Laoise Casey: ‘No one who cooks, cooks alone’
Through food writing and cookbooks, we are never cooking in solitude, even though we may be in an empty kitchen
“No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers,” wrote Home Cooking author Laurie Colwin.
A plastic bag doubling as a makeshift bin, filled with onion peelings, hangs off the cupboard door. I feel the cold tiles under my bare feet while I thinly slice onions into little crescents. As my eyes start to become prickly, I can’t decide whether these are onion tears or real. Eyeing up my cramped London kitchen, I wonder why the hell I ever left my comfortable life to learn how to cook. The last few days in the restaurant have been one silly mistake after another, my fingers have morphed into 10 thumbs and tonight, during service, everything I touched seemed to end up worse than before. Beside the chopping board lies a crumpled piece of paper with a Theodora Fitzgibbon chicken pie recipe, posted from Dublin by my mum. I tell myself “you are going to stand here and read it, you will make this pie and then you will deal with the world”. I glance through her instructions, interspersed with my mum’s scribblings (add carrots and two slices of streaky rashers). A couple of hours later a pie sits on my kitchen counter, its golden crust (shop bought pastry, and what of it?) hiding tender pieces of chicken in a velvet sauce of onions, leeks, carrots and scented with thyme. I start to think yes, maybe I can do this after all.
What is it about food writing that connects with us? How come we spend so much money on, and read so many, cookbooks? Why do we always need “just one more”? Why are there thousands of new recipes popping up all the time and an ever-expanding database on the internet? What is it about cooking tutorials on, for instance, how to poach eggs, that fascinate us when we know how to do this already? When looking for a pancake recipe and hours later having found more than 40 online, why do you then end up watching videos about wedding cake croquembouches when you have no actual plans to ever make a wedding cake?
You see, for me, excellent food writing makes me feel like I am with an old friend. You know that person you’ve known for years, who guards your secrets and shares theirs with you. These writers grab you and make you imagine you are standing beside them as they cook. Perhaps that’s because I’m a bit nosey and I just like the idea of poking around in someone’s kitchen. Their recipes guide you through the process in a kind conversational way. They make you think that yes, you too can cook like them. And isn’t that what cooking should be about? Teaching others and inspiring them. Nigel Slater, Myrtle and Darina Allen, Marian Keyes, Diana Henry, MFK Fisher, Claudia Roden and Anthony Bourdain – are some of the wonderful writers who do this. There are of course many more. They write in a way that celebrates cooking and food.
This writing is the antithesis to cookbooks that tell you what you should and should not eat. Or ones which class certain foods as good or bad. Yes, for some people those type of books can fill a need and I will not judge anyone who wants that. In the past, I too have deprived myself of particular foods in the hope that it will render me skinnier/prettier/happier/guilt-free/superhuman. Except it never does, does it? I have read about the virtues of clean eating, fasted and spent days on juice detoxes. I may have ended up (temporarily) several pounds lighter but my heart seemed heavier. I have grown tired of being made to feel that my life and everything I do/eat must be perfect. Life itself is imperfect – speckled with a few perfect moments.
I will continue to take my favourite cookbooks to bed and read them like novels. Through food writing I have travelled the world from my bedside, learning about how to crack eggs in Bangladesh and how in Portugal that they have names for desserts like “angels’ chins, camel’s drool and nuns’ tummies”. I have lost hours, and myself, in descriptions of how many ways there are to cook with potatoes. And found myself while discovering the simple pleasure in making a good stock.
I want Niki Sengit (The Flavour Thesaurus) to tell me about how an aubergine’s skin, shiny and tight like a dolphin, squeaks when you squeeze it. I want to learn the joy of making staple ingredients like parsnips sing by adding cream and turmeric. I will read about how a proper soup can make me feel safe and warm. I will listen to the author as they tell me how to make that soup by sweating courgettes, then blending them with nutty brown butter and some crispy fried sage. I crave for them to take me by the hand and show me how to cook beautiful glazed shallots. Perhaps most of all I long to learn how to capture a glimmer of this too in my writing and recipes. I want to bring you into my warm, tiny, kitchen, stay a while and together we will stand at the stove and make fluffy mashed potato, glistening with dots of butter.
Through food writing we are never cooking in solitude, even though we may do so alone. As I made that chicken pie I was flanked by writers and cooks who have come before me, their ideas, thoughts and feelings. I want to stand beside them and keep learning forever. Join me.
Laoise Casey is a chef and writer from Dublin who works at Paradise Garage in Bethnal Green, and writes regular columns for the London Independent and the Evening Standard