Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

What Cooking Means to Me


What is it about cooking? When I left home at 18, I could just about make a salad and boil an egg. As a student, I made bland budget tuna casseroles and soups. In my early married years, I made pasta, pasta and pasta. And then at some point a culinary explosion happened in my consciousness and I developed a genuine interest not just in eating good food, but in cooking it too. Perhaps it was moving to London from provincial Germany and being amazed by the variety of foods available. Around that time, Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater were starting to publish their cookbooks, and the way they wrote – unintimidating, gentle, with clear instructions – spoke to the kind of direction I was needing in the kitchen. My skills needed to catch up with my tastebuds.

The planning, purchasing and preparing of food takes up an enormous amount of my time. I don’t resent it. It’s a daily pleasure, not a daily bind. I like the idea of the slow movement, of selecting lovely fresh ingredients, taking them home, and preparing something delicious to feed my family. Don’t get me wrong, when it’s just the kids eating I do trot out certain standards – the faithful fishfinger, sausage and mash, pasta with pesto – but I do try to push their eating boundaries often.

With so many people posting about their delicious Christmas and New Year meals, I couldn’t help thinking about how much cooking means to me. It’s gone from being a dull necessity to something approaching a craft, but more than that, as it encompasses a whole range of things that are important to me.

One of the things I love about cooking is that it’s creative – I’m mixing flavours, colours, things that go well together on a plate. I discovered for our New Year’s meal that braised red cabbage and apple is a great accompaniment for grilled salmon. Salmon’s quite oily, and the red cabbage counteracts that heartily. Also the pink salmon and the purplish cabbage look beautiful together. I still love a mozzarella, tomato and basil salad, because it’s a threesome that works on the palate as well as the plate. I love putting a wet mess of ingredients into an oven and taking out a cake an hour later. I’ve discovered recently that I can smell when a cake’s ready. I’ve got a nose for cake.

Another thing I love is the pleasure food gives, both to others and to myself. Thanks to Nigella, I taught myself to bake while pregnant with Ollie and now he sees the muffin tin and starts shouting “cake, cake”. He even ate the chestnut cheesecake I made at Christmas, despite its being brown and heavy with chestnuts and slightly tinged with rum. Lily adores soup, and begs me to make it for her. I made a shepherd’s pie the other night – a really bog standard English mince and potato pie – and my husband and father-in-law gobbled it up making appreciative noises all the while.

Cooking is an escape, but a legitimate one, because I’m feeding people. I can say “Will you get these kids out from under my feet; I’m trying to cook a meal here”, but I can’t say “Will you get these kids out from under my feet; I’m trying to write a blog post here.” I love pottering in my kitchen, browsing my recipe books, staring out the window in a half-daze, imagining our next meal.

Living in Germany, I’ve had to learn to love the challenge of sourcing unusual ingredients (things like coriander, mint, halloumi cheese, butternut squash, pitta bread, limes) in a country where supermarkets are small, focus on seasonal food and cater for provincial tastes. If I’m planning to cook something unusual, it takes time and planning to source things – if I can’t find it in the supermarket, I visit a grocer, order what I need and he provides it the next day. It requires forethought. When I first moved back here, I resented the fact that I couldn’t just walk into Sainsburys and say “Oh lamb would be good, let’s pick up some mint and couscous too” but now I find the slight hardship adds to my enjoyment when I finally eat the meal I’ve planned. It’s got to be character-building.

I like looking in the fridge, seeing what I’ve got, reading a recipe, making a match and producing something delicious. I like using things up. For instance, we had half a stale panettone left over from Christmas, and I turned that into a delicious bread and butter pudding for New Year’s Eve dinner. After Christmas, we were all feeling a little queasy from the rich meals we’d been having, so I used a couple of chicken breasts and some sticks of lemongrass to make a lovely, refreshing chicken broth. There is something of the happy homemaker in this, but I don’t deny, it gives satisfaction.

I love cookbooks. In the last few years, I’ve got a bit stuck on Jamie and the two Nigels, the latter both being great writers. A new cookbook that’s started challenging my repertoire is Moro, which is Spanish and Moroccan food. Jamie’s just inspiring – I still learn something every time I read one of his books. Tonight it was how to chop potatoes into matchsticks for rosti. I browsed through a friend’s Elizabeth David the other day and saw how well she writes. She does much less hand-holding than Nigella or Jamie, it’s a more seat-of-your-pants kind of cooking. I want to do some of that. Nigella’s taken me through my apprenticeship, but it’s time to graduate to bolder stuff.

