February 27th, 2006


She goes on

For lunch today I had beef sandwiches lovingly prepared for me by addedentry, leftovers from a surprisingly successful Sunday roast. I say "surprisingly" because we looked through at least five completely different sets of instructions for how to do the perfect roast before deciding on a strategy which split the difference between the various methods and probably combined the worst features of all of them.

I never learned to cook a roast. In our family Sunday roasts were nearly as rare as Christmas; my parents preferred lower-fat options in general, and my dad -- a butcher's son -- disliked meat in general (and has since become a vegetarian). My friends thought my household was strange and wonderful because we had weird food like pasta and salad, while I thought their meat-and-two-veg meals were an exotic luxury and doubtless delighted their parents by asking for more cabbage, please. So everybody won, in a way.

It's a funny business, though, homemaking. First your home makes you, and then you try to make a replica of it, or a reaction against it (or a mixture of both); a museum of the childhood you did have, or a theme park of the childhood you didn't. Either path is full of pitfalls, because the childhood you had no longer exists to be reconstructed (or rebelled against) except in your treacherous memory. Did we really never have roast potatoes except at Christmas? Does it matter? Sunday's roast potatoes (Delia gratias) were entirely edible. We learn so much by accident, by immersion in our families, that it's easy to forget that these skills are learned; that somebody somewhen picked up a book, or asked a question, or went Away and returned with Knowledge, or thought to themself what if... and didn't wait to be told they couldn't.

I learned all sorts of things at home: things like how to take the top off a soft-boiled egg, and how to clean pennies with Coke, and how to make covers for geography textbooks out of maps, and how to make candy-canes out of pipe-cleaners, and how to hack the hi-score charts in Tetris, and how to make compilation tapes, and how to chop onions, and how to keep two children entertained in a car for two and a half days. My dad taught me to do cartwheels when I was four or five years old; he turned a cartwheel on the lawn, lanky legs and bright yellow t-shirt spinning like a pleasure-beach pinwheel on a stick, and said "now you try". I fell a hundred times before I worked out how to do it, but I've never forgotten, and sometimes I turn feet-over-hands down the corridor at work when everybody else has gone home. I want my life to be one long backstage party in an Angela Carter novel, and sometimes it is, sometimes it is. My ancestors are immigrants and dancers and silk-weavers and Salvationists and people who quietly but fiercely wanted their children to succeed, and I don't need to carry their pictures in my wallet.

How does all this make a home? No, I don't have the answers, only questions, but a quilt stitched together from old photographs won't keep your family warm. "I never learned to cook a roast", I say, as if the time for learning had passed by in the dark, my wick forever untrimmed, but a shout from the next room startles me out of my stupor. Stop dreaming, it says, there's bread to be baked. So I shake the strands of cobweb from my head and start sifting flour.