Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Dads in the kitchen (what am I gonna do)

Happy New Year and all. I've been too busy denying myself alcohol this month to write anything meaningful or otherwise. Normal service will be resumed etc.

So apologies dear reader for yet another cut and paste from my Colchester NCT magazine column - available in no good newsagents. This issue we're pondering the politics of food preparation a.k.a. who's making the flipping tea tonight.

Fruity platter: digital media, £45,000

When I was a child I reckon that about 90 per cent of my meals were provided by women: my mum; my gran; aunties; friends’ mums, and school dinner ladies. My dad could cook, but he kept his powder dry for special occasions, such as the Sunday roast, Christmas dinner and barbecues. He also had a penchant for exotic new dishes, such as spaghetti bolognaise, which was about as far out as things got in the area of rural Scotland where I grew up. Maybe it still is.

The everyday grind of turning out breakfast, lunch and dinner was given over to my mum, despite the fact that she also worked. It was just the way things were in those days.

As a consequence I was largely brought up on convenience food. My mum was one of the first generations of women to benefit from the widespread availability and relative cheapness of processed food. She was also a sucker for TV advertising. My sister and I used to joke that whenever there was a new product advertised on TV, we would be seeing it on our plates next week. We were brought up on fish fingers, potato waffles, crispy pancakes and frozen pizzas. Whatever veg we shuffled to the side of our plates inevitably came from a tin.

Well, it never did me no harm!

Fast forward 30 years or so, and haven’t things changed! Thanks to Jamie, Gordon and a host of other TV chefs, cooking has been reinvented as a suitably male friendly activity – it’s competitive, has lots of gadgets and even more swearing - and the kitchen is no longer a place where we dads fear to tread. Dads are as likely to be hustling everybody out of the kitchen to make room for their cheffy touches as they are to be banging cutlery on the table and demanding to be fed.

But it’s no longer enough to shuttle a frozen offering from freezer to microwave, et voila, dinner is served! Nowadays, parents can spend as long fretting about the provenance of the food they serve their children as they do cooking it. Is it local enough; is it GM free; is it Fairtrade? And that’s before it has even felt the hot side of a frying pan.

I’m as guilty of this as the next new man. I’ve certainly gone down a different route to that taken by my parents. By and large we cook meals from scratch, try and use fresh vegetables as much as possible, and try to all eat together. And I do a lot of the cooking. It’s something I love to do.

One of the reasons, besides innate greed, is that it’s a great way of bonding with our kids. Like many NCT parented children, both of our boys were breast fed, for the first year, which seems to have given them a great start.

It does however limit a dad’s involvement in the early stages of childhood. Unless your wife or partner is expressing milk, or you are mixing feeding, there isn’t a lot dad can do to interject into this cosy little relationship.

So the introduction of solids is a happy time for dads, as they can start to become more involved with feeding. This is probably of great relief to partners as well, as they can share a bit more of the burden. It’s a time for dads to step up to the hot plate and start showing off their finely honed chef skills.

Or maybe not. In as much as cooking for children can be fun and fulfilling, it can also be a soul destroying affair. There is little appreciation of your efforts and little discernment. A carefully crafted, nutritious, homemade meal will inevitably be trumped by a turkey twizzler and chips. Kids don't really care about provenance or how long it took to make. They care about having something that they recognise and having it now, or five minutes ago.

Food in the early stages of weaning also bears little resemblance to anything you might want to eat yourself. I couldn’t believe it when our eldest actually liked Annabel Karmel’s misleadingly named ‘lovely lentils’. There was little to love as far as I could see, but as he seemed to appreciate them, I cooked up a vat and froze huge quantities for future meals. Job done!

Except that as quickly as he’d taken to them, he went off them. I still recall the look on Jamie’s face as he decided to eject them from his mouth – never again. I can’t remember what we did with the rest of the batch.

Tastes change though and soon enough children start to eat similar foods to us. It’s not just food as fuel though. Food is also part of bonding. I used to take Jamie to a singing class when he was a toddler. Afterwards we would head to the local playground and then to a lakeside café where we’d always eat the same thing – a shared plate of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon on toast. I was inordinately pleased at his sophisticated tastes. I had no idea that salmon came in any other form than canned until I was a lot older. Each time we went to the café he’d eat a bit more and I’d have less.

As the children get older, cooking becomes another of the activities that we enjoy together. Just occasionally mind you. I’m too much of a prissy chef to let them run riot too often. Cakes are a favourite, unsurprisingly, particularly licking the spoon and bowl clean. What child hasn’t enjoyed that?

For dads who work unsociable hours, cooking is a great way to show that you know that family meals are important. Doing a bit of cooking can give your partner a break and brings you closer to your children. Even if you’re not much of a cook you can rustle up a signature dish or two that only you can do just how the children like it. As much as the temptation may be to sit back and wait for somebody else to cook the bacon you have brought home, it can be much more fulfilling to prepare the food that your children are going to eat.

And if the resulting mealtime is loud, chaotic and messy, who’d have it any other way?