Some parents really can’t cook. In my book, this scenario pretty much borders on child abuse, but for a lot of my friends, it was just their nightly reality growing up. “Our family dinners,” they’d tell me as adults, “were abominations”. As kids and teenagers, they’d do their homework, glumly watch the clock tick towards 7 o’clock and brace themselves for the elaborate dinner-theatre recital of Trying Not to Gag at the Table. As they described it, these meals were less like dining and more like trying to transfer carbohydrates into their stomachs as efficiently as possible without gagging. Vegetables were boiled down to a washed-out mash. Rice came out as gruel. Meals were delivered with names either so unromantically literal that they echoed prison food (‘meat with three veg’) or so sloppy-sounding and onomatopoeic that they evoked a heaving wet bowel movement (‘spag bog’).
Non-delicious food didn’t exist in my family. My dad was a restaurateur and my mother had grown up in restaurants, so my siblings and I took it for granted that food was meant to be delicious all the time. Both my parents were Chinese, but because Mum had grown up in Malaysia, our meals came with a slight British colonial streak: think Bovril-flavoured congee, and Milo made with hot water and condensed milk. Our staples were stir-fries with fluffy rice, and steaming noodle broths. In summer, there were salads with canned peaches; winter was all about slow-cooked fungus soups and hairy seaweed hotpots. Steaks were braised with smashed garlic and hoisin; chicken wings came marinated in sticky, napalm-thick goop. Our daily rhythms were set by eating. Dad cooked in the restaurant at night, while Mum worked the home kitchen for the kids. Food was how we spent our time.
They split up when I was twelve. All I remember is the one howling, epic night-time fight; us five kids cowering and crying on our parents’ bed; Dad packing his bags to leave; then silence; then sleep. When families fall apart, one of two things happen to the cooking. The food will either turn to absolute shit or, by some miracle (or sheer willpower), just continue like it always did. My mother took the second option without missing a beat and continued cooking like a demon. Looking back, that’s probably one of the weirdest things about the entire period: that our eating habits didn’t alter at all, despite our family fracturing right at the spine.
“If I didn’t cook, what would you all have eaten? What would I have served up? My fingers? My toes? My arms? My pussy?”
“I still struggled, though,” my mum told me the other day. “After your dad and I separated, it was like, Oh-my-god, what-the-shit. And even before the divorce, my brother — your uncle Jimmy — had died, so the divorce was like the second death for me. But you still cook. Life goes on! And when you have children, you just have to cook.” It was interesting to hear her say this. My friends had told me that in the wake of their own parents’ divorces, their mums and dads had often opted out of cooking altogether. Instead, they started relying on a lot of takeaway, even if fast food had been a rarity in the household before.
In my family, takeaway wasn’t always an option. My mum reminded me of where we lived, in coastal Queensland. “The Sunshine Coast for takeaway?’ she said. ‘Takeaway what? Pizza Hut didn’t deliver to where we were back then and Eagle Boys only came later. The Sunshine Coast was dead. If we lived in Brisbane, near Chinatown or something, I would have taken you all for regular cheap meals. But we didn’t have restaurants close by, so I had no choice.” At this point, her voice rose and became more passionate. “And if I didn’t cook, what would you all have eaten? What would I have served up? My fingers? My toes? My arms? My pussy?”
We laughed, but I also decided to wrap up the conversation right there.
One of the saddest songs in the world is all about divorce and food. ‘I Eat Dinner’ was written by Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle about a decade after her husband — Loudon Wainwright III — left her and their two kids for the performance artist Penny Arcade. By that stage, Kate had broken up with another boyfriend and found herself, one night, dining with her teenage daughter, who would grow up to become the fierce singer Martha Wainwright. Kate’s record deal with Warner Bros. was over, she was on her own, her income wasn’t great, so she sat down and wrote a song that started like this:
I eat dinner / at the kitchen table / by the light that switches on / I eat leftovers with mashed potatoes / no more candlelight / no more romance / no more small talk / when the hunger’s gone.
It’s the simplest, most effective — and possibly most heartbreaking — song ever written about adult separation, and sung altogether unsentimentally. It still catches me off guard. In the song, Kate’s post-divorce meals are variations of the same thing: leftovers served with mashed potatoes, washed down joylessly with soda pop. When she sings about it, mashed potato becomes the single saddest food substance in the world. If marriage is all about regularly making decent meals and eating at good restaurants, divorce is about the humiliation that comes with once again having to eat like an undergraduate student.
