2000s Archive

Mother’s Little Helper

Originally Published July 2006
Stuffing envelopes is work a kid can get behind, but when your mom is host of a vegetable-driven cooking show, the duties can border on the onerous.
mother’s little helper

In 1976, my mother was invited to host a new cooking program for British national television. That was the year our meals became unreliable. The 30-minute show went out on ITV, one of only three channels then available to viewers, and was called Kitchen Garden. In the first half, a gardener gave tips on how to grow that week’s chosen vegetables. In the second half, Mom demonstrated how to cook them.

It must have been curious for the British public to witness my mother’s sudden reinvention as a celebrity chef. Claire Rayner was already famous by then, but as one of the country’s leading agony aunts, a cross between Ann Landers and Dr. Ruth. She had a weekly problem page in Britain’s biggest selling daily newspaper and a slot answering viewers’ questions on a BBC television program, among other things. She had made her name offering up no-nonsense advice on health worries and sexual dysfunction by insisting that there was no problem, however personal, that could not be discussed. Now, in addition, she was going to be supplying Britain with recipes for ratatouille. To the stew of Ann Landers and Dr. Ruth she was adding a dash of Martha Stewart.

I turned ten that year, and at the time none of this seemed particularly odd. My two older siblings and I were used to our mother taking on challenges. She had started her career as a nurse, an escape from a miserable childhood short of both love and money, and risen to the level of head nurse before trying her hand at freelance writing while on maternity leave to have my sister. She never went back to nursing. One-off articles led to offers of health columns. She became a consultant to a television medical drama, and then an on-air pundit. Contracts for nonfiction books about health and motherhood led to the suggestion that she try her hand at fiction, and she eventually became a best-selling novelist, too, both in Britain and abroad.

Now she was going to be a TV chef. I well remember coming into the kitchen one weekday afternoon, in our house in the cherry-blossom suburbs of northwest London, to find her standing over a box full of vegetables and peering suspiciously at its contents. It was not particularly odd to find her at home. Although she was a working mother, almost all her work could be done without leaving the house, at the old, clacking typewriter in the narrow office, just off the front hall, that she shared with the family gerbil. To find her in the kitchen at such an early hour, however, was peculiar. The only other times I had seen her cooking during the day were on Christmas Eve and, in the years when we still observed it, just before Passover, when she would be preparing to feed a houseful.

She told me distractedly that she was experimenting, which sounded improbably exciting. What I didn’t realize was that I, too, would be part of the experiment, for she needed people on whom to test her recipes—and who better than her husband and kids? Looking back, I see now that this was just the way things worked in our house. My mother’s career was the family business, and we were all employees in it. In 1972, after the success of a particular novel, my father resigned his post as a PR man in the women’s wear business and combined his flourishing career as an artist with the job of agent and manager for my mother.

There were jobs for the children, too. Claire received about 1,000 letters a week from her readers, a dam burst of angst flooding into the house from the four corners of the nation, and she ran a team of typists to help her reply to them all. Occasionally, if she received a lot of inquiries about the same problem, she wrote a leaflet covering the subject and then offered it on her newspaper problem page. The response was often enormous, and for pocket money we were employed to stuff envelopes—and there could be 15,000 or more—with my mother's preprinted advice. It was, of course, a fantastic education. At an early age I was an expert on the symptoms of menopause, could rattle off tips for long-married couples who wanted to rekindle their lovemaking, and knew a use for live natural yogurt that should probably not be described in a magazine dedicated to the enjoyment of food.

But the new task would eventually seem more onerous than any of that—not least because it was unpaid, save for the dishes laid before us. My mother, it should be said, was a very good, if instinctive, cook. Though she had long ago abandoned any ritual (and never had faith), she remained Jewish by food and often made gefilte fish, as well as a rich chopped liver with a topping of crumbled hard-boiled eggs. To accommodate her working life, she had developed a strong line of casseroles, mostly involving chicken or lamb, which could be put together in the morning and slow-cooked during the afternoon for dinner that evening. She made terrific creamy soups with dumplings, and, on winter afternoons, there was tea in front of the fire, with crumpets and slices of sticky malt loaf with a generous smear of butter.

But now, with the contract to host Kitchen Garden, we were in the land of the vegetable—and there our satisfaction at the table was far less certain. Dinnertime became a time of nervous anticipation, and of praise quickly given—for we did not wish to damage her self-confidence. She was the one putting food on the table, if at times all too literally. “There weren’t food economists on the show,” she told me when we discussed it recently. “It was only me. One day that box of vegetables simply turned up at the door, and they said, ’Cook these.’ There was kohlrabi and salsify in there, things I had never seen before. I had to guess what to do with it. And for the first time I had to do weights and measures. Up to then I had always done a handful of this or a handful of that.”

