Monday 31 January 2011

Mum, Mick & Marguerite

Up until about five years ago I was absolutely awful at cooking.  I'm not saying I'm rivalling Nigella or anyone now but I tell you, pre-2006 I was a right cookery dunce.

Even school Home Economics lessons were bad.  I really wanted to be good at cooking but no matter what I did it always seemed to go wrong.  I remember the day I came home with a sausagemeat plait that I'd made in Miss Worth's lesson.  Mum had cleared away all family dinner cooking plans because that Tuesday night I - yes I, thirteen year old I - was feeding the family.  Mum was going to provide some mashed potato and vegetables but the undisputed star of the meal was going to be my majestic sausagemeat plait.

At three o'clock that afternoon I left my Geography lesson (what a waste of a subject that was on me - I have trouble pinpointing Cambridge on the weather map) and headed over to Block 5 to collect my culinary masterpiece.  I walked into the classroom which was filled with the aroma of baked pastry and warm sausage (bottle that, Gucci - there's a scent!) and found my sausagemeat plait sitting on a cooling rack with my name label next to it.  Dang, it looked good!  I was so proud.  I carefully lifted it into my red Family Circle biscuit tin and set off on my journey home. 

I kept the tin level all the way home.  I didn't even stop at Moore's newsagents for my daily packet of Space Raiders because I had an important cargo that needed to be shown to my Mum.  As I approached the house Mum opened the door for me and I carried my tin through to the kitchen.  I had such a grin on my face as I removed the lid for the big reveal ..... and then that grin quickly fell off my face as I looked inside the tin.  My lovely sausagemeat plait seemed to have shape shifted during the walk home.  Instead of gazing upon the delicious crisp, golden, carefully-braided loveliness that I'd lifted into the tin less than an hour before, I was looking (in horror) at a pale and oily plap of stuff that seemed to be sweating grease.  Think Mick Hucknall in pastry-and-meat form.  My sausagemeat plait had collapsed into a right old sorry heap. 

Mum got the fish slice and lifted the item out of the tin and onto a rack.  She dabbed at it with some kitchen roll in an attempt to remove some of the drippy fat and then she gently patted it back into some kind of shape.  I was thoroughly crestfallen (that's the first time I've ever used that word) and very disappointed.  The 'plait' sat on the cooling rack until about a quarter to six when Mum transferred it to a baking tray and put it in the oven to warm through.  On the worktop, underneath the empty cooling rack, sat a puddle of grease.  I have NO idea why my handiwork was so oily.  Maybe it was the sausagemeat or perhaps I got the recipe measurements wrong?  I don't know.

At six o'clock we sat down to dinner and Mum dished up slices of my plait onto plates.  Bless her, I knew she was trying not to laugh but I could tell that she desperately wanted to.  Her and Dad ate the sausagemeat plait (it's a joke to call it that) and Dad honestly seemed to enjoy it.  Sally wouldn't eat hers and I also refused to eat mine.  Thank goodness for Mum's mash and vegetables or we'd have been hungry.

So yeah, me, Home Economics and cooking in general just didn't go together.  I would help Mum in the kitchen, just as I always had - mixing cake mixture, making jam tarts, Angel Delight and Rice Krispie cakes, cutting out pastry leaves for pies and, of course, licking cake spoons and bowls - but whenever I tried anything more complex than that I would just fail miserably.

My Mum was an amazing cook.  Her cakes were sublime and she made the most wondrous apple pie.  Her roast dinners were superb and her bread pudding was legendary.  Mum would read cookery books like novels - she had a cupboard chock-full of recipe books of every age, type and description.  She absolutely loved the things.

My Mum died in 2006.  She had a heart attack on Mothering Sunday.  

I know.  

I was just starting to get into cooking.  It was back when Ready Steady Cook was good and Jamie Oliver was King Of The TV Chefs (he still is in my mind) and I was inspired by it all.  I'd planned to cook Mum a Mother's Day lunch.  We were going to have chicken chasseur followed by homemade pavlova.  Mum didn't feel right on Sunday morning and I joked that she was just trying to get out of eating my cooking!  I helped her upstairs so she could have a rest and I went back downstairs and set about cleaning beads and getting the raspberries out of the freezer to defrost ready for the pavolva.

Then all of a sudden, within the space of about forty five minutes, our lives changed forever.

