Who’s Cooking Tonight?

When I was about 5 years old I began to be aware of a special family treat. On Friday evenings my favourite uncle, Albert, would turn up on his way home from work. He was single and living in Essex. Our house was in Bermondsey and in a street market area, rather like the one in East Enders. There was even a pub across the road called the Queen Victoria. Albert would come in bringing some delicious food. One of the shops in the market was a German pork butcher. Albert was a fan, so on those evenings he would treat us all – my grandmother, my mother and father, and me – to tasty saveloys and other German sausages before he set off home. This was my introduction to ‘gourmet’ food.

At about the same time, I often found myself, in the early evening, on the seafront between Southend and Westcliff. There my special treat was a small plate of cockles accompanied by a strawberry milkshake. Often this, too, was paid for by uncle Albert. At an early age I was acquiring a taste for food of real class. I grew up surrounded by people who could cook. My uncle John had a weekend bungalow in Essex where he grew all his favourite vegetables, especially shallots. My first wife was so proud of her cookery skills, and her precious pans and utensils, that I was only allowed to do one thing in the kitchen – wash up. Nikki, my present wife, is an excellent cook. Her mother Muriel was, for many years, a specialist diet chef. Her daughter and son-in-law are qualified chefs.

When I began living with Nikki I decided that I wanted to learn to cook. I love Italian food, so that was an obvious choice. Also, with due respect to any Italian readers of The Whistler, much Italian cookery is fairly simple. I purchased a cheap paperback, ‘Pasta Italian Style’ by Pamela Lousada, published by Sainsbury’s. More than 35 years on, I still use that book a few times a year. I have moved on to more sophisticated Italian recipes, but I love the simple pasta dishes. I also like some East European dishes, such as Goulash, and I frequently use a guide to French Bistro cooking.

“So what?” you may ask. This is where the teacher in me takes over. I am now 85 years old. I attend several groups or classes each month with other people close to my age. I am amazed to find that some of them do not cook for themselves and would not know where to start if they wanted to. Yes, I know that I am a food-lover, and always have been. Yes, I know that many older people do not enjoy the idea of cooking. But this is a matter of survival. If you can get out to shop, or have someone who will shop for you, why not make the effort? Basic cooking is really simple. Buy a simple book, as I did, and follow the instructions. Go to an elementary class. The best food writers these days are well aware that they may be providing information for the inexperienced. You need not waste your time being baffled by recipes that are complex and often ridiculous.

Whatever your age, please give cooking a try. You may find, as I did, that you thoroughly enjoy it. It will certainly save you money and will, I hope, improve the quality of your life. If you gain some confidence in your skills, you may even dare to invite a friend to join you for a meal!

Peter Batten


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