How do you solve a problem like Maria? This song kept springing to mind as I struggled to write this column, my final one for The Irish Times. Apart from the fact that I'm a little bit in love with Maria (and, of course, with Christopher Plummer), the song reminded me of my own dilemma: how to round up eight years of columns and say farewell to you, my wonderful readers?
Patsey Murphy, my first editor in the Magazine, was great fun, full of enthusiasm and encouragement. However, she could sometimes be . . . eh, how shall I say it . . . a little short on details? So, nearly eight years ago to this day, Alan Betson – photographer extraordinaire – came up to our kitchens in Sandyford to photograph the first two dishes for my very first Irish Times column. We struggled to find any natural light and eventually settled on the edge of the photocopier to photograph two dishes. Job done.
Then Alan said he was to take a picture of me as it might be going on the cover. I started to panic. Not a little. But a lot. You see, I was having an exceptionally “ugly” day at work. My hair scraped into a ponytail, chef’s jacket splattered with cake mix and not a scrap of make-up. My male colleagues kindly offered me a motorbike helmet to wear for the picture.
But when the Magazine came out a few weeks later, I didn't care that I looked a bit mad and "sweaty", smiling like a crazy person in my chef's whites. I was so damned proud. You see, writing for The Irish Times gave me so much happiness. It also made my late mother incredibly proud, something we all crave.
I loved the letters I got from readers – well, most of them – as they brought a smile to my face and a tear to my eye. I'd always know the letters that came from Irish Times readers: carefully crafted handwriting, elegant prose and perfect spelling, often pointing out my flawed words, but always encouraging and supportive.
Over time, I got better and more efficient. Individual shoots were replaced by mammoth cooking sessions where we would cook and shoot eight weeks’ worth of photos. Help came from my sister Peaches, followed by Maisha and finally Gillian. We would chop, gossip, taste, admire, criticise and try to perfect dishes that we felt would serve the readers well.
Then the great roll-call of Irish Times photographers – including the late, great David Sleator – would arrive, sent out into the field by the always gracious folks on the picture desk. They would swoop in, furiously click and leave more quickly than they arrived, with a good stock of images, plus some leftovers, stuffed into their bags.
And on many evenings, after an Irish Times shoot, friends and family would come over and really come clean about what dishes they liked or didn't like. It was always a tough edit, but sometimes some dishes had to be thrown out of the final list. They just didn't cut the mustard.
During this time, I also wrote four books, which I would simply never have done if I hadn’t been writing this column. There is nothing like a national newspaper’s deadline to make one do some regular work. I was pretty atrocious at school and would wriggle my way out of most tasks.
Suddenly getting a very grown-up gig in my 30s brought out every swotty cell in my body. Thank you, Patsey, for taking such a punt.
In 2013, as many readers may remember, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. During that time, I missed two weeks of columns. It wasn’t for the glory of being some workaholic martyr. It was because I desperately needed to “keep going”. And when I felt I needed the column to change – as I had done so – the move to healthier eating and a change of direction were encouraged and embraced.
One of my favourite weeks was during a slow summer when "garlicgate" took hold for a week. One reader got quite upset at the amount of garlic in my "Flu Soup" and his letter was published in the paper. This resulted in an Irish Times editorial written by the great Denis Staunton.
Then, as a result of this coverage, I even received an invite to go on RTÉ radio to discuss "garlicgate" with the aforementioned objector. I went on the radio reluctantly to argue the case for garlic, though what I really wanted to say was: "If you don't like garlic, use less, or better still, don't make the soup!"
One of my other crazier assignments was to go out on a fishing boat at 5am to catch crabs. I am beyond terrified of crabs. I cannot deal with them at all. So, my second Irish Times magazine cover may look like I'm delighted to be holding a cutesy crab, but if you look closely enough, you can see I am fighting tears, in between screeching and flinging the evil crustaceans at the fisherman every time they tried to escape. Not a proud day.
Writing this column has been a huge part of my life and I am incredibly lucky and honoured to have graced these pages. But it’s good to leave a party while it’s in full swing and it’s time for new challenges.
So, dear readers, thank you so much for having me and please stay in touch. I'm leaving you today with some of my favourite recipes from the column over the last eight years. And remember, as Mrs Beeton said: " "It may be said that while statesmen may carve nations, good cooks alone can consolidate them."
Hear, hear, Mrs B.