I became fascinated by cooking at the same time I fell in love with Westerns. Not film-buff Sergio Leone movies, but low-budget, lone cowboys on the run. I still cling to the image of the rugged hero wandering on his horse, and bedding down for the night, accompanied perhaps by a silent bare-chested Indian brave and having only the creek to wash in. He’d settle down beside a campfire, brew up some coffee and cook up a jackrabbit over the flames. These egregious mavericks beguiled me.
Mine was a youthful imagination in constant flux and I saw myself as a handsome young buck, pert and courageous; ready to take on any foe that presented itself. But my childhood was far from this daydream. Though I was lonesome, my plains were the fields and hills around a Scottish farm, minus the horse, brave and of course, the cowboy. And my only foe took the form of a hare snared in the hawthorn or an occasional pheasant knocked out of a tree at dusk with a catapult and steel ball bearing.
I’m not sure what signs of my future sexuality you could identify at that time but in my heart I yearned to exchange the constraints of my family for simple companionship and the warm sun on my skin. And there were other signs; like the action man Lone Ranger who spent his nights undressed in my bed, a bare-chested plastic eunuch. There were other more obvious signals, like lingering over the pages of the Encyclopaedia Britannica covering life in ancient Athens and Sparta. And I fell in love with the shepherd’s son at my primary school. And he a little with me, I later discovered.
I don’t think I really understood why I was fascinated by the lustrous physiques of these alabaster boy-gods or the hardy cowboys but it turned me on, even before I knew what that meant. And when I later came to partake in real physical pleasures, the fantasies were well engrained.
My adopted father, all tweed and propriety, wasn’t prepared for a wayward boy who showed such signs of outlandish precocity and self-determination. He had really hoped for a well-schooled, polite child, with whom he could converse in Latin. Instead I spent every waking hour attempting escape him, wild in the fields with the ferrets the farm foreman’s son kept in a cage outside his cottage or stoning the glass windows of unused farm buildings with the aforementioned catapult. There was a constant battle between us. I grasped fleeting moments of childish pleasures only to be reprimanded for them. My eyes were always red hot with stinging tears. He used to tell me that I was only sorry for being caught not for the misdemeanour. He was right.
While I loved the sense of freedom and adventure, for me the best bit was to get the journey over with and create a camp. I would find a den in a copse of trees or somewhere hidden in one of the farm’s disused buildings, a chicken coop, once even an old pig sty. And there I would create a palace fit for my wanderer. Somewhere he could lay down his head on a hessian mat stuffed with wild grass. There I would make a small camp fire to warm his weary limbs and boil up water in a billy can.
The constant lighting of these fires got me into trouble. Graham had me marked as a potential arsonist after an incident where my cat got his whiskers too close to the rabbit I had managed to skin and was cooking on a fire. But when things settled, I soon fled again with my Observer books. With their help, I would eventually be able to identify a whole host of wild delicacies, proudly bringing home wild watercress, sorrel, thyme, brambles, raspberries and field mushrooms, with plans to concoct amazing stews and dishes. I learned to fish for trout in the hill burns and net sea-trout under the bridges of the villages around the farm. But these ramblings and nature’s offerings were usually dismissed. I should be making more effort in my hapless study of mathematics and the Classics.
I never did become that cowboy. But I have met a few on the way. And those well-trodden rural trails and refuges were where I began to understand food in a very pragmatic, camp-fire kind of way.