I like that my repertoire and courage are growing. I’ve learnt that if you follow a recipe, you’re likely to have success, and this has given me confidence. My next step is bread. I want to start baking bread. If I can do cakes, surely I can do bread. Perhaps that can be my second new year’s resolution: in 2007 I want to write more and learn to bake bread.

I like the values that home-cooking instills. I’d rather make my kids a tray of home-cooked muffins than buy them the plastic ones filled with preservatives in the supermarket. I love that they are becoming brave eaters, and in our home there is a lot of praise for trying food. They are not required to like it, but they are required to try it. One will eat any soup under the sun, another adores pulses in any form, and my darling baby boy will eat anything his mummy bakes. We sit and eat with our children for at least one meal a day – usually lunch – we light candles, chat, gently impart some table manners and enjoy some family time. They know where their fruit and vegetables come from, they know that their bodies “need green” and they love their food.

I like sharing recipes and talking food. This I do with many of my friends, and also with my blog friends. I’ve made Bloglily’s spice cookies and they were gorgeous, and I’m going to make Kerryn’s white chocolate cheesecake with raspberries when I host my bookclub dinner in January. I’m planning to try Jen’s fudge once I’ve recovered from the Christmas excess.

Cooking is also an act of love, and a way to show caring. I’ll let Kerryn (who puts it beautifully in one of her comments) round up this long and winding post succinctly for me:

I believe strongly that food prepared with love has the ability to pass that love along. I try never to cook while angry and always try to add a dash of love for those I’m cooking for.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

39 thoughts on “What Cooking Means to Me

  1. If ever I feel the need to write a post about what cooking means to me, I’m simply going to post a link to you Charlotte. Beautifully written, with every word ringing true to, and for, me.

    My culinary explosion happened when I started living with D. Having someone else, someone who loves food too, to cook for was an awakening and suddenly I wanted to explore and create and taste. I haven’t stopped since.

  2. What a lovely post — you make me want to run out, get a slew of cookbooks, and go wild in the kitchen. To tell the truth, I’m not much of a cook; my partner is much better than I, mainly because he is willing to spend time doing it and I have a wholly utilitarian approach to the kitchen. The one exception is baking bread, which can be enormously satisfying. Not, you understand, that I do it all that often. However, if I can do it, you certainly can!

  3. I had the cooking explosion when I was pregnant and had horrible food aversions. Buying a Jamie cookbook and learning to make simple, decent food switched on such a lightbulb in my head. I used to have my “standards” that I would wheel out but now I feel as if I can be creative, and I have confidence.

    You would love Sydney, Charlotte – coriander, mint, Halloumi, limes, pitta bread, all kinds of squash – are common foods here and reasonable! I love the way I can buy a big net of lemons and it doesn’t feel like an extravagance. I was a bit shocked when I went back to UK and saw how expensive the veggies were compared to here. Mind you, UK (and probably Germany?) seems to be having an organic food revolution, which I’d love to happen in Australia. I can’t buy organic food in my area.

    I can relate to what you said about the pleasure of seeing your family enjoy your shepherd’s pie. I made our Christmas leftovers into a veggie pie and Kiko wolfed the lot! I was amazed because he’s normally the fussiest little villain on earth!

    Yeah! Lots of good cooking in 2007!

  4. Kerryn, you’re right, you need an appreciative audience. I think I would have been less likely to have given cooking a go if I had been on my own. I probably wouldn’t have bothered.

    Hello Zia. It’s good to hear the bread thing is not difficult. My husband is also quite nifty in the kitchen, but he’s happy to stand to one side when I get into culinary “mode”, which is how it has been for the last two weeks. He did do the roast at Christmas though.

    Helen, I KNOW I would love Sydney! I would love the access to ingredients I consider essential to life and Germans consider rather wacky. However, we do have fairly reasonable, very accessible organic produce and that I love. I love when my kids tuck in. Glad to hear Kiko enjoyed your pie. And yes, here’s to lots more cooking in 2007!

