MENUS & REVENGE
Food can symbolise anything: love, hatred, revenge, boredom. It can be quality or quotidian. It can be display or death-wish. I have often looked at menus from the Edwardian period, and been astonished at the range and sheer amount that people were expected to consume: or at accounts of Roman banquets, where the pickled thrushes and lark’s-tongues were piled so high that the diners needed ready access to the Vomitorium.
My own history with food is complex. One of my first memories is of refusing my mother’s proferred food (she was a terrible cook), and of living almost entirely on custard for several years. When, in 1960s Nottingham, I discovered Chinese and Indian food, it was like an apotheosis. Tarka Dahl! Pineapple fritters! Sweet and Sour! It suggested a welcome route out of everything humdrum that I had known, and with various friends whom I suborned as company, I mounted guerrilla raids on exotic national cuisines. It never made me fat though. That came later.
I had a large cash prize for winning an Observer debating competition, and spent it on gaining a Cordon Bleu diploma: I then set up as a bespoke cook. That was the beginning of the end as far as my figure was concerned: hand-made mille-feuille pastry! My own brawn! Cream in everything! Rolling my own chocolate truffles! I became like those famous French chefs who only have one motto: du buerre, du buerre et du temps. As my menu choices expanded, so did my waistline, until one day I actually got stuck in a chair. It was the moment of truth, and I gave up professional cooking in favour of academic chair life.
After that, my cooking became very strange: a cross between sublime innovation and downright chaos. Whenever I was half-way through cooking, I often realised I had forgotten some crucial ingredient, which must have been left on the counter or in the shopping trolley. A fine carelessness and inattention to detail suffused all I did in the cookery line. This was odd, and it was entirely contrary to my intellectual work. People began, I suspect, to dread my dinner parties, since I became terribly absent-minded. Our postman tended to drop elastic bands on the path. My husband zealously gathered them up and put them in a jar, and somehow I managed to put them through a Mouli and cook them in a sauce. Another time, the dog was suspected of diabetes, and I had to collect his urine for a test. It was bank holiday and so I put it in the freezer and forgot about it. Months later I found it and thought it was chicken stock. It certainly made a very odd soup. Later on, I had some idea of making a Chinese Chicken Feet dish, but forgot that the guests were Vegan. Their faces when the chickens-feet peeped over the edge of the bowl were a study. But my most inspired menu disaster was deliberate. My husband had done something awful (I forget what), and I decided to take culinary revenge. Curry was his favourite, and I made him a nice Rogan Josh. But the meat was Pedigree Chum, and he was a little upset when I told him so afterwards. For pudding, I produced a chocolate mousse made out of Ex-Lax. He had to take a couple of days off work.
My cooking’s got worse and worse since. I accidentally used a circle of cardboard as a pizza base. I poured a whole box of salt into a stew, instead of a tablespoonful. I managed to get garden soil into a souffle. I wonder how? No-one can be neutral about food: it is usually everything or nothing. Something has got crossed over somehow, and in the jumble of my mind, I have confused pleasure with guilt, feasting with pollution.
I have come to realise that what I like best is a picnic, since one can’t make so many mistakes with that. I’d just like to sit on the shores of heaven, on a plaid blanket, eating finger food. And in my mind, that’s where I am at dinner-time: it’s Dejeuner Sur l’Herbe, but no one is uncomfortably naked, the wine is never too warm, the sandwiches are never stale, the chocolate is never melted. That’s paradise.