Cooking is love and cooking is helpful and to me those two acts are intertwined. I cook for my family, I cook for my friends. God help you if you turn up to my house and you’re not hungry.
The Sundays of my childhood were church, dog walk, Sunday roast, homework. Quiet days, family days. Driving my parents nuts walking in and out and in and out of the sitting room, jarring the ill-fitting ceramic door handle each and every time. Their sitting still and dozing quite un-nerving.
My mum’s few cookbooks lived, and still live, in a wall mounted shelf, high above and to the right hand of the cooker. My mum uses the Cordon Bleu cookery book, a couple of pudding recipe books. That’s about it. She doesn’t need your trends; she can make caramel glazed profiteroles without a recipe, delicate apple tarts, angel cakes rich with raspberries and vanilla spiked whipped cream.
From about 8 years old, I started baking on a Sunday afternoon. Just because, really. Our one simple cookbook was St Michael’s ‘Giving a Children’s Party’. St Michael was the lifestyle section name of Marks and Spencer’s: your clothes were St Michael, the food M&S. The slim cookbook would be hard to find against the 3 inch spine of the Cordon Bleu. I’d have to look at least 4 times before I’d find it, climbing up onto the work surface, rummaging over and over again searching for it. I felt at home rummaging through the baking things, little packets of nuts and dried fruits gently desiccating from one Christmas to the next. Flour and sugar regularly replaced. Butter in the fridge. Never margarine, even in the 80s. I learnt to add my own baking powder to plain flour, that storing plain and self-raising was a waste of time. I saw how happy my brothers were when they saw a cooling rack heavy with cakes or scones.
Years later, when A levels approached, my friends clustered around my dining room table. My parent’s dining room table is a big, thick mahogany beast, with space for my parents, 3 brothers, and me. Sometimes space for more. The room is formal: old family paintings and silver candlesticks. A fireplace with old postcards and a carriage clock. Huge antique dark wood dresser.
So round they came: Rachel, Elizabeth, Jo and Cips. If it was warm or rainy, May or June, I don’t remember. Just the weirdness of having the doors shut against my family and throwing papers into the bin and pretending that we were in ‘A Few Good Men’. The fever of panic against the reality of 3 separate 3 hour exams, of the futures we wanted, and the ending of the safe security of secondary school. The futures we were too scared to want, too. I’d been in the same form group as David Taylor for all 11 of my 13 years of education. I went to the same school my brothers went to, that my mum volunteered at, that my dad had the oversight of. That I’d visited since I was 4 years old, sitting at the head teacher’s desk with my Spot the Dog colouring in. I was leaving, so excited but utterly terrified.
I’d got in the habit of baking birthday cakes for my drama group, my friends. Utterly wound up and anxious about my A levels, I’d default to the “milk chocolate birthday cake” and “chocolate fudge icing” from ‘Giving a Children’s Party’. Everyone knew it by that point and I could make it at 10pm and not make a mistake. The pages were rigid with smears.
I promised Rae that if she studied, I’d give her a wedge of chocolate cake, studded with Milky Way Magic Stars. She loathed the Gothic literature we had to study, so we’d cajole her onwards through thinking about vampires and ghosts while she frowned and scowled. Those days are hazy in my mind’s eye, the adrenaline and, likely, the boozy nights that followed.
We got there, we did okay in our exams. We went to work or to uni, and we kept our little group little gang. We were fused together 11 years ago when our dear Cips died suddenly, during an adventure in Beijing. These friends became something more to me, to each other.
20 years on and I find myself sitting around Rae’s kitchen table, being frowned at and being told that my second ever (now lost to digital deletion) blog post just doesn’t cut it. And I know it doesn’t. “It sounds as though you’re terrified” she says. And I am. She tells me to send her a first draft before I hit send. I pick at my nails and screw up my face and stare at the table and tell them, “I want to be a writer” and “Christ, finally” they say, but know better than to hug me.
They have known me when I wore only a 4 sizes too large TopShop jumper (hey! 1994), a reversible Mickey Mouse sweatshirt (more M&S delights) and cut my fringe viciously. Rae has literally picked me up off the floor in heartbreak. We’ve seen each other post-partum blue and terrified by the shit that life slings out with fucking regularity. So when they tell me I’m letting myself down professionally, I listen. Especially when it fucking infuriates me.
Life is busier now, but we still see each other to talk, work, share ideas, and even, sometimes, just to be together. Each time I sit on Elizabeth’s back step and we take a sneaky peak into her neighbour’s windows through our 3rd (5th) glass of prosecco, eat dark chocolate on Jo’s sofa, or get drip fed red wine and steak around Rae’s dinner table, I am so grateful for my friends. I trust them with every last part of me. And when I can, I bake them cake.