I have absolutely no memory of dinners before my parents’ divorce, which is odd because I was six at the time and as divorces go theirs was quite painless. Our meals were not marred by screaming matches; there was no seething tension across the table. Mum and Dad might not have been best suited as for-better-or-for-worse partners, but they were never deliberately unkind.
No doubt a psychoanalyst would suggest there is more to my amnesia than meets the eye. I prefer to focus on the dinners I can remember, those after the divorce, when life was divided into time at Mum’s house and with Dad. The split was 50:50, almost to the second, a constraint that made mealtimes more significant.
Mum shopped and cooked efficiently and effectively, with an eye on the time and the contents of the fridge. Her dinners provided steady beats of competency, routine and warmth, drawing on Delia Smith, recipes inherited from her own mother and whatever ingredients needed using up. More resonant are the meals assembled by my shell-shocked dad, such as scrambled eggs whipped up with a fork and microwaved until just short of solid. The eggs retained the shape of the measuring jug as Dad spooned them on to I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter-ed toast, where they would sit pale, pepper-flecked and quivering.
I neither loved them nor hated them. One advantage of my brother and me being so young when Dad found himself in the deep end of dinner prep was that we had no point of comparison. Mum didn’t cook scrambled eggs – too much faff for breakfast, not enough food for dinner. Even if she had we’d never have mentioned it, not comparing our parents being one of our unspoken golden rules. Today my 27-year-old brother’s silky soft, buttery eggs are a source of pride but it wasn’t an aversion to Dad’s eggs that drove him to perfect them. Looking back, he says: “I think for a long time I just thought that eggs were always cooked in a microwave; that was what scrambled eggs were.”
Even then, we were aware of the effort Dad made. Our hot chocolate – again, microwaved – was so rich that bubbles of powder would pool on the surface and pop with sweetness on our tongues. At pre-dinner drinks, a weekend ritual Dad never failed to observe even without adult company, we “cheers-ed” his wine with glasses of grape juice, our lips stained pink with complicity. Despite Dad’s general culinary incompetence he had a greedily instinctive sense of seasonality, so come grapefruit season each blushing half would be divided into segments and showered with sugar like a giant fruit pastille.
Cooking “with love” is a platitude bandied around everywhere from Michelin-starred restaurants to supermarkets. When I say Dad could not cook with anything else, it’s a tribute to his character rather than skills in the kitchen: love and how to switch on the microwave was all he knew. Whether it was microwaved Weetabix or Chicken Tonight chicken on saucepan-shaped mounds of rice, love was my dad’s signature flavour; so it was around his table that my brother and I first learned that eating, just as much as cooking, is an act of devotion. That when someone who loves you serves dinner, they are putting more than food on your plate.
It was there, too, that we learned our funny, kind, clever and in all other respects capable father was fallible. Meal by meal, mouthful by mouthful we discovered as children what many people don’t quite realise until adulthood: parents aren’t perfect. Dad remains the most intelligent, practical man I know, helpful with homework, able to answer any question, and translate even the most complex of K-Nex sets into monster trucks and ferris wheels. That the most basic cookery could reduce him to swearing at a microwave didn’t lessen him in our eyes – but the passing glimpse of a defeated grownup stood us in good stead for an adult world in which most people are muddling along.
If anything, his ineptitude was endearing, with its idiosyncratic blend of flair and failure, luxury and mundanity. The grapefruit was cut with a grapefruit knife and served with spoons boasting serrated edges. We spread our I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter with a butter knife. In August, corn on the cob came with crampon-like grips for the pool of vegetable fat spread in which it slipped and slid. What Dad lacked in skill he made up for in customised cutlery. Though the execution was often wanting, he was so invested in the idea of these meals it was impossible not to be swept along by his enthusiasm.
What mattered to him, even more than fancy tools, was our being around the same table. Given the emotional antennae the children of divorced parents invariably develop, we knew that too and enjoyed our meals as loudly and lovingly as possible. We bellowed the Chicken Tonight jingle and squealed in disgust when Dad flashed a grin full of corn kernels: “I’m saving some for later,” he’d joke.
Dinner at Mum’s was definitely tastier and less chaotic, arriving on time and with considerably less expletive-ridden exertion. There was an air of collusion to meals with Dad: a devoted, gleeful camaraderie. They were fun. They were ridiculous: the meals themselves, and our riffing around them. Dad has always been able to laugh at himself. “What are you going to say about that shit?!” he snorted, when I told him I was writing about his cooking.
Nevertheless, I was haunted by the fragility of those moments around his kitchen table; the sense they were often shaped by hurt. During the six years between the divorce and his meeting my now-stepmother, Melanie, I would feel responsible for my dad’s happiness. That he was a successful lawyer with a strong set of friends, and I was a seven-year-old prone to watching The Snowman on repeat and crying dramatically, was irrelevant; if anything, my anxiety was compounded by knowing just how unqualified I was for my unappointed role. I ate his meals and when he came home late from the office I stayed up either to eat with him or at the very least have a hot chocolate: “I couldn’t believe how late you were going to bed some nights,” Melanie now remembers. Though this self-imposed burden waned with their marriage and Dad’s “retirement” from cooking, it would resurface when I developed an eating disorder as a teenager and found it was Dad I felt most guilty about hurting when I pushed half-eaten plates of food away.
It was my mum and, at Dad’s house, Melanie, who would bear the brunt of this illness when it came – and both did so valiantly. That’s another story; more pertinent to this one is that Melanie’s arrival, with our two now-brothers, didn’t just transform the food on our table; it swept the eddies of vulnerability beneath it clean away. The laughter remained – indeed was heightened by the addition of three people whose sense of the ridiculous was at least as keen as ours, and by the raucous, big-family dynamic we created. Dad was noticeably relieved. Freed from the microwave, he retreated to duties he enjoyed: washing up, loading the dishwasher and making every mealtime an occasion, complete with customised cutlery, the odd unnecessary treat from Waitrose and, when we were old enough, wine.
Cooking is complicated; both the act itself, and our reasons for doing so. Eating might be necessary but cooking, in this age of fast food, snacks and ready meals, is not. When I cook for others, it is because I want to. I care for them, sure – but I also enjoy it and hope to impress with my efforts. Dad, on the other hand, donned his apron for the same reasons parents with no aptitude for sport kick a ball around: not because he wanted or needed to, but because he knew we’d be healthier and happier if he did.
In the face of technical and emotional strife, those meals were a triumph of taste and togetherness. They forged a gruesome-threesome spirit that lives on within our beloved, six-strong family. Dad wasn’t the only one who was relieved when we discovered Melanie’s dinners: her creamy fish pie was heaven, her baked rice pudding a sweet balm after years of Ambrosia. Yet for all the swearing, the wobbling eggs and the pulverised Weetabix, I would not have missed Dad’s Dinner Years and my heart still thrills to the microwave’s bright, heartening ping.