Tag Archives: family

Tools for being human, part nine: Cooking and eating with others

Hostel eating

In my childhood, meals were consumed eye-to-eye. The family sitting, circling the table, forks and knives hovering under conversation. Even Friday-night fish and chips were elevated, the hot paper-bound bundle of deep-fried all-sorts steaming the glass table-top. Tomato sauce allocated in five small dollops. Buttered bread in a leaning tower. No TV, no radio, no tapping sly LOLs to mates under the table.

In the warmer parts of the Mediterranean, an evening meal with family might last for two, three hours. In our house it was usually forty-five minutes. Three-quarters of an hour of noisy retellings, prompting questions, and arguments over who had found the most chunks of toffee in their ice-cream. Then at around 6:48pm Mum or Dad would check a watch, and table clearing would begin, just in time for the marine weather forecast.

Food was the thing that unfailingly drew us together as a family, but in many ways it was the winds that were responsible for what ended up on the table. My father loves, loves, loves the sea. He worked any number of jobs, but his default workplace was between lapping waves and sandy seabed, hunting out the ocean’s bounty. So between 6:51 and 6:57 there was a communal silence as predictions were made. Light variables, Southerlies dying out overnight, squalls,  gusts and gales.

If the conditions were favourable, my brother, sister and I knew we’d be bundled up in the back tray of the Land Rover, sliding back and forth amongst the fish boxes and dive lungs. Most of the seafood limits were on a per person basis, so the three of us plus Dad meant twenty-four crayfish. I ate a lot of crayfish as a kid. Fortunately Dad knew a lot of the Greek and Italian families that had been drawn to Wellington’s rugged south coast. And seafood to them, was like cigarettes to the imprisoned. So after a day in the sand we’d park up outside garages and kitchens, having our cheeks pinched by enthusiastic Nonas as the trades were done. Prosciutto for cod, baklava for shellfish, wine for scallops.

If say an eighth of my early years were spent on beaches and bays, then another eighth must have been spent in the kitchen. My father was trained as a chef, in a fancy hotel, by men who ranted in French. It was only natural to him, to spend time with us in the kitchen, teaching us to make pastries, sauces and casoulets. He had a library of faded French cooking manuals, but he taught us that the best meals were made from simple ingredients, drawn by hand, from land and sea. Fresh mushrooms from an absent farmer’s fields, cooked in cream and thyme. Butterfish cooked on an open fire with a little butter and a few capers, as the tide creeps stealthily away.

My first experience cooking in a commercial kitchen was beneath an 800 year old church in Cambridgeshire. I worked, ate, drank and played with a mix of central Americans, Europeans, Australians and Brits. A delicious blend of accents, cooking traditions, and ways of interpreting the world. We all cycled Cambridge’s narrow, cobbled streets to work, our wheels juddering madly as we swept past colleges and chapels. We’d lock our bikes to the church gates, beside boxes of early morning produce, which we’d haul into the larder, flanked by hundreds of shelved ingredients.

There’s something visceral about catering. There is the short time-frames of production. Menus were clipped to stainless steel walls at 6:00am, the first batches of scones and breads lined the counter at 8am. There’s the physicality, the great dance, flashing knives, swooping trays, fast marching waiters, swinging doors. There is heat and cold, the spin up of enormous ovens, the gentle shudder of cheese fridges. And of course there is the end product, the gentle stacks and swirls on the plate, the scents and tastes and colours of the season.

I know I’ve never worked harder, but I’m also pretty sure I’ve never laughed more. The various roles are all so tightly interlinked: the baker, the dishwasher, the cake decorator. No failure is independent, no success singular. We’d picked each other up, wiped one another down, and limped across the finish line as one, coated in flour, drizzled in sweat and thirsty for a pint. It’s the sort of teamwork that can build great fellowship. And of course, produce the occasional drama.

After catering a wedding, or a bell-ringers dinner, we’d sometimes set off on our bikes, for a chef’s basement home. There we’d drink Suffolk ciders and Speyside Whiskey, while one of us cooked food from the homeland. Pierogi, Coca Cola pork, tea smokes mash. One of my greatest ever meals was wild boar sausages, in banana beer batter, at 2:00am, eaten to the sounds of our Welsh head chef playing Alice in Chains tunes on his jet-black guitar.

