The Food of Love

I love food. No big secret there. I spend a very large proportion of my waking hours either shopping for food, cooking, eating or thinking about what I want to buy, cook or eat.

The last couple of months, though, have challenged this love somewhat. Sophia is now eating three meals a day (and by ‘eating’ I am using the baby definition, which actually means throwing to the floor or smearing as widely as possible across face, hair, clothes and anyone unwise enough to be in her vicinity), and so in addition to all the other family meals I have to think about what she is going to eat. If there’s one thing hungry babies don’t like, it is mummy vanishing into the kitchen to spend ages cooking, so Sophia’s food needs to be planned and preferably cooked in advance.

My husband and I have always eaten separately from Anna during the week. There are several reasons. One is that my husband is almost never home before 7pm, often much later, and, in my opinion anyway, that is far too late for a young child to be eating and going to bed. There is the option of me eating with Anna and husband eating alone later, but that would still be two  separate meals, and it is not something we’ve seriously considered as we both feel that taking the time to sit down together for a proper meal, sometimes a glass of wine, and really catching up on each other’s days, however dramatic or mundane those days have been, is a real cornerstone of our marriage. I sit at the table with Anna, and chat to her, and sometimes have a snack to keep me going until dinner at 8.30pm, but I am always glad to have that adult time to look forward to. Another, more prosaic, reason for our decision is that we (especially I!) love spicy food. Rarely a week goes by without us eating Thai. Indian or Mexican style food, and Anna has made it abundantly clear that she is not a fan, and I’m not prepared to give up my curries in the interests of a family meal.

My plan was (and is) that now Anna and Sophia can now eat their evening meals together. This is working a lot of the time, but they’re not always eating the same food, so often I’m cooking separately for them. Sometimes this is because Sophia is still on a strict(ish) no salt, no sugar regime, and I don’t want to deprive Anna of reasonable treats for the sake of eating the same as her sister. Sometimes Anna has eaten a big school lunch and only wants a sandwich. And sometimes I want to take advantage of the fact that Sophia is yet to develop an intolerance for green veg and cram as much spinach and broccoli into her as I can before she decides they’re inedible. Anna has been of that view since she was about fourteen months. Meals I have discovered which work for both of them are eggy bread, beans on toast, macaroni cheese, pasta with tomato and veg sauce, baked potatoes, and chilli (without the hot spices). I’m working on increasing that repertoire, but in the meantime, a standard day can see me making porridge and toast for breakfast (having previously batch cooked the granola my husband eats), then something for mine and Sophia’s lunch, then a snack for Anna when she gets home from school, then an evening meal for Sophia, an evening meal for Anna and an evening meal for us. Throw in a play date guest, or a bake sale at school, or an ungovernable yearning for chocolate brownies, and you can see why I’m never out of the kitchen.

I still love food and cooking. I love the sense of nurturing and providing for my family. And I am thankful daily that we are lucky enough to be able to afford plenty of good, safe, nutritious food and the fuel to cook it with. But. But. Sometimes it just all feels so relentless. It’s not just the cooking, it’s planning it, and making sure we’ve got the ingredients in stock, and then clearing the kitchen, loading and unloading the dishwasher, picking up the discarded food from under the table and wiping everything clean, washing the filthy bibs and muslins and mopping up the spilt milk. There is a certain, inescapable, amount of drudgery involved, and it can be difficult not to feel overwhelmed by it, and lately I have been.

cinnamon bunsOn Sunday, though, I surprised myself by trying a new and fairly complicated recipe for cinnamon swirl bins, just for the fun of it. I’d got the recipe from Jenny Colgan’s novel The Little Beach Street Bakery (if there’s one thing I love more than a good chick lit novel, it’s a chick lit novel with ace recipes in it!), and I was a little trepidatious because dedicated viewing of the Great British Bake Off has taught me that sweetened, enriched doughs can be very tricky. I could almost see the sceptical look on Paul Hollywood’s face. But, do you know what, they worked! They were absolutely delicious if I do say so myself. Their appearance could probably be tactfully described as rustic, and I may have been a bit heavy handed with the icing (although no one complained), but they tasted incredible – so much nicer than anything similar you can buy. Along with an omelette they made a fantastic lazy Sunday brunch which we all enjoyed (I stretched the no sugar rule sufficiently to give Sophia a taste), and I rediscovered my love for pottering in the kitchen. Perhaps simply because they weren’t an essential meal it made baking them all the more enjoyable. The food I make generally comes out of love for my family, but it was nice to reignite my own love of food too.

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner…

This is a month of anniversaries for me. Today is my 5th wedding anniversary, and 16th anniversary of getting together with my husband. As always when I think about my relationship I thank my lucky stars that I have the enormous good fortune to be married to my best friend and favourite person.

This month also marks another very significant event; my 10th anniversary as a Londoner.pearly king and queen Annoyingly, as I am very much someone who remembers and marks special dates, I can’t recall the exact date I moved to London, but I do know it was October 2005. My love affair with London is of nearly as long standing as my love affair with my husband. Six days after getting together, at the beginning of our first term at university, we took the Oxford Tube to London for a day trip. Husband is a Londoner born and bred, and is passionate and hugely knowledgable about his city, so he was thrilled to have the opportunity to show me round the tourist sites, and I think my excitement and enthusiasm for them probably cemented our fledgling relationship.

