Interview: Mandy Collins – Sensible Subsistence, Or Cuisine A La Clan

January 15, 2015



Mandy Collins spends a lot of her Twitter time telling people what she will be cooking, is cooking or is regretting cooking. She’s now published a book about cooking – specifically fast, fuss-free, family-friendly food (that alliterative phrase is the subtitle) – called Dinner Time!, published by Clockwork.

Has putting together a book about cooking changed the way she behaves in the kitchen?

“I was quite a bad cook,” grins Collins over, appropriately, a meal.

“Then I got DStv and the Food Channel and was introduced to all the English TV chefs. I picked up a bunch of stuff, and eventually developed a reputation for being able to cook. Mostly desserts, mind.”

She takes a bit of her lunch, being careful to avoid any of the avocado in her salad – “the work of Satan,” she suggests.

“I have a group of friends for whom the kitchen is just another room in the house. But even those people need to provide meals for their families – meals they can make fast, have the ingredients for and that everyone will eat.

“One of these friends eventually said, ‘Just write a book, already’ and I enjoyed the challenge that presented. I enjoy finding solutions for problems.”

Whether or not Collins was enjoying herself, however, preparing for any sort of book is a challenge.

“When I sat down to do it, I found I had to formalise everything,” she says.

“I generally cook by feel, but I had to put together something that works for everyone, all the time, regardless of the type of stove and all the other variables. I also had to cook things again and again to make sure that the timings were accurate, remembering that I was essentially writing a book for non-cooks. There was a lot of planning needed upfront, but once that was done, the stress became less as the process continued.”

TV chefs as inspiration is all well and good. But how much impact does that really have on creating recipes for real people?

Collins smiles.

“I don’t want people to have to go and look for lemongrass, tamarind paste or fish sauce. People eat what their kids eat: you must be able to get everything in a supermarket, not have to go to a specialty delicatessen for something you only need two drops of.”

Was putting on paper what came naturally to her frustrating for Collins? Was there a sense that it was about time everyone else just came to the party?

“There must be enough variety to please,” she says.

“It was like doing a puzzle. I had to move a chicken dish to a different week here and update a shopping list there. I tried to simplify everything as much as possible, down to using canned mixes rather than chopping tomatoes and onions every night.

“It took three months to put the first draft together and then extra time to test everything on friends – and ask for their most brutal feedback.”

The term “family-friendly”, as mentioned in the subtitle of the , is presumably placed there to signify that the recipes inside include macaroni cheese and some sort of fish finger-related idea. But that’s not the same as a culture of eating together, which may have a far more lasting effect.

“I think family meals once a day are essential,” nods Collins.

“It might be unrealistic to expect more than that, but reconnection time is a must – we no longer talk to each other. I think we cause a fundamental problem when we feed children something other than what the adults are eating. It feels abnormal. And it makes extra work for everyone!”

Collins didn’t always heed her own advice.

“I used to make a Finding Nemo Fish Pie,” she grimaces.

“I’d cut out little fish shapes from pieces of carrot and then hide them in the pie for the kids to find. But that sort of thing becomes a mountain to climb. Kids get spoiled. What will they eat next time?

“Then I saw in, what of those What To Expect When You’re Expecting sort of books, a quote that went something like, ‘Your responsibility is to provide food for your children; it’s their responsibility to eat it.’ That changed everything.”

Is there such a thing as too many cooks?

“Someone needs to be in charge,” Collins shrugs.

“You need someone to direct proceedings; to make sure there is only one spoon of salt in the pot, not four spoons put there by different people.

“My daughters have learned to cook from this book, which is wonderful, and not just because I get some great food made for me. It’s disempowering to not know how to cook. We do kids a great disservice when we don’t teach – boys and girls.”

Collins is a no-nonsense sort. How does she respond to Banting diets and other fads (and fad adherents)?

“I have been a health journalist for a long time and have had weight issues for most of that period,” she says.

“All the research I’ve done and all the interviews I’ve conducted show that all diets are more or less equal – and not sustainable. They’re eating plans, not lifestyle changes. I think we know what to eat, but we don’t listen to our bodies. If we ate when were hungry, stopped when we were full and made permanent decisions about our lifestyles, we’d be a lot more healthy.”

Mandy Collins