Since then I’ve cooked puddings at Scottish festivals, supported by spliff-rolling Spaniards. I’ve whipped up dishes from the gardens of an Irish castle, and I’ve woken in the early hours to help bake bagels in Jewish delis. But many of my favourite memories are set in my Sister’s kitchen, under her backpackers home in Derry. Whenever I spend time there we end up cooking a slow meal, maybe a course each, starting some time in the mid afternoon. By the time the hot trays are drawn from the stove, the heavy wooden table is surrounded by people from all nations, wine from New Zealand, and throaty laughter.

 

For me, cooking allows me an opportunity to create, to interpret, to participate in something universal, something which transcends linguistic borders. It is an endeavour of creation which always finds a grateful audience.

So thank you Dad, for teaching me that if I dedicate myself to my passions, then there are fewer gaps in my life. Thank you Mum, for being the one who taught us the value of communion and companionship, and for occasionally letting us eat our steak in slabs of soft, white bread. And thank you to all of you that I’ve shared a kitchen with. You helped me expand my creative boundaries, diversify my cultural understanding, and extend my range of curses.

Bon apetit!

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On returning home (and what that means)

Speyside

My hopscotch journey towards New Zealand began with a flight from Inverness to Belfast. After six months on so many different roads I’m wondering what I’m heading back to. Where and what is my ‘home’? Here in my sister’s Derry backpackers around forty people a day enter our lives, tread about within our communal home, and then head out to their next port of call. Some of them bind themselves to us for brief periods, sharing pints, songs and stories. I ask these ones about their homes, about what makes their bungalow in Washington State, their apartment in Genova, or their farm outside Kabul the place they want to return to. And in their stories I hunt for meaning, because I’m about to return to a country in which I hope to build a new life.

It was the three months in the USA that opened my mind to new ways to envision my future in New Zealand. That bold country has enabled generations of people a great deal of control in deciding what sort of home they want to create for themselves. The enormous and varied landscape provided opportunities for millions of people to create something new, unrestricted hundreds of generations of tradition. And for some time their government left them enough freedom to determine their own paths. And though these freedoms may be disappearing, I still found plenty of people who had tried two or three different lives on for size, and found one that fit. Not the one their parents dictated to them, nor their laws, nor their peers. And their experiences helped me understand how I might be able to combine freedom of thought and movement, with a permanent base, a real home in my country.

Many of the Americans I met also helped me understand that I shouldn’t be afraid to walk with conviction towards the things I want. It’s not just the lifestyles that Americans have been free to create, they’ve also been encouraged to chase ideas. My own hopes and dreams were usually bolstered when I shared them with people. My enthusiasm for the outlandish wasn’t as open to negativity and cynicism as it might have been in other environments. I realised the importance of ensuring I spent time amongst ideas people, creative people, intelligent free thinkers. They drive me onward, rather than slowing my progress.

The third thing I decided to take home from the States was the utilisation of the honest compliment. My first response (I shudder to recall) to these positive critiques was cynicism. I hunted for subtext, for an end-goal in these happy comments on another person’s character, hair style or youthful vigour. And when I couldn’t find it, I began to realise it was simply a good and kind act. I was smitten. I was even the recipient from time to time, which no doubt made me doubly suspicious. But then I grew to understand its simple power to bring happiness. So I’m taking this home, and I’ll aim to fill a few half empty glasses.

The transition to Europe helped add new ideas to those I harvested from the Americans. I did two months of volunteer work between Ireland and Scotland, and the time spent in old homes in old parts of old countries was useful in corralling my thoughts on what I need from life. Wandering and cycling through the countryside on the occasional days that the sun spilt between clouds on the horizon was blissful. But being so far from civilisation tended to make my head itch. The humble quarters within the castle walls (ironically) taught me how little space I needed to relax in. The caravan in Scotland shrank this space significantly, but the views I took in from the narrow lounge windows became my environment as much as the thin aluminium walls that shook like barley in the exhausting cross winds. So small house, in big country. Tick. The lack of people though, that was the itch. I need my cafe interviews with artists and musicians, my wander through the markets picking out beetroot to roast, my Wednesday evening gigs at character packed pubs and bars.

