Food favourites with artist Helen Birmingham - ‘I like restaurants that feel comfortable, unpressured’

Helen Birmingham is a poet, playwright and  artist  and lives in Scarborough. She runs a gallery called Untangled Threads and lives in Belle Vue Parade with her cat Dr Johnson. Here she talks about food.

Thursday, 7th March 2019, 7:36 am
Updated Friday, 8th March 2019, 12:18 pm
Helen Birmingham with her cat Dr Johnson

How often do you eat out? I don’t eat out in restaurants very often. I’m a very fussy eater. Maybe only if friends come to visit, or a special occasion. Maybe only once a month.

Locally, what are your three favourite restaurants? I like restaurants that feel comfortable and unpressured. I’m not keen on having to dress up or pretend to be posh, or pretend to be a gourmet. I really just like fast food, eaten on my own. I like Pomodoro, Scarborough, McDonalds and the Clock Café, Scarborough.

What is your favourite comfort food? Fishfingers, mashed potato and frozen peas. (sometimes served with mango chutney). It reminds me of being a child. It was the meal I would choose for my ‘birthday treat’.

Five minutes with Helen here

What is your favourite cooking/food programme?I am a great fan of Great British Bake Off. I don’t really like the programmes where they show you how to make stuff. I don’t cook, so it isn’t interesting to me. The GBBO has interesting interaction with people who you feel you get to know over the series. I’m much more interested in the personalities, their reactions and interaction with each other, rather than the food to be honest.

More food favourites here

You can eat anything, anywhere in the world, cooked by a chef or your choice, no expense spared, who would cook for you, what would they cook and where would it be?My chef of choice would be my sister Liz, and I’d like to eat a meal prepared by her, at her house in Ravenscar. I would like her to make a curry because I love it when her kitchen is warm and fragrant, and she is relaxed and happy, but when she brings it to the table, I’d like her to say, ‘This one’s not for you, Helen.’ (because she knows I can’t eat garlic or onion and don’t really like the taste of curry anyway) and then put a small bowl of tuna with mayonnaise ‘just for me’, with mild chutney, plain naan bread and basmati rice to share.

Who cooks in your house? No-one really cooks in my house. I’m not that interested; I’d much rather be doing something else. I live alone, so eat beans on toast, or something quick which doesn’t need cooking.

See the latest exhibition at Helen's gallery here

You are cooking to impress. What do you cook? If I was genuinely cooking to try to impress, I wouldn’t! I have been known to make a decent cottage pie. But ... that’s not very impressive is it?

You can invite five people to dinner. Past or present, famous or not – but please explain who they are and why they are important to you? What would you cook for them Can I change that question round a bit? Inviting people to my house for dinner isn’t really something I would do. If I did, it would have to be one at a time, otherwise I would be incredibly stressed and wouldn’t enjoy it at all. If I could invite five people to dinner, one at a time, it would be: Kathy Perle – a very good friend of mine from Kent, who died in 2010. I would really like to spend an evening with her again. She was a very old lady, and she was ready to go, so it wasn’t sad that she died, but I do really miss her. I would make tiny sandwiches with no crust, and French fancies for pudding.Janilaine Mainprize – one of my best friends and confidante. She and her husband run Lockton Tea Room and Gallery, near Pickering. We’d ask her husband Kevin along too, to do the cooking. He’s a wonderful chef (TAGs Bistro) and I would leave the choice of food to him. He know how fussy I am!. Then Janilaine and I could just sit back, drink and talk endlessly about nothing in particular, but all the things that are most important in the world.Dorothea Newham – my friend, work partner, and pseudo sister. I think I would try to make a macaroni cheese and crusty bread. She would be amazed that I managed to do anything. Then she would probably produce something ‘just in case’ from her bag.Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath – poets. I would invite them so that I could see, although their relationship seemed violently romantic and intense, whether it was, as is assumed actually completely dysfunctional. I think it would make me glad when they went home, and glad I live on my own.

You can hire a private chef. Who would that be and why?If I could hire a private chef I would choose Michel Roux. He seems so friendly, honest and down-to-earth, even though he is undoubtedly an exceptional chef. I don’t think he would make me feel patronised in a way I imagine some of the other ‘masters at their craft’ might make me feel. I imagine he would listen to what I liked, or didn’t like, respect that and still make me something to eat which was sublime (but sublime in my terms: no garlic, no onion, no heavy spices or flavours).

You are at the chippy. What do you order?Without a doubt, cod and chips. No mushy peas, no gravy, no extras, no vinegar, no salt. Maybe a bit of tomato ketchup.

Who has been the biggest influence on you – food wise? My sister Liz. She is four years older than me, and is a fantastic cook – probably because she enjoys cooking and providing food. When I first left home, she wrote me a little book called ‘Don’t be frightened of food, it won’t eat you.’. She very often sends me a messenger note or text saying ‘WTF’ which doesn’t mean what you might think. It means ‘Water, Tablet, Food’ because they are the things I forget to do, when I am focussed on whatever obsession I happen to be involved with at the time.

Name your favourite song connected with food. The Onion Song by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (ironic cos I can’t eat them)

What’s the one food you could not live without?Vanilla ice cream.

One thing you cannot eat? I can’t eat onions or garlic. If I do, the consequences are not pleasant for anyone!

The condemned woman had a last meal. What would your last meal be? Starter: fresh bread roll and small bowl of Heinz tomato soup.Main: two fried eggs and thin chips.Pudding: Beacon Farm Vanilla ice cream with gummy bears sprinkled on the top. Drink: A glass of diet cola with lots of ice and a cup of tea to finish.

Quick fire:

Full English or continental breakfast: Full English

Tea or coffee: Tea

Sweet or savoury: Sweet

Jamie Oliver or Raymond Blanc: Raymond Blanc

Chips or salad: Chips!

Fruit or chocolate: Another no brainer! Chocolate, but only mild milky chocolate, not plain or bitter!

Oysters? Yes or no: If the circumstances are right, yes.