Nuala McCann: Looking back, life was a series of flat pavlovas. Now I know why
Picture me stood in last week's cookery class, chomping at the bit to whizz something up. I learned new skills like how to separate an egg. I am 57 and I never did it right
WINTER is coming, Jon Snow, and the big SAD light in the corner of the living room is on. The fierce blaze sweeps the room like Malin Head lighthouse, picking up dust balls and small scurrying spiders on the floor.
Blinded by the light, the others screech, cover their eyes and clutch their sunglasses as they enter the room.
Me, I’m hunched beneath it, a refugee from summer time, a white light junkie, sitting out winter.
I hate darkness and damp cold, silverfish scampering from under an upturned stone, windows weeping condensation, the miserable slump of a garden and knickers dried to a crumple on radiators.
So, in an effort to light a candle for my soul rather than to curse the darkness, I’m trying out new things. No sugar during the week; swimming lessons; drinking eight pints of water a day; bladder control... the list is endless.
Last weekend it was a baking class.
“Cut out sugar, go to a baking class and bake lemon poppy seed cake, ginger cookies and blackberry crumble?” cried the local sceptics.
“O ye of little faith, scorn not, for the fruits of my labours are for ye,” said I.
The new regime means weekends off the sugar thing – everyone needs to cut themselves a little slack and a slice of cake.
“You were always very crafty as a child,” says my mother.
She’s cute and rapier sharp with the double entendres. I aspired to creativity back then. I was very into drawing and painting and sewing and knitting and baking. I just wasn’t that good.
Still, thank you Sr Thekla for helping me run up my first dress at age nine. It was navy with a navy-and-white daisy trim around the colour and a very fancy matching clutch bag. Eat your heart out Jackie O.
But that was then. Standing in the cookery class last week in my black pinny, the years flashed back and I was 11 and in Mrs McCarroll’s domestic science room.
Antiseptic as an operating theatre – the table was scrubbed to within an inch of its life and the implements glinted silver sharp and dangerous. When you dropped your butter on the floor, Mrs McCarroll never said: “Quick, quick, the five-second rule,” or indeed: “Scoop it up there, clean meat never fattened a pig.” Oh no.
The theory was stodgy work and the time she caught my best friend hiding a novel inside her vitamin book was legend. My friend was reading Charles Dickens.
Roll forward a couple of decades and picture me stood in last week’s cookery class, chomping at the bit to whizz something up. I learned new skills like how to separate an egg. I am 57 and I never did it right.
“Easy, just hold it up right and gravity makes the yolk go to the bottom, tap it gently and there you go,” said chef.
And tens of years of snaring yolks with an eggcup and breaking eggs between my fingers and letting the white run through seemed like such a waste of energy. There was a simple way and nobody told me.
Looking back, life was a series of flat pavlovas. Now I know why.
The younger people in the class were very keen – they wanted to know how to rub butter into flour, how long to beat with the beaters, why one person’s mixture was never the same as another’s.
I’m no instinctive cook – my sister goes, “A little bit of this, a little bit of that, yaba daba doo, shake it all about, allakazam,” and it’s all great.
Me? I measure twice, cut once, even when it comes to butter.
So chef rapped my knuckles for opening the oven to have a juke... “Nasty habit,” he sighed... but then I catch him doing it himself... “Nasty habit,” I sighed back.
Apart from that, something tells me that perhaps the days when the boys went off to woodwork and the girls sat in the domestic science room and learned about quality corsets, the importance of washing under your oxters and how to rub your flour and butter into fine breadcrumbs were not all bad.
It’s a strange science to some of the younger ones in the class who are bewitched by it all. But these are skills that were part and parcel of my growing up.
Now I’m revisiting. I turn off the big SAD light in the corner and step out into autumn. It’s never so bad when there’s cake at the far end.