My last meal in a restaurant was at the end of February. We hoovered up smashed burgers – so succulent that the beef juices had to be chased with napkins – in a London pub to celebrate my youngest son’s birthday. I haven’t cooked for friends since a month before that, and punched the air when we were allowed to have a close family member – my sister had been on her own throughout lockdown – join our socially isolated bubble. Roast chicken, the first thing I cooked for her, never tasted so good.
Before lockdown, we were used to cooking whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted. And if we didn’t want to cook there were plenty of places – from McDonald’s to Michelin-starred restaurants – that would feed us. With Covid, all that changed, and we changed with it.
As I was in a high-risk category I couldn’t shop, so my eldest son did it. Unable, at first, to get any Ocado deliveries, we used our local shops more. There was no point joining the snaking queue at Tesco when the small shops – especially the cluster of Greek and Turkish ones – had beautiful fruit and vegetables, and were great places for a socially distanced chat.
In the past, I usually decided what we ate. During lockdown, my sons sat with me at the kitchen table to plan our meals, place orders and draw up shopping lists. When my eldest went food shopping it was a big event – it felt almost caveman-like, as if he was going hunting – and when he came back there was a full report, details of what was plentiful, what was in short supply and what the gossip was in Tony’s Continental.
Even though I wasn’t with them, I was teaching my sons how to shop. I told them to feel the top point in a melon to check for ripeness, and suggested what could be substituted if a particular herb wasn’t available. I gradually realised that they were taking on my role. We decided what dishes I would cook and what they would cook across the week. When it was my turn they interfered, chastising me for not weighing out rice and pasta properly or using too much smoked paprika in a paella. They made dishes – soft and umami-rich beans, warm potatoes with a spring-onion dressing – that they found in cookbooks. They made things I wouldn’t make – of course they did, but it was surprising nevertheless.
I know that throughout lockdown eating a meal together became the highlight of the day in many homes, and that children joined in with the cooking and the decisions on what to eat. I hope this lasts. Covid made my sons into cooks (with strong opinions), and good shoppers with a local network, more connected to the sources of their food.
Now that we’re allowed to have small gatherings outside, I am – finally – going to cook for family friends. Because I’ve almost forgotten how to be sociable – what did I talk about in the past? – I’m anxious, and flustered about the food too. It has to hit the right note. It should be special but not too special. An expensive meal would be obscene, one where the food is finicky would have the wrong emphasis – this meal should be about friendship, the cooking barely remarkable – and one using the tins we’ve been hoarding since March would just be too… lockdown.
In the end I didn’t have to decide on the menu. My sons told me what they wanted – burgers and brownies – and took part in the recipe testing. The first post-lockdown meal in the garden is unfussy, inexpensive, joyful and much more easy-going than it would have been without their input. I have had to let go of the cooking reins, or at least share them. I just hope I can remember how to chat.