Cookery lessons, with Shingles


It’s hard to get interested in the methods of making white stock when you are recovering too slowly from Shingles. Shingles is a Christmas-y jolly name for a horrible Biblical plague type of illness, with sores or blisters all down one neural pathway of your body, in theory, confined to one side, but in my case, bi-lateral. Pain and itching are your main symptoms, with lethargy, bouts of light- headedness and a profound loss of appetite, bordering on nausea, ever present, even after the bit when you look like a Dickensian poverty stricken orphan, in a hoodie and trainers and joggers baggy enough to stick your hand down and have a mighty scratch. If you were sat next to me on a train, you’d move your seat.

So I’ve already winged a cookery in the community lesson, mainly by standing still as much as I could, smiling wanly and offering to do the least arduous tasks, such as washing up.

Today, I had to go to cooking school, or I would get an incomplete. Yesterday my doctor asked me how I was feeling, and instead of saying I want to scratch myself til I draw serious blood, I said, oh, ok, I guess, I have my moments of “mercy me, I am well, I am cured” swiftly followed by moments of “I need to take to my bed, lest I perish” So he wrote me this sort of part time fit to work note,” and this morning I got up very early, slathered myself in anti itch cream, took the last dose of anti virals and lined up my knives and chef whites.

I got on the overground, got on the tube and made it there 15 minutes early, enough time to change into my whites and get a good scratch in beforehand. Chef saw me standing at my locker, confused in the general “I’ve been mainly in bed for six days, now I am confronting a locker in Victoria and don’t know what I do next, do I put my stuff in first, or the lock on, or what?” He is the jolly, rotund German ( favourite food, he tells us rather regularly, is chopped raw beef with a raw egg in it, which makes you think, why COOK? Why cook if raw is your thing?) who calls everyone banana , those who are late , or cut their vegetable dice in uneven pieces. I like him. He’s on our side.

Today we are making stocks. Chicken stock, fish stock and Dasheen, generic Chinese-y stock that involves the nicest smelling stuff, like lemongrass, dried  kafir limes and coriander, as well as less nice smelling stuff, Bonito, which smells like fish food.  The key to a good stock, he keeps saying, is to watch it and don’t let it boil and skim off the scum. Scum. Is there not a better word? And I’m like all wow, that’s like a metaphor for life, don’t get all boiled off, and skim off the scum at regular intervals. The ordering people “Bananas!” have not ordered enough fish, so we don’t actually each have to gut and fillet a fish, as he showed us, leaving the head on, but pinging out the eyeballs, the roe sac, the beardy bits, the skin, the collagen, which we can sell to beauty colleges to inject into people’s lips ( not really). We stand there, watching him surgically remove all these disgusting things, and I think don’t let me faint, it’s only a dead fish, it’s only Shingles, you will survive.

I don’t faint. We go about the business of making chicken stock, and I stand over it, watching my pot boil, because a watched pot does indeed boil, sometimes boils over.  The kitchen smells briny, salty, fishy, chicken-y, nauseating, the bile coursing up and down my gullet with the frequency of say, the Victoria Line, one of the more reliable tube lines, the one that got me here.

At a certain point, owing to lack of fish, we make one large pot of fish stock, to which jolly chef adds cream , and we line up, Oliver style, with our bowls, and he ladles out the creamy stock over our previously pan fried fillets of Plaice.  As we are in uniform, I keep thinking, this is like Oliver, please sir, can I have some more? Except its please sir, can I have less, in fact , none of it?

It looks high falutin, with its garnish of smoked salmon, and bits of white fish poking out of the velvety soup.  Everybody eats with relish. I take pictures of mine, for the portfolio, and quietly tip it into the bin.

We finish early, and I can’t wait to get out of my whites to get into a ladies’ cubicle and scratch to my heart’s content. Never before has a girl asked for more.

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