One of the fun things about writing is that you can experiment with different styles and topics until you find your own voice and your own true writing passions. Writing about food is one such passion for me. For nearly two years I wrote a weekly column in the Glasgow Herald magazine as their ‘cake critic.’ It involved ‘searching tearooms and coffee shops for the best in home baking.’ Can you imagine a better stint as a writer who’s interested in food? I got to eat cake and write about it. It was bliss.
The idea for the ‘cake critic’ column came about when I took my Mum for coffee one day and realised that what would otherwise have been a lovely tearoom was let down by a selection of mass produced, cellophane wrapped sub-standard cakes. Where was the home baking? Why didn’t they feel it worth investing in some high quality baked goods at a time when The Great British Bake Off was at its peak and the public was getting increasingly savvy in its pursuit of the real deal? As someone who had always longed to run a coffee shop with an on-site bakery it really irked me. If I had owned that coffee shop…. And so I went home that day and promptly wrote an e-mail to the editor of the Herald outlining a proposal to highlight the best home baking in Scotland. I wanted to promote the best baking and the bakers behind it. It felt like a truly noble cause to me. Within twenty four hours I had received an e-mail back saying they liked the idea and that I should go in for a chat. The chat went well and the rest is history. I acted on an instinct, a passion, and it paid off. It taught me that when an inspired idea comes to you it’s worth acting on it because you never know where it’s going to take you.
My time as ‘cake critic’ made me realise that writing about food is my writing heaven. It inspires me and consumes me more than any other topic. Even now, as I focus on writing fiction, food plays an enormous part in the story-telling, giving me a way to appeal to readers senses whilst fulfilling my own writing passion. I can happily spend hours thinking about the perfect meal for a specific scene: the colours, the flavours, the textures, the smells…. I picture the food in my imagination as it would be on the table or the plate or the tartan picnic rug pinned down by a bottle of red. I want to share those imaginings with readers so they too can smell the bacon frying and the coffee brewing as they ease themselves into each scene. Some of own favourite reading memories are those which involve food. Joanne Harris comes to mind: her deft hand has taken me on many wonderful culinary imaginings, each infused with the sheer joy of food which we so admire in the French. Who hasn’t been left with the lingering taste of chocolate, peaches and blackberry wine having read her works? It’s sublime reading for foodies.
So where does the passion for writing about food come from? It’s simple really. It stems from a passion for food. Period. I was lucky to have parents who both had a love of cooking and who encouraged me to roll up my sleeves and get into the kitchen as soon as I could feed myself. They ignited in me the basic instinct to nurture others through feeding them before I could even understand such a concept, and that is something which has stayed with me all my life; it’s one of my greatest joys.
As a very young child I can remember food being a thing of wonder. Before they were trendy and copious avocados were my food heaven, followed closely by peanut butter. From as young as three years old, they were the treats I asked for on birthdays in place of sweets and cake. I wanted proper adult food having developed a taste for the good stuff. Jelly babies and matchsticks were not on my agenda.
It wasn’t just the eating of good food that I’d been introduced to so early, it was the growing and preparing and cooking of it too. I spent my childhood watching my mother going up and down the stairs tirelessly carrying buckets of water for her vegetable patch which produced no end of wholesome ingredients for wonderful meals. I watched my Dad spend entire weekends cooking curries from scratch, hiding away in the kitchen while he mixed and marinated and revelled in the magic he was making. I would watch, entranced by the slow stirring and careful adding of spices as he prepared a feast for us all, bringing far away flavours and exciting new tastes our way.
As a result, I grew up being very hands on when it came to food. Before I even got to school I was the one cutting the core out of raw kidneys to make them fit for a pie, my small hands covered in blood and slime. I was the one who stretched high on my tiptoes to harvest elderflowers in the garden when my Mum took a notion to make wine. Before long I was the ‘queen of puddings,’ tasked with creating fantastical cakes and desserts whenever we shared our table with friends and family, quietly thrilled to see them enjoy what I’d made. By the age of nine I was cooking roast chicken dinners for the family, mastering seasonings and timings and how to keep the bite in steamed carrots. It was, and still is, my ultimate pastime.
My parents encouraged me to experiment, to think in bold flavours and to take my time presenting food to others, to really care about what I produced. It was one of the biggest gifts they could ever have given me. Our collective love of food was also one of the things which time and again, through all life’s ups and downs, brought us together as a family. And that, more than the food itself, is what I find so wondrous about it all. Food has an amazing way of bringing people together. A shared meal, a shared experience, can connect us no matter who we are and where we are. Whether it’s a shared Snickers bar in a moment of hunger or a celebratory meal for one of the most important times in our lives, there is nothing more fundamentally human than eating together. No matter our culture, our life choices, our language or our place in the world, food can transcend all boundaries, bringing us together, taking us to new places, and seeing us safely through the best, the worst and the ugliest times of our lives.
They say you should write what you know about, so it’s no surprise, all things considered, that I should find myself writing about food. It’s a passion which weaves through so many aspects of my life; my family, my social life, my teaching, my photography, my travels, my health and my fitness. Finding that golden thread, that passion which connects all the different aspects of our lives, is one of the greatest blessings a writer could hope for. Not for the first time, I find myself quietly thanking my parents for the gift they shared with me which has touched my life in ways they could never have imagined.