing the croissants he made.

    Your wife knows she was lucky in that time!

  2. Marly: I envisage a short story: Cheesecake Jag. The husband, X, cooks from pure sensual delight (after all, cooking appeals to the full five senses), glad too that his work contributes to the comity of the family. But never admits this at the Yugoslav Club softball team where his acceptance (as replacement catcher) is often at risk because his dignity as a man of the cloth is thought to be in conflict with the rest of the members who are all employed in beer distribution.

    We'll assume this takes place in Milwaukee although the echt Yugoslav Club softball group is based in a Pittsburgh suburb.

    Secretly X's wife, Y, submits one of the cheesecakes produced during X's jag under her own name to a competition, intending to reveal the cake's real author at the prize-giving. Members of the Yugoslav Club are present at this event and via a plot device I haven't yet worked out Y recognises the consequences her revelation will bring about for X, her husband. So she lies; says she made the cheesecake; wins a prize.

    In bed that evening Y asks X if it can ever be morally right to lie on behalf of a person one loves. And awaits his answer.

    Your husband is, of course, an unequivocal hero quite unlike the somewhat ambiguous X. I don't think there's anything more I can add other than to say you're definitely lucky too

  3. "self-indulgent work with spanners" could be (or is!) meant for me, RR. I have little interest in food and none at all in cooking it. However I can manage a quick fry up after degreasing my hands and then a return to the workshop after eating it. One must get the priorities in order!

  4. "little interest in food". So what exactly is the point of calling in at the quality tea-rooms?

    "(no interest) at all in preparing it" My wife was working a full five-day week. I could have lolled at home throughout the day and demanded a meal from my couch when she arrived. I chose to help out. I have often questioned your adherence to nostalgia and this appears to be another aspect of it; a nostalgia for times when women were officially second-class, unpaid skivvies, forced to drudge whatever the circumstances. This is the 21st century, Avus, your spanner-work is merely a hobby, on a par with stamp collecting. In the sense that your hands get dirty it may look like work but it isn't. I'll bet you eschew the vacuum cleaner too. And did you clean the sink after meeting your priority?

    Conceivably you sought to get up my nose with this, in the manner of other comments. I'll admit it; you did.

  5. I must send you a clean handkerchief for that nose of yours, RR. I got the reaction I expected! Still I enjoy our friendly (I hope) boxing bouts.

    I do, in fact share the housework with my wife who has such severe arthritis that heavy handwork (bed making, hovering, etc.) would be very painful for her. I do not expect her to do fancy cooking for me/us (although she still insists on it). She, in fact, likes the fact that food is not of interest to me, since it means I am quite happy with whatever goes on the table. I encourage her to attend her womens' group meetings/outings and her many church events (she is in the choir) and she knows that I am perfectly happy to fend for myself if she is away at mealtimes. We work as a team, as 57 years of marriage will attest.

    As to the "quality tearooms", they are merely a convenient chance to top up the bodily machine during a ride. Rather like a petrol station which one goes to from necessity rather than choice. It would not matter to me if it was a wayside nosh wagon. One would probably get better value and larger helpings, too!

  6. PS:
    I must add that my wife is not a follower of Transcendental Meditation and has never "hovered". She may have "hoovered" in the past though.

  7. Avus: It's easy to predict my reaction if you say something laddish. I mean if you admit to strangling babies I'm hardly likely to approve. Try me with something that hasn't been snipped from a Daily Mail headline; I'm likely to give better value.

    I've been pondering your strange lack of culinary preferences; you must surely be unique in that. It could be taken to mean you'd eat anything; if that's the case I'm almost tempted to come down to Ashford and try you out. First off, I'd tell you what an andouillette consists of and then watch on as you ate one. It is, as they say, an acquired taste. After that a hundred-year-old egg (resembling black blancmange) of the sort I ate in Tokyo. After that a caramelised grasshopper (also in Tokyo). You must have been the only contented diner doing National Service; able to consume with equanimity the scrambled eggs they prepared the night before on huge trays and which underwent a strange transformation during the dark hours: water leaching out of the mixture, freeing yellow clots to float at random like... I think it's better I don't complete the simile.

  8. Ugh! Now National Service meals were a thing apart and I don't thank you for reminding me of them (remember the large kidneys in a grey liquid?). Self and a couple of mates saved our meagre pay and went to the Marlowe Repertory Theatre (Canterbury)on a Tuesday each week. We ate afterwards at the Castle Café and enjoyed mushrooms on toast followed by waffles, syrup and ice cream. If we were very lucky the lead player would come in for his evening meal. Garfield Morgan - remember him, he was later the chief superintendent in "The Sweeney".
    We felt so metropolitan, a term which wasn't around at that time, " sophisticated" perhaps substituting. Be kind - we were only 18/19 at the time.

  9. Avus: I'm so relieved. So you do have standards. That filling-station talk - it's all mullarkey.

    Pity you weren't with the Brylcreem Boys. When the year's training in electronics was over, and terminal athlete's foot had proved I wasn't suited to Far East Air Force, I was transferred to RAF Lindholme, near Doncaster, an operational station for training navigators. A snob thing, too. Flying's important to the boys in blue and the food was much better

  10. That ought to be a Wodehousian tale!