My friends and I have a nickname for food like this: ‘Single Mother Surprise’. We’ve all got our own versions of these meals. In the apartment I share with my boyfriend, when we’re down to a few sad items — a single carrot; a bag of frozen peas; canned fish; fake, tofu-based cream cheese — my strategy is to grate the shit out of everything, hold it together with an egg, wrap it in puff pastry and serve it with massive globs of flavour-disguising chutney. It’s actually disgusting, but passable for a meal. If I were a single parent, I already know that frozen puff pastry would be my secret weapon.
Actual single parents have different strategies, though. I discovered this when I reached out to Facebook and Twitter to ask for people’s memories of cooking and divorce. “Children of Divorce!” I announced. “Divorced Parents of Children! I’m looking for stories of how food and cooking changed in your household during family upheaval! Let’s hold hands and share in the horror together!”
It was a big ask, making people to dig into some of their most hideous memories and serve them up in a public forum. To my surprise, the number of responses was epic. And, because social networking platforms demand brevity, replies came back as harrowing but beautiful poetry; short, haiku-like odes to sad childhoods, lonely mothers and confused fathers learning to cook for the first time:
Nearly all of the responses were from the now adult children of parents who’d split up. There was only one response from a parent herself, who’d recently separated from her partner:
Two of my friends, Michaela and her younger brother Tim, remembered how their father had to learn to cook after separating from their mother. Before that point, their dad’s culinary skills had been limited to reheating canned tomato soup on the stove, burning steak on the barbecue and making corned-beef fritters. (“He may have been able to make scrambled eggs as well,” Michaela conceded.)
“One of his first meals was hunks of kabana meat in pea soup from a can,’ Tim said. ‘We called it Strangely Brown. There were many more meals like this, and we named them all in the same fashion.”
Michaela added: “The salad was Strangely Dirty. The quiche was Strangely Chewy.”
“There was Strangely Dropped, Strangely Burnt, Strangely Stringy and, once, there was even Strangely Good,” Tim said. According to them, their father still made Strangely Brown¹ occasionally, which has since become the official name of the dish.
There surprisingly isn’t much help on the internet for recently separated parents with little to no cooking skills. On Amazon, there’s only one guidebook that caters to the niche, a slick-jacketed number called Cooking Your Way to Custody: A Cookbook for Divorcing Dads. One blog, called Cooking Through Divorce, only posted a single recipe (Chewy Molasses-spice Cookies!) before Tanje, the moderator, gave up altogether, succumbing to either misery or the cookies, or both. American website SingleDads.com is professional and packed with advice, while UK-based MyLifeAfterDivorce.com offers pockets of sage but depressing advice about food:
A freezer, even a small one, is a useful way of storing leftover bits and pieces as long as you don’t treat it like a dust bin. Make sure you label everything before you put it into the freezer as nothing is likely to create greater confusion than an unlabelled tub or package that you have found lurking in the deepest recesses and which is just as likely to contain chicken breast as cod fillet. A good crusting of ice will render identification almost impossible.
“Forget the children. Once you’re divorced, you’re barely going to be able to take care of yourself!”
There was also this:
Try not to eat all your post-divorce meals in front of the TV. Lay the table properly and use a napkin; pour that beer into a glass instead of drinking it out of the bottle. You will enjoy your meal more than wolfing it down as quickly as possible while watching Corrie or the footie. Clear away the dishes when you have finished. There are few things more depressing (well apart from getting divorced that is!) than a kitchen littered with dirty dishes and pans.
It was the exclamation mark that did it for me. “Forget the children,” it implied. “Once you’re divorced, you’re barely going to be able to take care of yourself! Good luck with your mini-freezer and new Dymo label-maker for your Tupperware, because buddy, you’re going to need it.”
In the end, though, it’s not all bad. One of my friends, Frith, told me that it was because of her parents splitting up that she got to taste junk food for the first time in her life. When her parents had been together, it was all about organic, hippie fare for her. “From whole-food, grass-roots vegetarianism to not enough money to eat, to Mars Bars and deep fryers in three years,” she says now. “Quite the roller-coaster. The first time I had crisps and soft drink was magical. I swear I saw colours I’d never seen before. Such a revelation.”
