The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - The Telegraph Magazine
As her children prepare to fly the nest, our award-winning food writer Diana Henry considers the best dishes for a solo dinner
I’m trying to write a book at the minute, but every day my eldest – who starts his first job in a few weeks – breaks my concentration by bringing me boxes to sort through. Some of these contain keepsakes I can’t bear to let go of: the board book about the bear who went to the moon with a colander on his head; the little plastic wristbands my sons got in the hospital when they were born; drawings and bits of wonky pottery; dated prints of their small hands. Both sons laugh at what I want to keep. I haven’t dared reveal that there’s a box full of my favourite clothes they wore as toddlers under my bed. I’m not a hoarder but I am a ‘keeper’.
My eldest finds it odd to hold on to things from the past. He’s a child of the digital age. He wants everything to be stored on the cloud. But the little rabbit outfit he wore can’t be kept there. Anyway, I want to feel the soft fabric of the bunny ears.
Both my children are racing into new lives and by September mine will be completely different too. Because so much of my time focuses on the kitchen table – it’s where I work, where we eat, where cakes sit on cooling racks – it’s at the core of the house. Thinking about the future not long ago, an image of that table, a drawing in pencil, suddenly filled my mind. The table was vast and I was sitting at one end of it, a tiny figure with a tiny supper. When I’m worried about something, I write about it, usually making a list of solutions or a list of positives I might not have considered. Every so often someone tells me what life is like ‘post-children’. Most make jokes about the joy of eating cheese on toast, but every so often, usually on Instagram, some kind soul I don’t know tells me that it’s awful, that I will cry a lot but that I’ll get through it.
The thing that changes most when children leave home is how much and what you have to cook. Soon, I’ll be able to please myself. There’ll be lots of room in the fridge, instead of 12 litres of milk, pots of braises or a shepherd’s pie that usually takes us through two meals. Cooking for children can be thankless – I’ll be happy never to make pasta with tuna and sweetcorn again – but if you generally enjoy cooking you can miss having people to feed.
When I interviewed the food writer
Claudia Roden a couple of years ago, I asked her why she had embarked on a new book in her 80s. ‘If I write a cookbook, I have to test recipes,’ she said, as if it was obvious. ‘Then I can invite friends round to eat the tested dishes.’ Writing a cookbook gave her a reason to cook and a table of friends was the happy result.
Recently, I started to make a list of the dishes I might make for myself, dishes that work better for one but that can easily be made for two. I could have expensive things like scallops and veal scallopini; aubergine parmigiana (my sons hate aubergine). I can make a small amount of potato gnocchi, instead of enough for three. I tend to cater for six even when I’m only cooking for three. Making small quantities means even time-consuming dishes are doable.
As I was listing these, and thinking of the advantages of this new life, the image in my head changed. There was a friend alongside me. There was wine and a little vase of flowers on the table. It still looked huge, but it wasn’t empty. I’ll eat by myself, of course, but I’ll also do a Claudia and have tiny suppers for two.