There were three series of Kitchen Garden altogether, out of which came three short books, eventually combined into one volume. On the cover of the latter my mother, who is now in her mid-seventies, is wearing a floral apron and is obviously just a few years older than I am today. With her is the gardener, a freelance TV host called Keith Fordyce who made his name on the seminal ITV music show Ready, Steady, Go! Part of the idea behind the program was that it should be presented by people not normally associated with either cooking or gardening, and so here they are, in an orchard, positioned around a barrowful of fruit and vegetables. My mother has a tense grin on her face that to me says, “What the hell do you expect me to do with all of this?”

To browse through that compilation now is to revisit those days when my mother was experimenting on the wilder shores of vegetarian cookery, a relatively unexplored territory. I remember fondly her peppery cabbage soup made with milk, and less happily a cabbage chop suey with a sauce thickened with cornflour. There was that lush ratatouille, which had long been a part of the family repertoire, and zucchini stuffed with an irresistible mixture of bread crumbs, anchovy fillets, and olives. There are some dishes I don’t recall at all, among them a lasagne in which eggplant and endive were substituted for the pasta, and a vegetable cassoulet flavored with Worcestershire sauce, which now sounds distinctly worrying. Then there are the dishes I wish I could forget but can’t: the venerable beetroot soup, a reminder of my family’s Ashkenazi roots, which my mother quickly pressed into service and which I still hate to this day, and the claggy, gray vegetable pâté, made with white beans and mushrooms. But worst of all, there was the spaghetti squash. That I regarded as nothing less than a culinary betrayal.

In the late 1950s, a leading BBC news program screened a film about the success of that year’s spaghetti harvest in Switzerland, which showed teams of Swiss peasants collecting strands of spaghetti from the trees on which they had grown. Many viewers were taken in by what was, of course, an elaborate April Fools’ joke, and phoned the BBC to ask how they might grow their own spaghetti trees. My mother had always loved the gag, and when the television production team presented her with a spaghetti squash, she was entranced by the notion that she might demonstrate how the stuff really did grow on trees, or at least on a ground-crawling bush. “I just thought it was a hoot,” she told me.

The spaghetti squash is pale in color, hard to the touch, and can grow to just under a foot long. It is a less than sensitive ingredient that requires serious cooking for at least 45 minutes before it might be considered ready to eat by those who like this sort of thing, which I don’t. Let it cool, slice it in half, and spoon out the seeds. After that, if you scrape at the flesh with a fork, it will come away in long fibers that lend the squash its name. There, however, the similarity to spaghetti ends. This squash tastes like, well, a squash: The fibers are crisp and not unreminiscent of cucumber. Anybody with a particular love for cucumber might find this beguiling. Anybody who, like me when I was a kid, is told it is a vegetable version of pasta cannot fail but be disappointed.

My mother made a very good tomato sauce to go with it, one that would have gone exceptionally well with, say, actual pasta, and then gave us cheese to layer on top. I cannot recall how the family responded to this dish the first time it was served for dinner, but I imagine we were as enthusiastic as always. Perhaps we were too encouraging, for the spaghetti squash quickly entered the domestic repertoire. Some dishes she cooked only for the show. Others turned up at parties. But the spaghetti squash was served regularly for the family. Or at least that’s how I remember it. I recall prowling the kitchen to see what was for dinner that night and how, catching sight of its bleached-out skin, my heart would drop.

A few months after she began working on the series, my mother decided to get serious and marked out an area at the back of our small lawn for a vegetable patch. There were runner beans and strawberry plants, tomatoes, and, of course, spaghetti squash. That summer, beneath an unrelenting sun, the plants thrived, yielding first their yellow flowers, and then the squashes themselves, which my mother doted on every day. Now I would not be able to escape them. For a few months, the damn things were practically family.

Happily, in 1977, during the production of the second series of Kitchen Garden, my family moved and the vegetable patch did not come with us. For a while the spaghetti squash retained its place at the dinner table. Eventually, though, it began to recede, to be replaced by other curiosities. Because of my mother’s medical background, she was always keen to experiment with the latest innovations in diet, and we became one of the first households in Britain to use low-cholesterol butter substitutes. Olive oil arrived early. And long before the FPlan Diet was published, my mother came up with a weight-loss regimen based on fiber for one of the women’s magazines. Each morning she drank orange juice with a bran tablet dissolved in it, which turned the liquid sludge gray. For a while she even suggested we all do the same and told us how good it would make us feel, but we were wise to her by then. We knew where a willingness to please might get us. We all said no.

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