When I was a child I spent a lot of time talking to the kitchen wall. Not like some creepy nine-year-old Shirley Valentine with woes beyond her years, mind, rather I would play out my own cooking show, and the shabby-chic coloured tiles and patterned lemon-yellow wallpaper in our little galley kitchen were my audience.
At that time, around the age of nine or ten, I’d return home from school a good couple of hours before my parents, and left to my own devices, I would while away the time messing about with whatever we had lying around the kitchen – probably an unremarkable mix of dried pasta, condiments and the kind of packet sauces that nobody thought much about stocking up on before cooking got all sexy and cool, this century has been cruel to Old El Paso’s oeuvre – and describe out loud what I was doing. Steps, no doubt, that I’d lifted straight from the back of the packets, or had previously seen my mum grudgingly do in a rush.
“If you can’t be bothered to whip up a proper creamy sauce for your spaghetti after a day at work”, I’d say, recalling the cheerful, you-can-do-it-too tone I’d seen Ainsley Harriott charm his ‘Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook’, audience with, ‘just mix up a chicken cup-a-soup with half the amount of water you’d usually use and stir it into freshly cooked pasta for a quick carbonara!’.
‘Chicken Soupreme’, a simple dish of diced chicken cooked in Heinz chicken soup, was a favourite tea of mine and my brother’s growing up and had no doubt inspired my innovative cup-a-soup shortcut. Our mum would cook it for us as a treat now and then and serve it on white rice, always arranged into a ring with the sauce ladled into the centre, and in our book, it was the fanciest thing going after an Indian takeaway.
On a usual day she’d be more likely to cook a basic Bolognese, still so much my mum’s specialty that the rest of the family will mock her when there’s a simmering pan of ragu on the hob every other day, except back then she’d tend to make it with textured vegetable protein and a jar of Dolmio rather than ground beef, passata and fresh herbs, as she would now. As far as me and my brother were concerned at the time, our parents must have had some nasty vendetta against us, serving TVP to kids with wild claims about how all the cool people were eating health food now, while kids at school would boast about whatever Bernard Matthews fare their parents would dish up. I’d have given anything for easy access to Turkey Drummers in 1992.
What you don’t get when you’re seven is that fake-meat is a lot cheaper than the real stuff – my parents weren’t actually jumping on a hippie trend, they were just poor and trying their hardest to give us something that didn’t cost a lot, but didn’t make us feel like we were clinging onto the breadline either. We’d recently moved from Liverpool to Birmingham so that my mum could study to become a teacher and my dad could get a better job, aiming give us all a better life. Making something from nothing and striving to achieve things that were bigger than what was seemingly on offer became a dominant ethos for our family, whether that applied to furthering one’s career potential, or tarting up cheap food. Soup-in-a-can sauce might not sound like such treat now, but when my mum pulled that out the bag, me and my brother were on top of the world.
A few years ago, beauty website, Into the Gloss, launched its addictive ‘Top Shelf’ feature, where all manner of famous women, from Cindy Crawford to Lindsey Lohan will describe their daily washing rituals and the beauty products involved, giving readers a rare insight into the psyche of stars who are usually guarded by media training and PR restrictions. Often a Hollywood actress will cite a store-cupboard tip she learned from a family member as her biggest beauty secret, or express affection for a cheapo body lotion because its scent holds a poignant memory.
Most of us who regularly read it will admit to having planned out what would be included in our ‘Top Shelf’ if we ever became notable enough to be called on Emily Weiss and co to share it, and in the shower the other day, I found myself describing, in my head rather than out loud this time, the terrible hair breakage that led to my love of Aveda conditioner, or the fondness I have for Le Petit Marseillais shower gel after my French housemate brought me some home from a family visit, and was reminded of those days I used to spend talking to the kitchen wall.
Speaking out loud is something we’ve all become quite accustomed to, often projecting our every thought online, but in the heavily edited realm of twitter, facebook, or whatever your internet poison happens to be, the self that we shout about can’t help but be calculated. I still often eat Heinz chicken soup and think fondly of the delight me and my brother would feel when a ‘Soupreme’ meal was on the cards, but it’ll be an elaborately steamed fish or spiralised courgette you’ll see on my Instagram.
Maybe next time you want to know what someone’s really like, just ask them how they’ve always done their toast.