  5. Back again… When I lived on my own I sometimes considered myself well-fed if I remembered to open a can of soup for dinner. But that’s not what I came back to say, really. You mentioned that you wanted to graduate to bolder stuff when it came to cookbooks. My bible is Stephanie Alexander’s “The Cook’s Companion” — she covers the basics really well but also has some quite challenging recipes. Her recipes are listed by ingredient, she lists what ingredients work together well and she’s an endless joy to dip into as she loves her ingredients and loves creating with food. The only problem is that I don’t know how easy to come by it might be in Germany. Maybe in the UK…

    And I think you’d like Melbourne, too. Same access to ingredients and, due to the large numbers of immigrants, a vast range of cuisines to choose from. Heaven. Australia is blessed when it comes to food.

    Okay, going now.

  6. Happy New Year, Charlotte & Co !!!

    Ich liebe deine heutige Post und ich würde so gern so viel Leidenschaft haben, wie du beim kochen hast, really! Vielleicht das kommt noch in 2007.
    Wir warten auf euch für unseren ersten Kaffe-Kuchen-Treffen gegen 15:00.

    Liebe Grüsse!


  7. Thanks for the tip, Kerryn. I could probably order through Amazon or put it on my book list for when Thomas next goes to England.

    Danke schoen, Susana! Wir werden ganz gerne kommen. Schoenes Neues Jahr an euch.

  8. I really really love cooking too. In addition to all that you have said, feeding my family gives me the extra pride of fighting the good cause and swimming against the flow of gender prejudice. Just knowing that my son will grow up believing cooking is a dad’s job is worth the endeavour.

    I have given up reading translated cook books for two reasons: sourcing of foreign ingredients is extremely difficult in rural France, and metric system conversions are a real hassle (I seriously messed up cookies once, because I did not know a cup did not mean any cup). I am lucky enough to live in the Southwest of France, where vernacular cooking is diverse enough for a lifetime of cuisine.

  9. Hi Charlotte

    I know exactly what you mean. I had a slow-burning culinary apocalypse too, moving beyond those tuna pasta dishes (which in fairness were okay!) to finding food exciting. I think you are right to equate food and giving love and providing. I have to beware not to mistake them altogether though – I hate people not eating my food and I have to get over that because as a kid I didn’t eat any food, practically, and it didn’t mean I didn’t love people…

    Oh and homemade muffins are great – easy, tasty and forgiving of the occasionally klutzy cook..

    Happy new Year!


  10. Happy New Year Charlotte!

    Thanks for the link 🙂

    I especially enjoyed this post and will take it as encouragement that a culinary revolution can strike at any time! I am capable of producing the occasional nice, tasty, healthy meal, but my inclination is really more toward grilled cheese and a cup of yogurt. Adding tuna to the grilled cheese makes me feel especially virtuous.

    I’d love to enjoy the planning & cooking process more, and therefore put more of myself into it and produce greater variety & healthier meals…maybe it can still happen!

    I hadn’t considered the benefits of an appreciative audience, but I think that observation is particularly apt, and probably a stronger factor than one would at first assume.

  11. I’m afraid my culinary explosion hasn’t started yet, even though it’s now 26 years since I left home and I’ve been a mum for 20. I suppose there’s still hope 🙂

  12. That was a great post about food and cooking and completely resonates with me too. I had the same frustration coming here and leaving Sainsburys behind, being unable to find any organic produce. Plus we live in a rural area, so although I could go into Cape Town to get all the ingredients under the sun, I tend to stick to the easily accessible stuff from the local supermarket and what we grow. My resolution should be to extend my boundaries and have some culinary adventures this year.

    Baking bread is far easier than baking cakes, it’s just a matter of adjusting your mindset to think of it as needing 10 minutes now, two minutes later on and then half an hours baking and fitting it into your day.

    Nigel and Nigella are my kitchen stalwarts too. Jane Grigson is also a good food writer of the Elisabeth David type – I love her Fruit Book.

  13. Mandarine, what a great example you are providing for your boy. We love to confound a gender stereotype now and then if we can, and no better than by baking him a tray of cookies.

    Kathryn, I was also a fussy kid, and feel very lucky that thus far my lot are quite enthusiastic eaters. You’re right, though, one shouldn’t take it as personal rejection if a twenty-month-old won’t eat chilli con carne.

    Jen, maybe finding a cookery writer who you like would start your personal revolution. The writers I mention are so enthusiastic about food, I think I got swept up in their enthusiasm and woke up one day to find myself stuffing aubergines. As one does.

    Sharon, I don’t know, I read your Christmas posts and it looked as if there was some fine dining going on there!

