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7 December 2023

Cooking for others gives me purpose. That doesn’t mean I enjoy it

You know why chefs are skinny and have explosive tempers? Because their mothers try to help them in the kitchen…

By Nicholas Lezard

A busy time. I had to get everything done by Wednesday evening because I had volunteered to cook Thanksgiving dinner at my mother’s in London. I volunteered because I got tired of hearing her ask, during our weekly phone call, when she was going to see me next. I had a brainwave in September and said: “Why don’t I cook for Thanksgiving? Bring the family to see you too?” (She’s American, you see.) I thought this was sufficiently far away as to be actually Not Happening, and which also meant I had a pleasing answer to her regular weekly question.

But the day dawned, and I set off for King’s Cross to meet my friend D— off the train from Leeds. I’d heard that my nephew couldn’t make it and D—, whose career went tits up during Covid and who has been reduced to living in the family home, was having an extremely stressful time, so I invited her down. The numbers would be the same, I was cooking the damn thing anyway, she gets on with everyone, and I could also mess with my family’s heads by not saying a thing about her beforehand and, furthermore, giving no hint whatsoever as to whether she was my girlfriend or not. She isn’t. But she falls into the right age bracket – or under it, for the added distress of my children – and we have known each other for years. She is one of the very few people on Earth who has seen the inside of the Hove-l. In the end, my children never asked; they can do deadpan as well as, if not better than, their father. It’s a shame, really. I had a little speech all ready for them: “Kids, you know how Daddy and Ben love each other very much but don’t go to bed and do private things together? Well, it’s like that with me and D—.”

[See also: My sobriety ended when Waitrose put its port on offer]

The cooking. Why do I do this? Especially a big roast dinner for nine people including myself. Six veg and a turkey the size of a mastiff. Plus stuffing. And pigs in blankets. And all this performed with two ears plugged solid with wax, which puts me in a permanently bad mood. Other things put me in a bit of a grump. The lack of certain key ingredients. (“What do you mean, you don’t have any onions?”) The presence, right in front of wherever I needed to be, of a ninety-something lady shuffling around, putting things away that I wanted out because she wanted to be “helpful”. And who, for extra effect, sighed and tutted every time I took a sip of wine. I had five hours of this, on my feet. You know why chefs are skinny and have explosive tempers? Because their mothers try to help them in the kitchen.

I realised that I have an urge to cook for people as strong as the salmon’s return to the spawning grounds. The salmon doesn’t have to like it: in fact it probably resents the entire trip, wondering why it agreed to this in the first place, especially if the spawning grounds are full of tiresome memories of childhood and in an unfashionable part of London.

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But there it is: I have to cook for people every so often because otherwise I feel I have no purpose in life. And I’m not a bad cook, and people know this. It is the selfish person’s way of both being the centre of attention and doing a good thing at the same time. Although saying “Get out of my kitchen” 76 times an hour to a venerable and conscientious parent is perhaps not exactly good… but you get my drift.

In the end, I sat dazed at the head of the table, too stressed out to even eat what I’d cooked, let alone contribute much to the conversation. Also, the deafness didn’t help. At least I knew I had the younger generation there to do the washing-up.

D— and I stayed the night and the next morning we shot off at the fag end of the rush hour. It was funny and sad at the same time watching all the commuters on their way to work. I had not thought death had undone so many. I was in pain from a chest infection, I had a cold, and I was wheezing for breath. But you know me, I always look on the bright side. As we passed through the ticket gates at King’s Cross, I said to D—, “In four days’ time I’m getting my ears syringed,” only when I looked I hadn’t said it to D— at all, but to a random commuter roughly her size, who presumably spent the rest of the day telling people that you wouldn’t believe what someone said to me off the Tube this morning. If someone turned to me at quarter past nine in the morning and said those words, I don’t think I’d be the same person ever again.

Madam, if you read these words, I’m terribly sorry and it won’t happen again.

[See also: If I lived with someone I’d drive them insane]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special