My late mother was a good cook. I know that you will think that often children praise their mother’s cooking however awful it is. In the case of my mother, her cooking was praised by many people, who still remember her skills in the kitchen many years after her demise at an early age. My mother was a keen disciple of the pioneering food writer Elizabeth David, who helped introduce Mediterranean cuisine to the British. Many recipes from the Mediterranean involve the use of garlic and parsley.
Although my mother did not permit my sister and me to cook in her kitchen, we were ordered to be in the kitchen with her either to keep her company and/or to do the washing-up. Our presence in the kitchen and proximity to a skilled cook engendered a life-long love of cooking in both my sister and me. When my mother died, I took over her kitchen and learned, by trial and error, how to cook. My sister did the same and ran a restaurant successfully for quite a few years.
Many of the dishes I cooked, and still make, contained copious amounts of garlic. This was not a problem until I qualified as a dentist, and moved to a practice in Kent, about 80 kilometres from London in distance, although it felt much further culturally and in many other ways.
Friends have often asked me whether the mouths that I treated emitted bad smells. The short answer is that although they might be malodorous occasionally, the dentist rarely smells them while treating the patient. However, the converse is true for the patient. In modern practice, the patient is often almost horizontal on the treatment chair. He or she can easily smell the dentist’s breath.
Soon after I began practising in Kent, I lived in local rented accommodation. I cooked for myself in the evenings, often preparing dishes with large amounts of delicious garlic.
One morning, Mrs G, a late middle-aged woman, attended my surgery. Soon after I had lowered the chair to a semi-reclined position, I commenced working on her teeth. In those days, the early 1980s, dentists did not routinely wear surgical gloves, nor did they wear facemasks. A paper facemask such as became ‘de rigueur’ after the beginning of the AIDs (HIV) epidemic, would not have prevented what was to occur after I began treating Mrs G.
After I had been at work for about a minute, Mrs G swept her hand in front of her mouth, and exclaimed: “Ooooh, Mr Yamey, you’ve been eating garlic.” I apologised, and from that day onwards I never ate garlic on a day before I was due to work.
After I had been in practice for about twelve years, I began working in inner London instead of ‘extra-terrestrial’ Kent. My patients in London came from all over the world, and most of them ate at least as much garlic as I do. The garlic restriction that I exercised in Kent became unnecessary.
Parsley was another problem I faced when I first arrived in Kent. I used to buy my lunch at the local Tesco supermarket. Many of its employees were patients in the practice where I worked. In addition to sandwiches and potato crisps, I enjoyed eating something containing chocolate with my midday meal. Many was the time when the lady at the check-out till would hold my Mars bar or Crunchie up in the air, and then shout at the top of her voice: “Look what the dentist is eating.” I digress.
One summer’s day, I needed some parsley for something I wanted to cook. I entered the local Tesco and asked an assistant where this herb was kept in the shop. Surprised by my request, she answered: “Sorry, love, we only get that in at Christmas.” I was shocked. Only an hour and a half’s drive away in London, parsley was available throughout the year. The Medway Towns, where I worked, were trapped in a 1950’s time-warp when I first arrived there. By the early 1990s, when I shifted to London, the area was emerging gradually into the present.