Cooking Together: a guide to patience and literacy during lockdown

William and the chicken

My dad was the cook in our family. A patient cook, he deplored my ‘whack it up high’ method. For me food was fodder. Heat, feed and go. When I became a mum, my attitude to nutrition changed, but not really my attitude to cooking. It always felt like a chore. Even when I wanted to make an effort, my impatience meant that I never quite got everything right. It all felt too much of a faff.

Then Lockdown 1.0 came, and food seemed to take over my day. Before Covid-19 we were fortunate that our mothers helped with childcare so during the school week the only meal we had to serve was breakfast. Lockdown stirred everything up.

A brief attempt at a lesson
A meeting
‘Is it time for a snack?’
‘What’s for lunch?’
‘We’re hungry. Can we have a biscuit?’
An aborted attempt at another lesson
‘When’s supper?’

This layer of food, work, food, work was smothered with guilt that my boys were not being home-schooled properly, nor getting much attention at all except at feeding times. My eldest would still read, and devoured books, but our 6-year-old did not like reading. He had struggled at school and lockdown was a release from phonics, letters, words, sentences, and books. We worried about how we could engage him, support him, encourage him.

Then, one Saturday as I was prepping my shopping list, he asked if he could help cook Sunday lunch. I had often baked with the boys. Which is fun, simple and quick to do with a food mixer, and doesn’t require sharp cooking implements. Cooking a meal was a different proposition altogether. I paused, tempted to decline his offer, but it was a chance for us to be in one another’s company. It was something that he wanted to do without an iPad. I realized that I could add a dash of literacy to the mix. I said yes, and introduced him to Nigel Slater.

I love reading Slater’s kitchen diaries—I may not have liked to cook, but I love a cookbook. Dad had also been a fan, so it was an opportunity to share memories of him. That Saturday morning the 6-year-old and I browsed the pictures in dad’s copy of Appetite.

Our agreement was that he had to choose a recipe, write out some of the ingredients for the shopping list, and I would help him to read the instructions. That first weekend he selected roast chicken, served with roast potatoes and I made a salad of spinach, fennel, spring onions, and tomatoes.

Finger on the page, he slowly blended the sounds of the ingredients: chicken, butter, lemon, garlic. He carefully formed their letters on the shopping list. Helped read the instructions—set, sit, rub, cut, put. He peeled potatoes with concentrated strokes. He chopped them into chunks for the pot. He ‘stuck the lemon up the [chicken’s] bum’. He scattered pepper across its skin. He shook the parboiled potatoes. He set the table. He carried the meal to the table carefully.

He was thrilled with his efforts; I was relieved that he had done some reading; the meal was delicious. Over the weeks, as we flicked through cook books together choosing what to make next, I nurtured an interest in cooking and William found a purpose to his reading. We learned the rewards of patience side-by-side.

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Holly Tilbrook is a writer and family historian.

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