We never did have that lunch.  I can remember tipping the chicken and raspberries into the bin the next day. 

One of the first things I said after Mum died (to a lovely paramedic who was wonderful and who made me a very sugary cup of tea) was 'I'm never going to eat one of my Mum's roast dinners again.'  A very odd thing to think of at such a time but it kind of tells you what an ace cook she was.

On the Monday I vowed that I was going to learn to cook like Mum.  I had to because we'd all become so used to her delicious meals and puddings that there was just no going back.  I went through Mum's recipe book cupboard and I fished out the book that I knew was her ultimate cookery Bible - Marguerite Patten's Every Day Cook Book.  That very book is sat next to me right now. 

Marguerite Patten's 'Every Day Cook Book'

Marguerite Patten's 'Every Day Cook Book'
Mum's 1970 copy of Margeurite Patten's 'Every Day Cook Book'

It's the 1970 edition and is in a bit of a tatty state.  It has lost its dust jacket and some of its pages are loose.  The index is torn and in need of mending and the book feels floury (yes, actual flour - some probably about forty years old) and it has food splats all over it.  The front cover seems to have had a fight with some chocolate cake mixture and page 144 - the chicken and bacon pie page - has actual bits of pie stuck to it.  But despite its condition I love this book.  It was Mum's go-to recipe book and having read it and used it umpteen times myself I can see why she loved it so much.  I refer to this book at least once a week.  It contains everything you need to know about cooking.  

It also contains some amazing retro photographs of retro food.  I just love how there's so much orange (the colour, not the fruit) and brown - you just don't get food photographs like these now!

Images from Marguerite Patten's 'Every Day Cook Book'

But retro pictures aside, this book is amazing and  Marguerite Patten is amazing.  She has taught me how to cook and, more importantly, she has taught me how to cook like my Mum used to.  That chicken and bacon pie tastes exactly as it did when Mum made it.  Making the cakes, scones and flapjacks from the book reminds me of Mum because they taste just like hers did.  Isn't it marvellous how one bite of cake can bring back so many happy memories?

Obviously Mum isn't here to see how far I've come with my cooking.  She's not here to watch me in the kitchen using her recipe books, scales, mixing bowls and pastry cutters and she's not here to taste my cooked goods.  But when I'm in the kitchen twiddling about with cakes and pastry I feel closer to Mum.  I might have been a rubbish cook when I was younger but I've really improved and I'm learning all the time.  I can still hear Mum's voice and her words of cookery wisdom - "Roll it like that", "Cut it like this" and "Don't stir it - fold it in gently" - like some kind of Obi-Wan Kenobi in my mind.

Yes, cooking definitely makes me feel closer to Mum and that's a brilliant thing but I'll tell you what, there is NO way on Earth I am attempting another sausagemeat plait ever again!


  1. This post moved me to tears, and yet I smiled when I read about the sausage meat plait (I actually had to google that one).

    I'm a lousy cook if ever there was one, but you've just given me hope. Thank you so much, Laura!

  2. Marguerite Patten is a cooking legend.
    My nanny Tres had her book - cookery in colour, looking in it now some of the recipes are sooo dated ;) She then passed it onto my mum and I like you learnt to cook from her recipies, first with my nan and then my mum. I was very lucky that a lady I worked with gave me her well used copy of the book when one day I was extolling it's virtues. I still dip into it today for good basic recipes.
    I feel closer to my nan, like you do your mum when I cook especially when making melting moments. She certainly inspired me to cook far more than making quiche in home ec class. Vxx

  3. what a lovely post about your mum, and cooking. The book looks brilliant too!

  4. That's a beautifully written post, Laura. What lovely memories to have.

    I now have a craving for sausage plait (although not a Hucknall-esque version - that was quite an image!)

  5. A fantastic post Laura, you made me cry too!
    It brought back memories of my struggles home on the tube with the bicuit tin containing my Home Ec. triumphs. They never made it either but my Dad always manfully ate whatever was in there.
    My Mum also has the same book but hilariously it totally failed to teach her to cook. Next time I'm over there I think I will have to snaffle it.

  6. sending a great big virtual 'hug' a sad but lovely post x

  7. Hi lovely Laura

    What a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing that. As you know, my mother died in March last year. I had a fleck of fluff irritating my eye (not tears, no, I don't cry ... much) after reading your beautiful words, and so much of what you say touches me as I can see the wonderful relationship you had, just like I had with mine.