Another girl, Ellen, said visiting her dad meant having to share a double bed with him and her sibling. “So Dad tried to make up for it the only way he knew how,” she said. “He stuffed us full of food.” For Ellen, that meant beef stroganoff, cheesy potato bake, roast pork with gravy, pavlova, chocolate tarts and liquorice allsorts. “After two days at Dad’s house my sister and I would be handed back to my mum spoilt and full of sugar. I think food became a way for him get one up on Mum.” Once, he gave her an entire bag of maraschino cherries, before sending her back to her mother’s place, where she promptly sprayed lurid red vomit all over the bathroom. Revenge was sweet; possibly chunky.
My parents never had that telemovie moment where they sat us all down for The Explanation. You know, where they explain that despite not being together, and not loving each other anymore, they still loved us, and that was the most important thing.
One young guy called Jackson said his parents’ divorce was a blessing in disguise: it started a long affair with cooking. “My parents separated when I was about fourteen,” he said. “Before then I’d always loved food but I’d never really got involved in the kitchen. Then all of a sudden my life was turned upside down by the divorce and I found myself living with my hopeless-when-it-comes-to-cooking dad at my grandparents’ house, which was full of awesome cookbooks, utensils and a massive pantry full of ingredients.” Jackson started cooking and still hasn’t stopped. My guess is that if Jackson ever finds himself in a break-up or living solo as an adult, he will not be cooking Strangely Brown.
My parents never had that telemovie moment where they sat us all down for The Explanation. You know, where they explain that despite not being together, and not loving each other anymore, they still loved us, and that was the most important thing. (My sister’s cultural reference point for these types of heartfelt divorce moments is the final scene in Mrs. Doubtfire. “You know,” she says, “where Sally Field is standing by the television holding a tea towel, watching Robin Williams — dressed as Mrs Doubtfire — speaking about diversity in families. Then cut to Robin Williams taking their three children out for a father’s weekend. YOU KNOW THE ONE I’M TALKING ABOUT IT’S VERY POIGNANT”.²)
None of the kids would’ve been able to swallow those sentiments anyway; it just wasn’t our parents’ style. Rather than talking about their love, they preferred to demonstrate it in other ways — like, say, continuing to hug, clothe, educate and feed us. In the end, feeding us was probably the biggest thing: the consistent, predictable, reliable thing we never had to question. Nothing in the kitchen changed. Without fail, our mother just continued making three meals a day — four, if you counted the after-school toasted sandwiches or noodle soups that always waited for us at 4 pm.
For his part, Dad — who had accounts with the local fruit and veg shop — kept on delivering boxes of wholesale produce to Mum’s place, according to season. Oranges, apples and bananas were always there, but he’d pack mangoes and cherries in the summer, and persimmons and custard apples in the autumn. It was mainly for the kids, but part of me likes to think the fruit was for Mum too. After the separation, there wasn’t much left between them — they spoke through the children and avoided phone calls — but his deliveries of fruit felt made it seem like he still cared. My friend Romy told me that when her parents broke up, her mum wrote her dad a recipe book of all the things she’d cooked for him over the past twenty years. “I don’t remember it being a very amicable divorce,” Romy said, “but that’s love, for sure”. I agree. It’s not the type of love that holds a marriage together, but it’s a level of care that comes out of a long, shared history, which somehow trumps whatever heartbreak and hurt you throw at it.
All of my siblings — including me — are adults now, but the split custody continues in other ways. Over Christmas, or on the rare occasions all five of us are back where we grew up, we’ll leave Mum for a while to visit Dad, and he’ll ask us the Chinese question that’s the equivalent of “hello”: Have you eaten yet? On the bad visits, we’ll have already eaten at Mum’s place, stuffed ourselves full of food, only to arrive at Dad’s to find five bowls of noodle soup that we can’t fit in. Now, we remind ourselves to visit him on an empty stomach. Over at Mum’s place, now that the area has developed, she’ll realise she doesn’t have the energy to cook, and we just drive on out and get some takeaway instead.
 In case you want the recipe, Strangely Brown is simply Campbell’s Split Pea & Ham soup with chunks of kabana in it, reheated on a stove.
 Yes, I’ll admit it. I know the scene from Mrs. Doubtfire she’s talking about. So do you. It’s genuinely moving. Stop judging us.
Extracted from Voracious: Best Australian Food Writing (Hardie Grant Books, $29.95) ed. Paul McNally.
Benajmin Law's childhood memories come to life in The Family Law season 2. Tune into SBS for the brand new series starting Thursday 15th June at 8.30pm. Find more about the new season, plus articles by Benjamin Law and his mother Jenny Law, here.