    Kit, you and I have talked about bread before. As with my writing, it’s now time for less talking and more doing! I will look out for Jane Grigson. Isn’t there a Sophie Grigson too?

  14. I love to eat good cooking. Fortunately, I am married to a man who loves to cook. A couple of decades ago when we got together we arranged a division of labor where he usually cooks and I usually clean up after him. This works extremely well except when he is gone.

    When he was in the Navy and gone for long periods of time he was horrified when he discovered that mainly I subsisted on bread and cheese and fruit and salads while he was gone. He refers to this sort of grazing as “cruise food”. Now when he is going on a vacation he tends to cook enough food for a small army so I can eat lasagna and stew and chili along with my bread and cheese and fruit and salad.

    On the other hand, I have always made breakfast for us, and I am the chief bread maker for the household. We rarely buy bread, when we have to I feel guilty for having let us down and forced us into eating inferior product. We are about to taht point again. I’ll be baking tomorrow.

  15. I am sooooo with you on this one Charlotte. Have just cooked a big batch of slow roasted oven tomatoes and I think I could die happy having tasted one (or two or six).

    Good food is just so very *good*.

  16. PS – Bread is easy, you’ll romp in. The 8-10 minutes kneading I could live without, but the smell in the kitchen while it is baking – heaven!

  17. Cooking is something I really should do more of. I especially emphasize with the escape element (“Sorry, you’ll have to change him; I’m cooking!”).

    With bread, supermum does use a breadmaking machine but only for the kneading and rising bit – baking still happens in the oven. Best of both worlds for the time-poor would-be home baker.

  18. Ms Magic Hands, what an adorable husband you have! That’s confounding the gender stereotypes, no?

    Megan and (Un)relaxeddad, thanks for the encouragement. I think my motto for the year will be “Brot muss sein.”

  19. What a wonderful and thoughtful piece you’ve written. It got me thinking…(more). Thanks for making my brain cells move, when all that I really intended to do with this rainy day was lie down on the couch with a book.

  20. Lilalia, that happens to me all the time! I think I’ll just check what everyone has to say and then I’m off to bed. Five hours later, I go to bed, dirty but inspired. Thanks for the link. Loved your cooking post – it actually made me a bit weepy.

  21. Yes Sophie grigson is jane Grigson’s daughter. I think Jane died a while back but a lot of her books are classics on the food front.

  22. If you are starting to enjoy Elizabeth David and you ever make it to Cheltenham, my dear, be sure to visit “Cooking the Books” in Montpelier.

    Even more dangerous than the two fabulous shops selling kitchen equipment in the same street.


  23. Thanks, Aphra, I imagine I could get myself into trouble there. I still have a microplane I bought in the Cotswolds a few years ago. Can’t remember now which town it was, but good cooking shops seem to abound there.

  24. What a wonderful post! I also love cooking for its feel-good ethical pleasures that still allow you time alone in the kitchen. And I’m always impressed by the descriptions you post of your special meals, Charlotte. They do sound so delicious!

  25. You know what is most inspiring to me about your post, is that cooking is not a chore for you. I had always grimly imagined that if I were to feed gaping mouths on a 4-hourly basis (not the weekend pleasure it currently is) it would automatically be a chore; leastways, when i tell my my mother and ma-in-law that I love cooking, they have both said, ‘Well that is easy if you don’t have to do it every day.’ You give me hope. Charl! 🙂

  26. ..and the other thing I meant to say was, you are *so* right about all of those aspects of cooking. And you will love getting into bread, I just know it. It has such endless variety; pesto buns (yes, that was green bread) was something I did once, back when I didn’t have a garden. Ollie won’t has a treat awaiting him..

  27. I love cookbooks, though I don’t cook nearly as much as I should. I even have a literary cookbook (plan to post recipes on my blog from time to time).

    One of my favorite decadent cookbooks is The Silver Palate. They have a pumpkin pie that is to die for. And the best turkey stuffing recipe ever.

  28. After reading your post, I went to the library and borrowed a Nigel Slater cookery book. I love it so much!! I got very excited about his recipes and cooked three for Kiko’s Daddy last night, roast mushrooms, roast tomatoes and an onion and Camembert tart. He turned his nose up at it!! He’s getting beans on toast tonight.

    But thank you for the recommendation. I love Nigel and will be seeking him out in bookshops.

  29. Thanks, Litlove. Feel-good, it is.

    Dear Emma, it really, really isn’t a chore. It’s a creative outlet amongst other chores! Perhaps I need to come round for a bread-making session with you to kick off my new year’s resolution.

