Maria Parsons, 58, is a retired chef. She lives on the Otago Peninsula, Dunedin, with her dog, Carlos, and cat, Socks.
Join us through March as a diverse group of New Zealanders share what makes them happy.
Joy is a wonderful word. I prefer it to "happy". Joy is really deep, whereas I think happiness is more fleeting. I think babies are born joyful, but the circumstances of upbringing and society and family change that in us. Joy encompasses a whole lot of things. You can’t be full of joy if you’re anxious. Joy is about harmony and peace of mind. I’ve had a lot of anguish and pain in my life but now I’m in a really good place. Maybe adversity is part of joy; if you go through something hard, joy is the reward.
My real joy is my spiritual life. I’m a Catholic and that has been pivotal for me. Without that connection, I wouldn’t have any joy in anything else. I’m a convert – I was brought up a Presbyterian - but I became a Catholic when I was 34. It didn’t come easily to me, it came after I suffered a real tragedy in my life. I had an abortion, which is a pretty tender subject. Becoming a Catholic was a very slow progression, but it’s been a beautiful journey. That is my centre and all the other joys in my life have come from that.
Finding joy in food started when I was a child. I grew up on a dairy farm at Henley on the Taieri Plains and food was a predominant thing in farm life – growing things, raising animals to eat. There was a lot of hospitality and we were quite self-sufficient. We had our own hens, our own pigs, and my dad made cheese for a while. Growing food and sharing it has been part of my life ever since. My dad died when I was 10. We moved off the farm and into the local hotel, where my mum had the restaurant and grew it into a successful business. Later on I went to study clothing design in Christchurch, but I kept walking past the chefs’ block and thinking, "maybe I should be in there instead".
I ended up running my own label for a while, but I had this pull back to food and after working in hospitality for a long time I went and trained to be a chef. Doing that made me grow as a person; I had to really push myself. I met some beautiful people, but the whole environment is dysfunctional. I had a few horrendous bosses and I walked away from a couple of jobs. A lot of chefs find the industry robs you of your joy. For me, I couldn’t stand seeing wealthy people putting their bill on their credit card and grumbling about things that weren’t real problems, I thought, "actually, I just want to cook for poor people who will appreciate it". Even so, it was hard to leave, one of the hardest things I’ve done.
Now I feel like I’ve got my joy of cooking back. I have a great time cooking for myself, my daughters and my grand-daughters. My youngest granddaughter, who is six, calls me the best chef in the world. Everything in my house revolves around the kitchen. Even in other people’s houses I always gravitate towards the kitchen. It’s a very, very happy place for me.
Cooking is like being in a play, in a way. In the industry it’s like you’re on stage when you’re in the kitchen. Even now, I love all the planning, all the thinking about it in advance. I love creating something from raw products, the smells, the sound of things sizzling. Presenting it is like making a little bit of art on a plate. I’m still fussy about that. My daughters say, 'Mum you don’t need to do that,' but I think that’s important. You eat with your eyes.
The big high point is sharing it – happy people, full tummies and the fun that goes around the table. Afterwards I’m pretty cool about cleaning up. I don’t like it when people are in a rush to tidy up. If you’ve had a lovely meal together, that’s going to kill it. I say to my children, food is like the petrol in the car. It’s really important to nourish your body. Yesterday, my daughter was here and I made her a massive omelette. To see her sitting down and eat it, that made me happy.
As told to Lucy Corry.
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