Resolutions are for teenagers. Once we’re adults, we no longer need to start the year with self-loathing, failure and shame. Give blood, walk more, donate to charity, wear your favourite clothes, find a therapist, stroke pets. It helps. But there is scope for self-improvement, even for me and, for 2020, my goals are food-based, because those are the most fun. I can’t eat more vegetables and fruit; no baby elephant could match me, bale for bale. I don’t drink much alcohol, in the circumstances; I eat far, far less steak than I would like. My problem is almost too embarrassing to admit but, at the dawning of a new year, it’s time to face it.
I have forgotten how to cook.
It was my truest passion, and life got in the way. And so I hereby resolve, in the name of wellness, happiness and simple gluttony, to begin again.
It is a blessing to love food. Planning it, reading about it, enjoying it, while starting to look ahead to the next meal, is an inexhaustible pleasure, and learning to cook is its apotheosis, a joy in three dimensions. But it requires confidence. When Nigel Slater’s Real Fast Food was published, I was freshly in London, an extremely junior assistant at a big publishing firm, and it seemed perfectly normal to come home late after an evening of pouring cheap white wine for bestselling authors, turn on Radio One and start cooking, just for me, grilled sardines with mango chutney, pork steaks with fennel or mackerel teriyaki.
As with all my enthusiasms, I didn’t realise that this was peculiar; that most young people preferred alcohol to food, and weren’t going to bed with Elizabeth David’s pornographic masterpiece, French Provincial Cooking. I learnt to cook accidentally, with no one to tell me I was doing it wrong. I had a social asset. Yes, I was odd, but I could make risotto.
So, although barely domesticated in every other way, when I began to cohabit, and we had babies, I knew what to do: I would feed them. And although children are a tough crowd, and we all grew tired of the conveyor belt of fishcakes, minestrone and the sweet potato goo I ambitiously pitched as “power mash”, I had absolute confidence that, faced with seaweed, a hambone, a chickpea, I could harness its deliciousness. I had a magnificent Ikea kitchen and an amateurish but fertile garden of kales, berries, herbs, bitter leaves. If my decade, then two, of experience didn’t tell me what to do, I had cookery books and a fat file of collected recipes; no ingredient could defeat me.
Then I began to falter.
The first blow came when we had a famous writer, author of many novels and one food book, to dinner. I planned, shopped, shyly settled on a variant of Nigella’s seafood pot but, in my nervousness, overcooked the beautiful expensive shellfish; the author’s polite card thanked me for “the interesting fish dish”. One teenager objected to healthy food; we’d have people over, 10, 20, and I couldn’t stop apologising for underseasoning, overcatering. No one noticed my masterpiece, a salad of hand-grown leaves and flowers, shiso, tarragon, chicory, marigold. They were mainly interested in the alcohol.
I began to make bread: not a good sign.
The next kitchen was, in retrospect, not one for cooking in. Mid-divorce, my rented flat had a windowless slice of kitchen, one person wide, stuck in the corner like a turquoise-tiled appendix. It had been a rocky couple of years; the next two were worse. The fridge still bristled with fennel leaves and sticky packets of miso but . . . I simply couldn’t be bothered. My daughter and I subsided into a dismal rotation of carrot soup and sub-Asian salmon; when alone, which I often was, I lacked the energy for more than a horrible bastardised shakshuka, with an egg for protein, eaten at the hob. The bath was too poorly lit for reading cookbooks; I couldn’t fantasise about complicated meals when family illness and turmoil made the future feel so dim. I had no garden, no spare time; inviting friends over to be fed, or to cook together, was inconceivable.
Instead, I became obsessed with kitchen DIY. Kimchi, rosehip vinegar, tomato-leaf salt, pickled crab-apples. I dehydrated mango, bought wormwood from a Chinese herbalist to make my own vermouth. I was unhealthily fixated, well past the point of soothing distraction which minor hipster food-projects can provide.
The nadir came after a long evening of pub Negronis, when I couldn’t go to bed because I was making figleaf oil. There is, trust me, no domestic use for figleaf oil. My sourdough starter grew grey; I put away my childish yoghurt-maker. It was time to move house.
And now, as we enter a fresh decade, I have a new kitchen: square, Seventies pine and green tiles, with a door opening on to a roof terrace and, one day, my home allotment downstairs. Hope? Not yet; I wouldn’t dare. But, as I unpack my 16 million cookbooks, I feel that old excitement, the sense of potential from my early twenties: Sichuan pork tonight, or plov?
Slicing, stirring, eating meals one has made from a few muddy vegetables; I’d forgotten how these can be balm to the soul, a source of the flow the magnificently named psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified as a key to mental peace.
There are notes on the splattered pages: “2010 T made this himself! YUM”. It’s strange and sad to realise that the time of family cooking — being “helped” to make cupcakes, Laura Ingalls Wilder experiments with hot caramel and snow — has passed. I will probably never try making crumpets. But I have daylight, metres of recipes and my disintegrating copy of Real Fast Food. I remember the chilli chicken pitta dripping down my wrist; fortifying breakfasts of Parsee scrambled eggs. I could cook again from this, I find myself thinking. I should.
No: I will.
Charlotte Mendelson is the author of ‘Rhapsody in Green’