    LK, I’m looking forward to some of those recipes from your literary cookbook!

    Helen, I’m so thrilled you’ve discovered the lovely Nigel, though sorry that your hubbie is less than impressed. Nigel is a great writer and an inspiring foodie. I loved his memoir Toast, which describes how he fell in love with food despite growing up in a family that regularly ate Spam (not that we have anything against Spam, mind). I also have his Kitchen Diaries, which is his year in food. More appropriate to the northern hemisphere, but a great book with stunning pictures.

  30. I read Toast earlier this year and enjoyed it.
    I live in South Korea, and there are so many foods not available here. Although Korean Cuisine is hauntingly delicious. Do you know kimchi? I have a few recipes that use it. I once lived in Germany and the food still brings back wonderful memories.
    I enjoy your blog. I’ll be back to visit soon!

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  32. I love this post. It encapsulated everything that I feel about cooking too.

    Unfortunately, it’s made me hungry. I might have to go and eat a hard boiled egg before I head up to bed. (Apologies in advance to my darling husband).

  33. I loved reading this post again a year later – everything I thought of to say as I read, I found I’d already said in my original comments.

    My resolution to be more adventurous in the kitchen hasn’t really taken root this year though – but I’m sure you’ve accomplished yours in baking bread and writing more, so congratulations!

  34. This post is now a year older, I revive it in hopes that you may still keep an eye on it… maybe one day stumble back on it.

    I am 21 years old, I live in the state of Maryland, just outside of Baltimore in the USA. I moved here from a place in Pennsylvania that cows could have outnumbered people…

    I have to say I read your story and thought it was mine; sort of. I started cooking because I was eating lunch one day (meat on bread- blah) and the person next to me was eating stir-fry: homemade. And this is where I got my start. It was so easy AND FUN!

    You said you feel that if you follow a recipe it will most likely turn out good. I agree. I have a different approach. I take a recipe, make it once to the letter, then THROW IT AWAY because I have gained what I needed. I think of it as a canvas, you look at someone elses painting to get an idea, even paint it to feel more comfortable, then throw comfort out the window and dive head-first into exploration, nervous anticipation, and fulfillment!

    I love the feeling I get when I make the “same” dish over again with no recipe, completely on my own. I write a recipe each time I make that dish, a brand new one each time and each one excellent, unique; I get that feeling way down, you know, when I put it on the table. You know the feeling I know you do. It not a tickle, not nervousness, not anything but everything and nothing at all.

    I am so lucky to have a job I love. I am a firefighter. I am the luckiest person on this earth. I get to do both things I love- serve and serve. 5 other people every shift to cook for.

    And they do the dishes.

    I leave you with this little piece- read your recipe as many times as you wish, just don’t read it when your in the kitchen! You’ll grow faster than you could imagine.

  35. I loved reading this. I used to love cooking as a young girl but somewhere in the midst of cooking for a husband and two children every day it all became somewhat of a chore.

    My Husband bought me Jamie’s Ministry of Food for Christmas 2008 despite my insisting I didn’t want/need it. Jamie and his book caused my culinary explosion – I haven’t looked back since. I also love Nigella and Lorraine Pascale.

    Cooking now fills me with pleasure and I spend a lot of my time looking at recipe books, browsing online recipes, planning, shopping for food etc. etc. I now have a food processor which has also opened up a new world. Am going to be trying almond nut butter soon.

    Having recently managed to lose a little weight (more to lose) I am especially interest in healthy cooking more than ever and enjoy swapping recipes with others of a like mind.

    Yes, I like the values that home cooking brings, especially now it seems cooking is somewhat of a dying art, we now seem to have two generations of non cooking households.

    I am very proud my 20 yr old student daughter made her first ever soup recently (broccoli and stilton) and is keen to try asparagus soup next.

    In the words of Jamie “Pass It On”.

  36. Hello Charlotte,

    Read your blog , felt good.
    Though I am not a very good at cooking but love the idea of sharing recipes with friends and family. Recently I have developed a site for the same. Its short form Food Festival Charlotte can you too post some of your recipes on it ?.



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  38. I do consider all the concepts you’ve offered in your post.
    They are very convincing and can certainly work. Nonetheless,
    the posts are very short for newbies. May just you please prolong them a little from
    next time? Thanks for the post.

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