I sometimes think it is assumed that, because I’m passionate about food and cooking, the culinary arts have been long-time preoccupations of mine. In brief, they haven’t. Growing up, I was a picky eater. From taste, texture, to temperature, even to private misgivings about the skill or hygiene of whomever made the dish, more often than not, I would find some sort of fault that meant I’d leave my portion substantially untouched.
My parents were not adventurous eaters, either. To this day my Filipino mother rarely betrays her southeast-Asian palate; fish, rice, and vegetables draped with dark, salty sauces are her daily staples. My Australian father, on the other hand, remains an unwavering devotee of the classic meat and three veg, however, does on occasion steer toward fish and chips, grilled sandwiches and - the widest berths of all - sweet and sour pork and even peking-duck. But that’s about it.
Unfortunately, even after nearly 30 years of marriage, neither of them have managed to accustom themselves to one another’s culinary palate. Until my father retired and began doing more of his own cooking, my mother cooked two dinners on most nights. A his and a her, and I would eat some of whichever dish I found more appealing.
It’s clear that I’d inherited my fretful attitude toward food from this inflexible pair, for by the time I was in senior high school, where my own sense of taste strayed further and further away from that of my parents, I was often preparing my own meals, too.
I was aided by one of my senior high school subjects. The newly inducted hospitality course (which was meant to be very different from the school’s ‘home-makerish’ home economics subject) was meant to be a respite from my more burdensome, OP-related courses (an OP is Queensland’s scoring system that determines which universities a student can apply for). Undertaking the hospitality subject was less about career or interest, but more about escaping the weighty subjects that we students were reminded, time and again, would determine our future.
I can recall very little of my modern history studies, can’t remember much about math, either, and even with seven years of Japanese language studies up my sleeve, I’m hopeless beyond ‘my name is Amanda’ and ‘have a nice day’.
But from that seemingly insignificant hospitality course I learnt how to segment a whole chicken; how to caramelise onions without reducing them to something carcinogenic; how to sharpen a knife with a sharpening stone without causing damage to the knife or myself; how to julienne, batonnet and allumette vegetables with a care and precision I never thought necessary. It introduced me to a world of cuisine that was way beyond the interest and repertoire of any member of my family; a world that was filled with flavours and languages and people that were other than my own.
Such skills haven’t made me rich, famous or exceptionally intelligent, but they have, to my great surprise, contributed to making my everyday life much more rounded, wholesome, creative, able. Those hours spent goofing around, dicing carrots and baking muffins, have turned out to be the most influential of my time in secondary school, and, on a quotidian basis, the most useful.
It’s been ten years since that high school course and for the majority of that time I have failed to cook. University was more important; dining at restaurants more interesting; work made passing time in the kitchen every evening seem too grueling. For the majority of my twenties, cooking a real meal was reserved for special occasions or audacious resolutions that were forgotten before the third week of January. Most of my food came from restaurants, frozen boxes or my mother.
But, zooming in to the present day, 1 year and 4 months into my newish life in France, alongside learning French, running a small business, researching my novel and administering our little home, most days do not pass without me spending time in our little Parisian kitchen. I made cooking a priority because I understood that food would foster a well-being (because you are what you eat) and a connectedness (because with dining usually comes conversing) that would undoubtedly make even the most mundane of our days better. I’ve cooked more in these last 16 months than I have in my entire life and I am without doubt healthier and more self-reliant because of it.
Sometimes, when I’m tired, or lack inspiration, or think that I’m too busy, cooking becomes difficult. There have been days where I’ve lapsed and Remi and I have resorted to frozen pizza or take-away. But, despite the advantages of frozen food’s cheapness and quickness, we found little pleasure in eating it. With takeaway, while it usually tastes better, and usually seems healthier, too, it’s convenience doesn’t win over the long-term monetary expense of eating in this manner (and one could argue for the environmental and health expense of it, too, for take-away comes with a lot of plastic and little information about what a meal is made from). A meal or two like this is enough to send me running back to the kitchen with renewed fervor, and I think it is because eating well has become our norm, and it now feels dissatisfying to behave otherwise.
I’m still picky about food but the difference is my pickiness now stems from expectation and ethics rather than fear and ignorance. It’s an expansive rather than limiting kind of selectivity that enables me to develop skill and creativity while satisfying my small household’s physiological need to eat.
It still bemuses me that the insignificant, respite-giving hospitality course has turned out to be so influential, in its foundational status, in my life. I’m not sure if my highschool is still offering that subject, but I hope that it is, and I hope that other schools have jumped on the bandwagon, too, for I’m sure that I have not been the only young person who has realised that while a sound education and career can (and do) contribute to a better life experience, so does being able to make a good meal.