Yesterday I put away most of my cookery books. The majority went into boxes, which were marked ‘cookery books (keep)’. I didn’t realize objects had the collective name of ‘chotskies’ and that anything from shells to bowls to framed photos could come under this new heading. Something about seeing all these books lined up, sentry-like, on the floor gave me pause. How many cookery books do I need? Or use? The sheer bulk of them was imposing, but sitting down to read them felt like displacement, a putting off of something. I returned from England to an entire bookcase full of recipes, gathering dust, slouching in the heat, cascading one on top of the other and tried to remember when I had developed this learned helplessness in the kitchen. For years and years I think I owned three cookery books. Which I barely used. They had pencil drawings of legumes and dainty fruits, or there were close-up photos of salad and cake where everything looked vaguely menacing and shapeless.
Mostly I was drawn to implements, because during my teens and twenties I lived ad hoc often for months at a time in such and such a place, as an au pair, as a cook in Venice, in someone’s converted garage in Rome, in a deserted flat in Peckham. I made do with what had been left behind or what I could use when the owners weren’t looking. What I could eat, how much of something I could take before it was hidden from me or labelled ‘keep out!’. The borrowed cup and saucer, the endless pilfered spoons, the bag of buns that would be tea. All those cafe and deli jobs when I lived on ham scraps and Danish pastries. Food was fodder, fuel to power me through the walk from one postcode to another.
When I was in my late twenties, I worked as a live-in au pair for a French couple in the London borough of Fulham, which subsidized my drama school fees. They had a three-year-old boy called Antoine and it was my job to look after him in the evenings and weekends. They had the best kitchen that I’d ever seen and the best implements. It was never made clear whether I was allowed to cook, so mostly I didn’t. I’d eat bread and butter, toast, a banana, things I could pick up surreptitiously and leave the room with; four biscuits curled into my palm, a slab of cheddar.
They had a food processor. This was new to me and very exciting. I had no idea how it worked, so when they were out I’d experiment; the best thing it did was shred carrots. Mounds and mounds of desiccated carrot, damp and juicy, which I’d salt and fleck with oil and lemon. They had no cookery books and I had none either, because I was living with the bare minimum, in a small lemon-yellow room next to Antoine at the top of the house.
I made the shredded carrot every day and ate it with an upended tin of tuna. I think that was how I never got ill. I read fiction, not Nigel or Nigella who only existed then in the margins, if I walked through a bookshop, say, or flicked through the television channels. I was never invited to cross the threshold of the French couple’s sitting room. I’d stand in the doorway and we’d have conversations, but I was never invited in. Only if Antoine saw me would he take my hand and lead me to the sofa.
Sometimes, in the night I’d hear him crying next door, and though I was given instructions never to go in, I often would, and he’d be standing on the other side clutching his trucks to his chest in a way I still think about. He also gave me food, invited me to sit with him at the kitchen table, and took me into the garden. Sometimes I ate my shredded carrot with him and he’d eat his mashed apple or his sausages (and then I’d eat what he left behind). I hope he is doing well.
I read this book by Alain Coumont at Le Pain Quotidien in Larchmont. I resisted the urge to buy it and instead I read it. I hope the simplicity of this recipe doesn’t offend, but really it’s not a recipe, more an idea; a thought about food that you might have and decide to execute. It’s permission more than anything. And it reminded me of what I did before books told me to. When I just fed myself.
Carrot and lemon salad
Serves 4 as a side dish or appetizer
4-6 carrots, peeled, julienned or finely grated
2 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
Juice of half a lemon
3 pinches of sea salt
Put the shredded/grated carrot in a bowl and mix with the oil, lemon juice and salt. Mix gently with your hands if you like, and then add some freshly ground black pepper. Serve quickly.