We were poor students, so I don’t think we actually went in anywhere, or nowhere you had to pay, but we walked our legs off through Westminster and Soho, Piccadilly and St James, the City and the West End. We took a Routemaster bus, and got the Tube to Angel (just because I liked the name), and had a Pizza Hut all-you-can-eat buffet for lunch, before arriving back in Oxford exhausted and exhilarated in the early hours of the morning. During that day I fell irrevocably in love twice, with the boy and with the city. And clearly constance and fidelity are virtues of mine, because sixteen years later I still feel the same for them both.

I squatted a fair bit with my eternally patient in-laws, but it took another six years before we had our own London address – a tiny two-bedroom flat in a converted Victorian terrace in Clapham. One of the most vivid memories of my life is the night we moved in. A friend of ours had taken pity on our pathetic non-driving selves and hired a van to help us move our stuff down from Birmingham. We were renting furnished flats in those days, so ‘stuff’ mainly consisted of very many boxes of books. Inevitably the loading and the drive down took longer than we’d anticipated, and it was already dark when we arrived in Clapham. We parked the van illegally, and I was left with it to charm any passing traffic wardens while the boys carried the boxes in. Slightly stereotypical  division of roles, but there you go. I sat in the front of this van, gazing at the tall, thin Victorian houses with their brightly lit windows and unknown lives within, and thrilled head to foot at the sense of excitement and anticipation and possibility that London always conveys, and which I was finally a part of.

We were only in Clapham two years before putting down our abiding Walthamstow roots, but I know the memory of that October evening will be with me my whole life.

One of the things I love most about London is that I feel confident describing myself as a Londoner, even though I wasn’t born here. The concept of the world in one city has become something of a cliche, but it is that way for a reason. This city of 270 nationalities and more than 300 languages can celebrate diversity whilst achieving coherence. I can be a Scouser, and a Northerner and a Londoner without a flicker of contradiction.

The last ten years has seen me with three different London addresses, two different London-based jobs and a complete career change, a London wedding and two London babies. I have learnt never to stand on an escalator when I could walk, or walk when I could run. I have learnt that 4 minutes is an utterly unacceptable time to wait for a Tube train. I have learnt the spot to stand in to guarantee a seat on stations I use frequently, and that you don’t make eye contact with people on public transport. I have learnt that Londoners aren’t as unfriendly as Northerners think they are, unless you break any of the rules I just mentioned. And I know that, although Liverpool is my home town, and Oxford will always have a special place in my heart, that although I might bemoan London’s pollution and over-crowding and expense, this city and I were made for each other and I can’t see that ever changing.

Truth and perception

One of my favourite bloggers, Chiswick Mum, wrote a post recently about Pinterest and how real life never quite seems to live up to the shiny perfection of many of the pins on there. It got me thinking about writing and blogging and how easy it is to portray a one-sided image without even entirely meaning to.

Take last Sunday. We had an idyllic family day out around Central London. Anna loves fountains, and so we decided to set out and see how many different fountains we could spot, starting in Trafalgar Square.trafalgar sq We were disappointed that the fountains which normally fill the central courtyard of Somerset House had been replaced by an exhibition of sculptures, but actually Anna and Sophia had a wonderful time playing there anyway. Sophia was thrilled to have such an enormous space to crawl round, Anna adored playing the protective big sister and looking after her, and husband and I were pretty pleased to be able to relax in the sunshine and watch our girls having fun.somerset house

We pottered through Soho and Covent Garden, bought Anna a long-coveted policeman’s helmet at one of the tourist trap gift shops, and then ended the day in the newly refurbished Granary Square by Kings Cross station. Sophia ate her tea while we watched Anna caper through the amazing fountains there; me feeling like a very smug mummy that I’d thought to bring a change of clothes for her!
granary squareNot bad to have weather good enough to do that at 5pm in early October.

When we got home I had another smug mummy moment as, after putting Sophia to bed, we all sat down to black bean chilli which I’d remembered to lift out of the freezer that morning, with sweet potato wedges and frog dip (aka guacamole) which Anna and I made while the potatoes were cooking. Delicious and nutritious.

All this is true, and the photos are an accurate representation of a really lovely day. But, it’s only part of the story. In that portrayal I have chosen to leave out certain elements. Like the fact that we almost didn’t manage to leave the house at all because husband and I were arguing about whether we had breakfast at home and then went out afterwards, or whether we should go out for brunch. Like the fact that I was recovering from a 24 hour vomiting bug and spent the whole day watching the children like hawks for any sign that they too were about to start throwing their guts up. Like me telling Anna off and her getting upset because she started messing with the nappy bin in the fairly grubby public loo where we were trying to change Sophia’s very messy nappy. Like me dropping my iPhone and smashing the screen (for the second time in a month!). Like me deciding to make a microwave steam pudding as a treat after our chilli, and ruining it because it transpired that the milk I’d used was on the turn and curdled as I began to whisk the mixture. I could have written a blog post which played up all these incidents and created the perception of a truly disastrous day.

The truth, in social media as in life, is always more finely nuanced than any one-sided picture can accurately portray. It’s worth bearing that in mind when peeping enviously in at the window of someone’s seemingly golden life, and it’s also worth bearing in mind when you feel like all the balls you’re juggling yourself have come crashing down, and that there is no silver lining to your particular cloud, because perhaps, just perhaps, if you look at it from another angle, there is.