I learned to cook at university by the simple expedient of inviting people to dinner parties and bodging my way through menus that were sometimes a runaway success and sometimes a disaster, using the primitive hob provided in our shared kitchen and an ancient Baby Belling stove. On one occasion, borrowing desks and chairs from other people’s rooms, I squeezed in twenty people for an end of term feast. Luckily my room was on the ground floor, because the only way to get to the chairs at the far end was by climbing through the window.
I hold the BBC adaptation of Brideshead Revisited responsible. It had seen me through my A level year, and I was hypnotised by the image of Sebastian Flyte’s splendid lunch party, plovers’ eggs and all. Gathering people together and feeding them struck me as marvellously romantic, even if none of my friends owned a stately home. I still have the recipe book that furnished the menus for those parties, full of such 1980’s delights as smoked fish in turkey breasts, cucumber and green peppercorns in aspic, and curried beef surprise cake.
Years of more mundane catering have never dampened my enthusiasm for cooking. I’m still a sucker for the idea of people gathered around a table, of huge bowls of food, of conversation flowing and friendships blossoming. (Or indeed arguments brewing, wine thrown across the table, seasonings gone spectacularly wrong: I cherish those memories too.) During lockdown, the group chat which kept us in touch with our twenty-something children buzzed with recipes and photos of meals cooked and eaten in isolation. Much as I longed to gather them all round the table for a grand family feast, something of the spirit of those occasions was captured by sharing the pleasure of cooking and eating, miles apart.
Small wonder, then, that the constructing and consuming of elaborate (and not-so elaborate) meals constantly finds its way into my writing – and that I’m always a little disappointed when I read a novel in which no one seems to eat, much less to cook. I loved the fact that Clare Chambers’ Small Pleasures contained a recipe for spiced apple cake (yes, I made it – and it was delicious). I always feel I learn more about a character from what they eat than from what they wear, and I know exactly what to feel about someone with an empty fridge.
Feeding people can be a metaphor for caring, a stage-set for seduction, a way of marking the daily effort of carrying on in spite of despair – and eating together can encompass a multitude of social nuance. In my new novel The Shadow Child, a younger couple and an older couple, forging a tentative friendship in odd circumstances, invite each other for supper in turn, and we see the preparations (anxious, elaborate, trying to conceal the effort involved) and the slightly disappointing way the meals unfold. We see the younger couple nurturing habits that will make them feel securely established (‘carefully shaped pleasures like their Friday evening bibimbap’) and the older couple trying to console each other for the losses they’ve suffered by sharing the same dishes they’ve eaten together since they, too, were young and carefree.
I thought a lot, when I was writing the book, about the number of meals that go into a forty year marriage – the sheer physical labour of all that chopping and stirring and beating – as well as the excitement of cooking together when you first share a house with someone. I thought about the way repeated routines wear a groove into your life, and the glitter of possibility offered by a new recipe. And all the way through, of course, I was cooking meals for myself and my family. The proof is there in the acknowledgements, which thank ‘Meera, Sabrina, Nigella and Marcella, our constant companions in the kitchen’…
Rachel Hancox is the author of The Shadow Child published by Century on 14 April 2022