She’s one of Australia’s great food educators and a timeless foodie icon. As Stephanie Alexander releases her latest cookbook, The Cook’s Apprentice, for ‘new cooks’ young and old, she shares why food is one of life’s greatest pleasures and the perfect conversation starter.
When my mother died, my father was absolutely devastated. I went and spent a couple of days with him and one of the things I communicated within those two or three days was how to make bread.
He had never made bread in his life. But he really responded to that skill and for the next seven or eight years he regularly made a loaf of wholemeal bread and, being in a retirement home, it made him a lot of friends.
They used to have a weekly barbecue and dad was really relied upon to turn up with his loaf of bread every week. So it had meaning far beyond just the nutrient value – it was a sort of a symbol of friendship and it obviously gave him something to do and focus.
As life circumstances change, I think it really is very important that people are able to cook for themselves and give themselves and their friends the pleasure of something that’s been prepared with their own hands.
That was one of the motives for me when writing my latest cook book, The Cook’s Apprentice. New cooks come in all shapes and sizes. Circumstances change in families, and sometimes even older ‘non-cooks’ find themselves becoming ‘new cooks’.
It’s important to help people to develop the skills so that they can feel able to cope and cook food that is nutritious. This applies to an older person as much as it might a teenager who’s just moved out of home.
Later in life, some may lose their cooking partner or suddenly have to cook for themselves when they didn’t before and they may feel unable to – or simply uninterested in – doing that. There are all sorts of implications that flow on from that. Lack of nutrition, depression and feeling anxious are common.
There are all sorts of implications that flow on from that. Lack of nutrition, depression and feeling anxious are common.
That’s where the quality of the ingredients is paramount really. Food is for health, as much as it is for pleasure.
I think often what’s been standing in the way – and certainly convenience food is everywhere we look – but often it’s that they can’t get started from scratch because they genuinely don’t have the knowledge.
That’s something I’ve tried to address – to make sure the anxiety factor is dealt with by giving really clear explanations, not using fancy language and describing ingredients clearly so new cooks at any age won’t get overwhelmed by reading ingredients or techniques they don’t understand.
It’s alphabetical too, so if somebody is looking in their pantry, and they say, “Oh, look, I’ve got a big lump of cheddar cheese, what can I do?” They can look up cheese, and they can find all sorts of ideas of what they could do with their cheese.
And as they grow more confident and more competent, I have no doubt cooking will give enormous pleasure both to the cook and to the people they cook for.
I’ve also included quite basic classical recipes that a lot of the older generations at least will be familiar with, which their partner or mother might have once cooked. Recipes like cauliflower cheese and slow braised beef which are very easy to manage once somebody has explained it to you.
And I think that’s key. To eat well, go back to those things that you’re familiar with on your plate and know you enjoy eating. Other people might think that playing golf is more important, but for me, to be able to eat well and enjoy fresh ingredients is one of life’s most enduring pleasures.
And I think if you ask any older person, food remains one of their greatest enduring pleasures even into quite old age. And the pleasures in life are incredibly important. That should never be taken away from anyone. That’s one of the reasons why it is so disappointing that in so many age care facilities, the quality of the food leaves something to be desired.
Especially so later in life, you need to keep all the things that really give you pleasure – be that if it’s eating or cooking, golf or gardening. Of course there comes a time when digging and bending in the garden and wheel barrowing is perhaps too hard. But you can still produce quite a lot of ornamental plants, and food, in a small space even on a balcony.
Whatever one’s pleasure is, it is important that we all keep on. It’s a use it or lose it sort of thing. Keep moving around, keep up friendships and maintain contact with your community. It’s all incredibly important. And there’s no denying that food can play a big role in that.
Even if it is something as simple as baking a loaf of bread with the intention of sharing it. What better conversation starter is there?