‘I crave burgers at some pub. Any pub’
It was time to dispose of the aubergine. The one I acquired 39 days ago. Once firm, noble-seeming and purple, it now sat there looking forlorn – mottled in places, with a slightly jammy undercarriage. I picked it up several times on Tuesday and edged it closer to the bin, but I couldn’t bring myself to make the final push: chucking food would be an admission of defeat.
This decaying, bulbous lump was symbolic, I realised. It meant I couldn’t just meal-plan and to-do list my way out of this mess. Covid
-19 would still be here, causing havoc, at every level of my existence, whether I made soup out of mulchy salad leaves or raita from on-the-turn yoghurt. And, by God, I’ve been good and compliant and jolly resourceful for six entire weeks by now, eating rotting things that I didn’t quite fancy. Remember the banana bread stage? These were the same bananas still, just all hot and mushy now, but with one in the eye for the grim reaper.
I’ve been saintly about food waste, avoided supermarkets, protected the NHS and not frittered money on Deliveroo, but, to be quite honest, it no longer really feels like winning. The aubergine needed to go. “This must be how Elizabeth I felt while signing Mary’s death warrant,” I thought, quite reasonably. This is the sort of inner monologue you have in total self-isolation, cooking for yourself and seeing no one, for more than a month. By June, this column will be mainly hieroglyphics and links to YouTube clips of static.
Over the past six weeks, as restaurants shut up shop, the industry has grappled to work out if we’ll ever need chefs again. And at first I thought perhaps not - let’s all just stew our own aubergines. But now I know we’ll always need these people with their pans, stamina and imagination. All as barmy as a box of frogs, by the way (and I know a lot of chefs), but that’s all part of their charm. And eating my own home cooking, and only home cooking, has proved to me that life feels oddly flat when you remove other people’s flights of fancy.
I am well fed right now, and I am nourished. I am fortunate, too. But I also feel as if I’ve gone by accident on a bad holiday, to a very remote, one-star TripAdvisor resort with only one restaurant, whose chef is diligent and well-meaning, but limited. Three weeks ago, I stopped bothering to shower for dinner because everything in every terrine – from the porridge to the pasta, and for breakfast, lunch and dinner – tasted oddly similar. Also, at 5pm daily, after the cha-cha lessons, they read out the latest death toll, but now I’m just quibbling.
And in that light, Deliveroo’d vermicelli noodles and silver cartons packed full of battered stuff in bright neon, orange sauces begin to feel like a weird lifeline. I click on the web page, dawdling tantilisingly over the “open now” section. Dare I? Yes, I dare.
Regardless where this virus leads us, there will in this weird new world definitely be a place for being cared for by others. And for that kind of Cantonese food that makes actual Cantonese people pinch the soft skin between their eyes in abject sadness, but that tastes fantastic as it’s forked directly into one’s gullet. We need it as much as “control” and “being good” and dal-ing our own lentils and turning that aubergine into sodding ratatouille.
In recent weeks, I’ve craved burgers seasoned with, well, I don’t quite know what. At some pub. Any pub. It’s the chef’s recipe, and he’s not telling. Served in a fresh brioche bun. You know, one of those glossy buns that are frankly shocking for your weight, so I don’t buy them to have at home. But, gosh, do I miss someone else, an anonymous source, supplying me with them. I miss someone else lacing my food with far too much oil, or butter, or salt, because I’m just a stranger and they care little for my heart valves, but they want me to love their food and come back. I yearn for those anonymous figures, stood behind the stove, stirring good, freshly made pasta into silky sauces. I miss all the heat and light and extra happiness that you can’t really pull off at home: the sear of a very hot grill, a judicious handful of MSG, a deep tandoori lustre and laksa noodles that have been cooked in several complex stages.
But, until then, I’ve got a bag of king edward potatoes with eyes and sprouts that need eating. I’m too guilty to bin them, too. There is eating to live, and living to eat, and I’ve learned which one I prefer.