Donna Hay, you saved me

April 14, 2014
busy womans cookbook

Even my close friends might be surprised to learn that the first thing I turn to in the Saturday papers are the recipes. They know I’m passionate about politics and books. I’m not renowned for my cooking. But I live in hope that after 40 years of trying, one day I’ll be considered a good cook. For us baby boomer women being a good cook, like having a successful career and raising children who make it to selective high school, was what we aspired to. It was part of the Superwoman package. I’m blessed with friends who are gourmet-class cooks. But I never made the grade.

For this I blame my mother. She’s an excellent cook, still at 85.  Everything she makes tastes delicious. But when I was growing up in the 1960s, she had no patience around cooking and taught me nothing. By the time I left home, everything I knew I’d learnt at home science class at school. I was teamed up with two girls who were already competent cooks at 13; one was from the country, the other from a posh family who knew zucchini from broccoli. Worried I’d lower our collective mark, the girls relegated me to washing up, a task at which I still excel.

When I moved out of home my mother cried copiously but possibly as punishment for deserting her, neglected to give me any recipes as a parting gift; I later learnt that my husband’s mother when he’d left home had handed him a copy of The Busy Woman’s Cookbook. It’s a tome he cherishes to this day. One of his three culinary accomplishments, spaghetti marinara, is drawn from this book and I’m just so grateful that Gourmet Chicken Soup never caught his eye: you add half a cup of cream to a 10oz can of cream of chicken soup. It’s that kind of busy woman cookbook.

But back to me. Frankly I don’t know how I survived the early communal living years. I think we subsisted on chops and marihuana. It wasn’t until I moved to New York in my early 20s that I bought my first cookbook, and began the decades-long quest for self-improvement. It was Craig Claiborne’s Gourmet Diet. He was the New York Times’ food writer and restaurant reviewer, a renowned and feared figure. But by then he’d had a mini-stroke and become converted to no-salt cooking. I think his early influence has held me back. I totally swallowed his no-salt line but everyone tells me, especially my mother, that salt is the secret to good cooking. A recipe I recently read actually said, “Douse with salt.”

The first dinner party I gave in New York was an all Craig Claiborne affair, starting with avocado stuffed with shrimp. Never having tasted an avocado – this was around 1974 – I was keen to try it. Frankly I couldn’t understand the fuss. My guests chipped away at the hard, pale-green cardboard before giving up and eating the shrimp. When I brought out the second course, a chicken casserole, one dinner guest fled from the table distressed. Apparently she’d been raised on a chicken farm and was still traumatised. Ever since, I’ve been anxious about giving dinner parties.

After a while, the massive portions of grain-fed meat served in New York restaurants started to bother me. My waist was expanding and my conscience was pricked. So I entered my vegetarian phase. Diet for a Small Planet and Recipes for a Small Planet were iconic vegetarian cookbooks that guided many of us then. They took a scientific approach to protein to ensure you didn’t just exist on vegetables, cheese and cake. Oh but it was boring – soy beans, lentils, nuts and brown rice. Soon I switched to the Moosewood Cookbook, another vegetarian classic with a more hedonistic approach. For example, its recipe for Vegetable Stroganoff begins with 3 cups of sour cream; its Carrot Mushroom Loaf has five eggs and a cup of grated cheese. I loved that kind of vegetarian cooking but for the sake of my health I had to give it up.

By the time the children came along with my partner and The Busy Woman Cookbook, I knew it was up to me. Career, coaching and cooking…..the superwoman’s lot. And then I discovered Donna Hay. I thank you Donna Hay. She’s a veritable industry now. I have all those early books: The Instant Cook, Food Fast, Cooking, Off the Shelf. Delicious, healthy, quick. As a family cook I made great strides. And Jill Dupleix, your Good Cooking became the nearest thing this family has to a bible. Unfortunately when a young French chef and his wife from Paris  – friends of friends – came to stay for six weeks, I suffered total regression. Trembling, I managed even to muck up tuna spaghetti with anchovies and chillies, the family favourite I must have made 10,000 times.

Now that I’m in my 60s, I figure it’s time to step up. So I bought Jerusalem. If you don’t know it, you’ve probably long since stopping reading this.  It’s the cookbook of the moment. Its recipes resemble nothing I ever ate in Jerusalem whose cuisine seemed limited to chopped cucumber, tomatoes and olives. But reading Jerusalem’s long list of ingredients, including household staples such as date syrup, and its complicated instructions, I realise how wrong I was.

Digging through the archives of my cook books, I should have worn thin, white cotton gloves. Some are so well-thumbed, so crumbly and stained they’re on the verge of disintegration. That’s the evidence of how hard I’ve tried.

Has cooking brought you pleasure? And what books helped? Please Comment.

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