    Strangely enough, just yesterday I got sad thinking I can't have one of my mum's roast dinners. She also was a brilliant cook, as well as being generally amazing and the best mum I could ever have wished for. I realised that apart from Christmas day, when my brother and his girlfriend cooked a roast for us all, I haven't had one since Christmas 2009, before my mum got really ill. I think it's going to take me a while before I can eat one again, as it seems to remind me that she's gone. I suppose I have a thought there that if I can't have her roast then I don't want one at all. Maybe I'll get to make my own to her standards and that's the answer...

    I cannot begin to imagine the horror of that Mother's Day, although I share your pain in losing your mother. I do think your mother would be very proud of you. The way you are is a tribute to what a good job she did as a mother!

    Lots of love

    Mary xxxxx (@yetanothermary)

  8. What a lovely post Laura, very moving. It brought back memories of my school cookery lessons too. I still use the large cookery book my mum gave me in 1978 , a Good Housekeeping one. It is falling to bits...but a couple of months ago I spotted one in a charity shop in much better condition, so now have that too. Can't bear to part with the original one tho'.

  9. This post has brought me to tears! Good luck in your culinary quest :)

  10. Dear Laura,

    I was so touched reading this tribute to your you, your Mom and Marguerite.

    It's amazing how much comfort comes from our times with loved ones and food...I too have lovely memories of wonderful times with family and friends over home cooked meals. Nothing tops it.

    You write beautifully. Thank you for letting us peek over the fence into your world - we're all the better for it.

    Big Hugs,
    Marie (Seraphimgirl)

  11. I know exactly what you mean - my mum's speciality was cake, and when she died I inherited her old green cake tin & baking trays (probably older than I am and that's saying something!) Taking a slice of Victoria sponge out of that tin to have with a cup of tea sends me right back to childhood. Good luck with your roast dinners - I still can't get it right, but following my mum's instructions for a bechemel sauce makes it foolproof.
    School cookery lessons - my family manfully ate my efforts too...I remember ensuring that my brother got the hamburger that had rolled across the school floor when I was trying to lift it with a fish-slice. Mmm, hairy...

  12. What a lovely post - thank you for sharing. My dad was the designer/builder in our family - although my mom was pretty crafty too - and I can always hear him talking about "doing it right" and making sure something didn't look "jakey" (his word for poor quality job). I think about him every time I pick up a tool :-)

  13. That was a beautiful story and so movingly written. I love the image of your Mum being your personal Obi-Wan. :) Honestly, I think you could submit it to a magazine; it's an excellent tribute and the sort of story that more people should have a chance to read.

  14. Well now I'm a snuffling heap after reading your very moving and also funny post about your Mum and your determination to be a good cook to honour your Mums memory and expertise. My Mum has an ancient Good Housekeeping book with those floury pages and I know when she leaves this world I will open them and touch them where she once did and I will feel closer to her. Bless you and your mum xx

  15. How can something so beautiful and amazing make me feel so sad and yet wholesome at the same time?

  16. That's a beautiful post. I devour cookbooks and have at least 10 in the house. I've probably only cooked on average 2 recipes from each though. 70s cookbooks are a wondrous thing, particularly the photographs.


  17. Hi Laura,

    Your post really moved me, I really felt your loss and enjoyed the story of the sausage plait. Well done with your determination to improve yourself. I remember making coconut pyramids in Home Economics except mine were coconut splats !

    Love Lisa x

  18. What wonderful comments. Thank you all so much for taking the time to write such lovely things.

    I didn't mean to make anyone cry. I'm really pleased you liked the post, though.

    Thanks for all your kind words. You lot are just fab!

    Laura x

  19. Hi there was trying to find another copy of this book and came across your post as mine is just like yours I have had it since 1972 and I still use quite a lot it also has loose pages and looks tatty but can't bare to throw it away.

    1. Hi Sue

      It's such a great book. You might be able to find another copy on and then you could archive your precious old one and use the newer copy. I know what you mean; I could never part with mine. X

  20. I love this book. Many a rainy afternoon has been spent leafing through the now tatty contents. My daughters love flicking through it too but always laugh that it seems everything in the 70s was in aspic! This is a dearly treasured companion, which despite it's tatty and aged appearance, will always be in my list of favourite reads.


Your comments are much appreciated. Fire away!