Every summer I earn a living by cooking for families seeking some relaxation on their holiday by taking some time out from the kitchen, and it is an experience like no other: exhausting, rewarding, challenging, and very entertaining. Below is an insight into a stint in Bideford in North Devon with a family I had cooked for the previous year.
Woke up to a tinned tomato shortage on ‘the big day’ – a BBQ for 3 families, all with multiple offspring, and it had the makings of a day which might turn out to be ‘tremendous fun’. I set about my mammoth burger making task, squelching the meat between my fingers and creating tiny balls of bread crumbs, egg yolk, and grated cheese, amongst some other minor ingredients, and piled them all up into a mound on a plate which I tightly cling-filmed and put in the fridge. It was pouring with rain, and after a sprint up to the stables with the intention of nipping to Tesco (a swear word if ever there was one in this household – taking down small local businesses in one fell swoop) in Mrs’s mother’s car for the necessary tinned tomatoes, it appeared she had had similar designs of going out. Half an hour later, on a second check for the car, she was back, and I legged it to Tesco in record time, and whisked up a marinade for the spare ribs. I laid the tables, with the standard children/adult separation (something which I resented from about the age of 7 onwards…), scrubbed the tables, ‘threw’ together some salads, scrubbed the potatoes – when suddenly a schoolbus load of children descended upon the house. Car doors flung open, high pitched cries of “yoohooooo”, children shrieking with excitement – carnage. My heart sunk as I watched the scenes from my sink window. Today was going to be one of those days where I had to dig deep and wear my smile like an item of new and rather uncomfortable clothing.
Being ultra-organised, I was ready to kick off from 1pm… naïve. It was approaching 3pm and there was still no sign of interest in the main event. Mr. then casually sauntered into the kitchen and suggested I ‘get cracking’ with the BBQ. I choked. Barbeques are for men! I certainly had zero experience in this department, and sheepishly admitted as much. Mr. said he would show me what to do and ‘leave me to it’ – I had other ideas. I took all the food out in bowls, and we discovered some tasty charcoaled sausages and burgers left over from the previous barbeque which was clearly a few weeks ago. As I had planned in my mind, the men flocked to the barbeque clutching their sixth glass of rosé, and they seemed to have things under control. Hungry children drowned sausages in a sea of Heinz and squashed it inside a cheap white floury roll, took 2 bites and all dashed off to the pool. I dutifully cleared away their mess, and learned that as the adults tucked in, Mr. had completely undercooked the spare ribs and the guests were struggling with the raw pork. At about 4pm, the children buzzed back over and I mentioned the word ice cream – and immediately regretted it. What a scene erupted, what a commotion – screaming, yelling, fists pummelling the table… I scurried back into the kitchen and produced 10 bowls, 10 spoons, a tub of ice cream and a bowl of raspberries (compulsory). I gritted my teeth and adopted my maternal persona: “Ok George now what would you like? 1 scoop of ice cream? 2??! Ok well mind you don’t jump straight in the pool after then. Now what about some of Granny’s delicious raspberries?”
I then retreated inside to the calm of the kitchen, and positioned myself squarely in front of the sink. The conversation outside was clearly hilarious and sparked huge guffaws from the husbands, and titters and peals of hilarity from the wives. I, meanwhile, was having difficulty in supporting my weight with my 2 inadequate and exhausted feet, and was beginning to sway. At 5pm, I began to dare to wonder when this party would be over. I snuck upstairs, for just half an hour’s peace and quiet, and sunk back onto my bed. My feet were pounding. Just after half past five Mrs came and knocked on my door. They’d had a marvellous idea. Everyone was going to stay for tea!
I then dragged myself downstairs in a bid to emulate Jesus, feeding what was meant to be 3 but instead was increasingly heading towards ‘the five thousand’. The first miracle was that Mrs’s sister-in-law, it appeared, only ordered spaghetti in bulk, so I pulled out a couple of huge packets from the cardboard box, and in a dazed state of overwhelming fatigue, placed a couple of rashers of bacon in a small pan on the Aga. Mrs came in, and in an attempt to be tactful, asked whether, actually, I might need a bit more bacon than that, and why didn’t I use a bigger pan, or indeed, place it in a tray in the aga. I agreed; she had a point. I whisked up half a dozen eggs, furiously grated an expensive block of Parmesan on top of them, with some Cheddar for good measure, a splash of cream, and heaven forbid, some salt and pepper. It took some considerable force to manoeuvre the great lump of spaghetti that had cooked in the saucepan, and even more to stir the egg mixture in. I added the strips of bacon, and began dolloping it gracefully into the bowls all lined up on the island. The yummy mummies then came, or rather, staggered in, to help me with delivery to the hungry monsters. As I mopped the beads of sweat from my weary brow, I heard a small voice pipe up a request similar to the famously bold appeal from Dickens’s ‘Oliver Twist’, and I generously thought that granting one child seconds would harm no one. Before I knew it, all nine of the rest of them had come rushing into the kitchen, shouting, “I want more I want more, me first, give me some first!” I blinked, and mechanically reached for my serving spoon, each dollop landing even more gracefully than the last. Perhaps they weren’t even eating it – I don’t know what else they could have done with it in so short a time span, for less than 30 seconds later they were back, and I was scraping the last 2cm strips of spaghetti from the bottom of the pan into the smallest child’s bowl, who was last. I was incredulous. Not only had I had to perform a miracle at this emergency feeding, and had been slaving away all day, but they actually had the audacity to demand more, and more. The demands for fourths were met with a quite clear answer, and I ordered them to scarper. Externally of course, I laughed and joked at the “little tykes’” appetite, and apologised that I could not dish up forty bowls of carbonara; perhaps they’d like to advertise for someone who could next year.
Sitting at the kitchen table at 9pm with my head in my hands, they were all still there, clearly in the midst of what in my opinion is one of the most dangerous hazards imaginable – ‘too much fun’.
As the sun set in the sky, or in fact long after it had done so, the ‘little rascals’ clambered reluctantly into the backs of their four by fours, and the cries of “darling SO good to see you, terrific day, thanks a million” were uttered, and finally, I was free to crawl upstairs under my duvet, and hope to never come out.