Joan was not a meat-and-two-veg woman.
Her mother had been an unadventurous cook. She had served sausages on five days of the week, fish on Fridays, and bacon and cabbage on Sundays. Dessert, when there was any, was Jaffa Cakes.
And Joan had been content with this, until a school trip to Paris had taught her that ‘mouth-watering’ was not just a phrase for coughing up spit.
Back home, she had taken to reading restaurant reviews in the weekend newspapers. They used words like ‘jus’, ‘ceviche’, and ‘tartlet’, a restaurant term for a small tart. They spoke in hushed admiration of the type of place where, if you asked for chips, you would be served just one potato – cut into the shape of a mermaid, sprinkled with shaved fuchsia petals and steamed in Bolivian lake-water.
So as Joan moved out of home and into adulthood she had vowed never to cook simple food. She specialised instead in unusual meals cooked in unusual ways, always on the lookout for something different.
Her secret dream, even now, was to open a restaurant herself one day, where reviewers would write adoringly as she served dishes such as Poached Banana-skin, Sweetened Sourdough, and an empty red plate called Suggestion of Tomato.
Her second dream was that her customers would be less critical than her daughter.
Chloe was sixteen and an avatar for teenage angst. She hated school and didn’t have enough friends on Facebook. She wasn’t happy with her nose, with her figure or with the fact that she was forbidden from getting a tattoo. She was fed up with the teasing she got over her unusual surname, and with the fact that she was short.
Most of all, though, she was fed up with her mother’s cooking.
Chloe looked down now at the dish in front of her and sighed as profoundly as only a teenager can.
“What exactly is this?” she asked.
Joan smiled nervously. “It’s curds and whey,” she said.
“Those aren’t even words,” said little Miss Muffet.
“Yes, they are,” said Mrs Muffet. “Curds are what you get when you curdle milk to make cheese, and whey is the liquid part left over after that.”
Chloe thought about this sentence. “So I’m eating milk,” she said.
“No, you’re….” Joan faltered. “Well, in essence, yes.”
“Then why not just give me a glass of milk?” said Chloe’s voice. “Like normal mothers,” said Chloe’s face.
“You can have a glass of milk with it, if you like,” offered Joan.
“That makes no sense,” said Chloe. “It would be like having orange juice with an actual orange.”
Joan gestured towards the dish. “Just try it,” she said. “I’m sure it’s lovely.”
“Mum,” said Chloe. “No-one eats stuff like this. It looks as if somebody threw up porridge.”
“Lots of people eat curds,” retorted Joan. “Canadians have a national dish called poutine, which is curds in gravy. They love it.”
“Canadians live voluntarily in a country full of bears,” said Chloe. “They may have their bar set lower for life-expectancy. And what about whey?”
“It’s used in cottage cheese,” said Joan.
“We don’t live in a cottage,” said Chloe, “so why should we suffer?”
“Well, we’re not from Mars either, and you eat Mars Bars,” retorted Joan. “Anyway, that’s not its only use. It’s also in protein shakes, and taken by bodybuilders.”
“Great,” said Chloe. “So I’m going to have legs like barrels, and arms like the thing that hangs in kebab shops. While all the time smelling of cheese.”
She glared up at her mother, and to her surprise saw that she had tears in her eyes.
“I just try to give you something different,” said Joan in a low voice. “I want food to be a thrill for you, like it wasn’t for me.”
Chloe reddened with guilt. “I know, Mum,” she said. “and I’m sorry. Look, I’ll try it.” She dipped her spoon into the dish and took a scoop of the pale gunge, trying to ignore the squelch as it released from the heart of the mire. She put it in into her mouth.
It tasted like bleached yogurt.
Chloe looked into her mother’s anxious, hopeful face, Her heart filled with love, so she swallowed the caustic remark she was about to make, along with the mouthful of stodge. “It’s actually not bad,” she said, as brightly as she could.
“Oh good,” said Joan. “I have dessert too, for when you’re finished.”
“Great,” said Chloe. “What is it?”
Joan hesitated. Chloe sighed. “I’m guessing,” she said, “that the words ‘jelly’ and ‘ice-cream’ are not going to feature in your answer.”
“Um, no,” said Joan. “It’s a Cambodian dish.”
Of course it is, thought Chloe.
“It’s fried spider,” said Joan.
Chloe stood up from the table. “I’m out of here,” she said.