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My eldest has flown the nest – I feel his absence in the leftovers

Leftover containers in refrigerator
Jay Rayner: “The amount we cook is more than a matter of mere practicalities. It is an expression of self.” Photograph: Steven Puetzer/Getty Images

If I want to understand the profound change my family has undergone I need only look in the fridge. For in there, piled one atop the other, I will find them: Tupperware boxes, stuffed full of leftovers. Obviously, leftovers in our fridge are nothing new. What’s changed is the volume of them. The fact is our eldest child has left home for university, and while I feel his absence in the lack of discarded clothes on the floor of his room and the silencing of the banter guns, when I get to the stove, I simply forget: I cook as if we were still four not three. I suffer an abject failure of portion control.

The amount we cook is much more than a matter of mere practicalities. It is an expression of self, of history. Doubtless, there are those who will now feel compelled to point out the existence of food banks, and of those just scraping by. This portion-size failure of mine is clearly the worst kind of over-privilege. Well, yes. Of course. But it’s likely that the complainers didn’t grow up with a mother who knew genuine food poverty; a woman who, as an evacuee, recalled stealing swedes from a farmer’s field to supplement her diet. For her, the act of over-catering, was not just a mark of generosity. It was a way of declaring victory over the odds that had been stacked against her.

As a kid, I picked up on all of that, but on other things too: a sense of preparedness, for who knew who might be coming through the door at any moment, in need of feeding? Granted, pogroms weren’t a big part of north Wembley life in the 70s, but cultural memories run deep. Perhaps too it was a way for my mother to express the maternal love that her own feckless mother had been so very short on. The end result was the same. It was a heaving table, a place of “seconds” and “clean the plate” and “more”, and I took that to be normal. You didn’t really think this sizable arse of mine built itself did you? As a kid I would eat at friends’ homes – let’s not pretend; usually non-Jewish friends’ homes – and find myself baffled by the culture of “one each and no more”. You mean, you don’t do seconds? Oh. There were clearly two types of family and I knew exactly which I came from.

Then I became a parent, and the instinct to provide kicked in. It was my job to fill the table, and I did it according to the only model I knew. A second child arrived, and then all their friends, so each evening you weren’t sure how many you would be feeding until you did a head count.

The years pass, along with A-levels, and suddenly you’re buying them their own wok and waving them off. You remain at home fretting about whether they are feeding themselves. You do this worrying as you stir the over-filled pot each night, oblivious to the fact that it contains too much. Until everyone has been served, and you are reaching once more for the Tupperware. The excess doesn’t go to waste. Weekday lunches at home are just of a better quality than they once were. And in time, I’ll learn to cook for three, not four. But I can’t pretend. Restraint just isn’t a skill I ever really wanted to acquire. I don’t ever want to be the person who cooks only enough.

This article titled "My eldest has flown the nest – I feel his absence in the leftovers" was written by Jay Rayner, for The Observer on Thursday 12 October 2017 11.00am

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