Now I’m back in Derry, the heart of my travelling experiences. Six weeks ago I was here briefly, licking fresh wounds, and working through my thoughts and hopes. This time I’ve returned with a peaceful energy, a head full of ideas, and a focus. My Halloween evening here was spent dancing on the edge of a life I knew in my thirties. I told ghost stories to gladiators, twirled with witches, and faced down demons. And I’ve made peace with the things I’ve seen and done. I’m consolidating I’ve learnt, and begun planning for what comes next.

New Zealand is still a place where we can build our dreams. I’m returning to Aotearoa with new ideas from other places, aiming to build a home between town and country. A place I can share with people who fight to obtain their dreams, and with my family. I’m returning to spend time with my young niece, the newest member of that family. Her Uncle Regan’s returning a little less cynical, a little more focused, and just as happy as when he last saw her. He’s looking forward to telling her tales of far off lands, encouraging her imagination, and supporting her ideas and hopes.

I’d like to thank all those people who I have met along this most recent journey. You mad, wonderful, inspirational girls and boys with whom I shared a few beers, a trailer, a Castle or a laugh with. You’re all forever welcome to visit me in my home, wherever that will be. I’ll make sure there’s a comfy couch.

The people we choose to spend time with

Friends 2

We spend a large portion of our lives with a number of people due to circumstances, rather than choice. Life starts this way. We don’t get to choose those assigned to nurture us, those kin who will contribute significantly to our initial ideas on how the world works. Whether we’re raised within a family, a tribe, or an orphanage, those around us during our formative can either inhibit or develop our sense of self-worth. Their actions act as a template for our moral framework. They can help us to understand that we are valuable and valued, or they can damage us beyond repair.

Once we leave home, many of us will spend eight around hours a day with a new mix of people in order to earn a living. Our workmates are likely to affect our day-to-day mood, the degree of satisfaction we derive from our jobs, and our desire to seek new opportunities and advance ourselves. They may also influence our diets, our political views and our prejudices. And we don’t usually get a say in the selection process for these people either.

So we spend a lot of our lives being influenced by an arbitrary assortment of people. How important is it then that we take care in selecting the rest of the people that we hang out with? I was at a wedding in the United Kingdom a few years ago, and I was asked to make an impromptu speech. I thought about the friends of the groom that I knew, some witty, most currently drunk, and all affectionate. I spoke of how a person might be judged by the qualities of their friends. Looking at those we choose to share our time with can help us understand a lot about ourselves. Do I like Karl because he’s the only person who will stay out drinking with me until 5:00am? Do I like spending time with Kelly and Janine because they are gorgeous, and when we’re seen together around town feel like I’m living in a music video? Or do I spend as much time as possible with Di, because she reminds me to be myself, and at times inspires me to be my best self?

A good friend’s father once told her that the worst place to meet a lad was in the pub, that she should instead hope to find a boyfriend in more positive environment. I can understand the logic behind this, though the population of the UK and Ireland might dwindle if it were to become a popular idea.

Meeting people through an activity which improves us, seems more likely to lead to positive relationships. Marathon clinics, Spanish classes, football teams, all these activities bring us into contact with people who want to improve, and who are happy to share the experience. Over the past year I’ve found my closest new companions through hosting travellers on my couch. We shared a joy for exploring new country’s and trying new activities, and we aren’t afraid to stay in a stranger’s home. They’ve accompanied me on sand castle building competitions, glacier climbs and surf lessons. They’ve been people who have actively encouraged me to live more enthusiastically, and I’m hopeful that at least a couple of them will become friends for life. And now I get to catch up with some of them in their homelands. I haven’t connected with every single one, but i know from experience that if I had met ten strangers in a pub, I wouldn’t end up rafting the Grand Canyon with any of them.

We shouldn’t underestimate the power that others have to transform us. I owe it to myself to find friendships with people who I admire, respect and am occasionally envious of. They’re more likely to motivate me through their actions and inspire me through their ideas. And if I am brave enough to be open and honest with them and they still want to spend time with me, then that’s an amazing and rewarding thing.