Earlier this evening, as I walked down cement steps still damp from the rain two days ago, the smell of pork chops, cooking, assailed me (I’ve always wanted to use that  expression!) But seriously: I could almost picture two pink pork chops with just enough white fat sizzling away and gently caramelising in a pan in one of maybe four possible kitchens which surround my apartment, and I felt slightly guilty for not cooking tonight.

I came home fully intending to as usual, cook for my sons tonight…. I had bought ingredients for a pasta sauce with zucchini and red peppers and olives, and as I had run out of it, a chunk of parmigiano, when I suddenly changed my mind and decided that I will rather take them out to share a pizza at a favourite Italian restaurant down the road.

Last Wednesday I had my oldest son and his girlfriend over for  spaghetti con vongole a la Marcella Hazan: the tomato based recipe in her first Classic Italian Cookbook. She remains one of my favourite cooks and recipe writers… my younger son had cancelled, having gotten stuck in a restaurant in Greenside with a friend, deeply engaged in the kind of philosophical conversations fuelled by red wine and driving rain outside, the streets strewn with Jacaranda leaves in the wake of a really hard rainstorm, from which steam rose as the roads heated up the next morning as I drove to work.

On Thursday I had a meal with my previous night’s absent son at a local Chinese restaurant: beef in black bean sauce for me: not very adventurous I know, but predictably good. And then on Friday that good old solitary dining stand in: green chicken curry with noodles, home made, with kaffir lime leaves and palm sugar and fish sauce…..eaten with black lacquered chopsticks not minding the sauce dripping down my chin as I tried to read at the same time by candlelight!

My boyfriend had been in Durban all week, rehearsing for and playing in a jazzy/symphonic concert: so a week of mostly eating by myself. He came back on Saturday, but still had to play in a concert…..I made up for not cooking for us at the weekend  last night: a really nice meal of whole fillet steak, green beans with oven roasted tomatoes on the vine, and rosemary roasted baby potatoes…..

There’s been birthday celebrations(at a restaurant) in between, but what really comes up for me now, as I think about this day, is how going out to dinner is such an unquestioningly normal part of my life, totally unlike how I grew up.

Going out to dinner was an unusual occurrence in my young life: in the first instance, my dad was a teacher, so taking out a family of four children probably stretched his budget rather thinly. And then: the town where I grew up eventually had one restaurant, on the main street, with bad lighting and plastic flowers as decoration, with booth like leatherette seats on either side of the chunky rectangular tables. Nevertheless, it was such a treat to go there: maybe once every six months I would find myself sitting almost in the same place, ordering almost the same thing(fish and chips or a hamburger) and my dad always, always either a mixed grill or a steak, medium rare which made my mother squeal with disgust: she stuck to safe lamb chops, well done(though I don’t think there was an option or that pink juicy lamb would have been favoured by her)… and the wine of choice would be Grunberger Stein. That was the very first wine I ever had as a child: a furtive sip from an unattended glass: the shape of the bottle so romantic, faintly echoing the (what I later knew to be) Chianti bottles weary with wax which held cheap candles which nevertheless to my young psyche, was somehow magical: promises of a Grown Up world….

It’s been very long since that first restaurant experience: I have had countless meals out since then: and it is a natural and normal part of my childrens’ lives…. But there’s something quite poignant about the memory of a mother, my mother, probably relieved not to have to cook, or indeed clean up after, sipping a little bit of wine, getting slightly tipsy with the unusualness of it all….and my father feeling satisfied that he had been able to treat his family.

I could not help thinking about how far removed tonight’s restaurant meal was from that… the lighting tonight was perfect, the service discreetly polite, the wine list very sophisticated, the pizza base just at the right level of thin crustiness, the linen napkins folded just so…. and yet, there remains something utterly sweet and ultimately very meaningful in that early experience and the memory thereof….