Despite my mother being a really good cook, and enjoying my food, I spent my formative years swapping all my school dinner tokens for Mars Bars… What was I thinking! Probably trying to fatten up and grow the seemingly essential bits that all the other girls seemed to have but that I lacked so conspicuously! Sadly, despite my diligent efforts with the chocolate I still weighed less than a twig and all that happened was I got spots as well. Lovely. A spotty twig. (I’d gladly take the spots for that thigh gap now – who knew I was so far ahead of my time.)
Luckily I eventually learnt to cook properly and amongst other things tried to teach nutrition to disinterested debs at Leiths School of Food and Wine. ‘What should you have for breakfast?’ ‘a cigarette’. Fair enough. At that point, only about two years older than they were I’d probably had the same before jumping on my rusty old bike and wheezing my way up Kensington Church Street: it seemed pretty two-faced to lecture them about about carbs vs protein and Diabetes. Back then I’d hardly heard of Coeliac Disease and intolerance was not yet a word in the everyday lexicon.
The first time I got properly stopped in my tracks and paid real attention was when as a young mum I invited a new friend to supper with her husband who, she said, was on a medically necessary strict low cholesterol diet. As a keen cook interested in nutrition it should have been no more than a quick mental check and a trip to the shops, but at the time this couple had three young children and the thought of me rendering them fatherless due to my incompetence frightened all logic and common sense out of me. As the mother of three young children myself I didn’t have the luxury of much time to research good fats, bad fats, or even special recipes. This was before the days of internet searches and Amazon and I can still remember with shame the piece of horrible dried up, fatless, cheeseless, saltless, sauceless, skinless chicken that I offered them.
A few years later, I had to connect deeply with the food gods (and thankfully a young Google) to feed my nauseous, radiated, and chemo flattened young son. Note: sick kids won’t eat cancer curing carrots! Especially when everything tastes of metal. We survived on black humour instead – as you do when the chips are really down.
Fast forward a few years and now with Coeliac Disease, I see uncertainty in the eyes of people when they invite me for a meal – afraid that if they get it wrong I will finish up on the floor foaming at the mouth. Of course, the unknown is intimidating and people want to get it right. Despite saying I only need to avoid Wheat, Barley and Rye, people apologetically ring me up and ask if I can have nuts, or dairy, or rice, or potatoes! Sometimes I don’t even mention it as I can’t bear to make a fuss – but then again there is the risk of sitting down to pastry, pasta and cakes and then deeply upsetting either the hostess or my entire digestive system!
Upping the ante even more, my now young adult children all come home with large groups of friends most of whom seem to need a special diet of one sort or another and it is the combination of different diets all at once that really tests ones skill and inventiveness. Our last holiday with some of their friends along had me cooking Alcohol Free, Gluten Free, Kosher with no Legumes – halfway up a mountain with only one shop… What I have learnt along the way I now share.
To J – who taught me that first important lesson.