What did I eat when I had no kitchen of my own, and very little money? The answer is: the same thing every day. At the time, I was living in one room in a house in Glasgow. Don’t misunderstand: it was a lovely room in a beautiful house overlooking the Botanic Gardens. I liked it. But the kitchen was shared between five tenants, whose names I did not know and whose faces I rarely saw (I was working long hours). Each night, bone tired, I would dash to this kitchen, cook some pasta, smother it in a spoonful of pesto from a jar (a delicacy that was then an exciting new import to our islands), dust it with a little dry supermarket parmesan and – presto! – supper was served.
At this point in my life, I’d never tasted fresh pesto, so I didn’t know what a poor substitute the long-lasting stuff was, though in any case, I liked this dish, which was filling and involved no mess or was. Its utter predictability – the end product never varied in the slightest degree – was soothing, and it was quite salty, and thus, to me, quite tasty (I love salt). But then again, I wouldn’t say that I wanted to eat it every night, let alone that I looked forward to it. It was only the result of my circumstances, a combination of limited resources and exhaustion. When the man with whom I was then having a thing took me out to dinner, I would eat like there was no tomorrow, roaming the menu like some crazed buffalo crisscrossing a prairie.
It may be partly as a result of this time that, these days, I feel anxious and a bit embarrassed if I serve the same thing two days in a row, a state that somewhat baffles my adorable domestic colleague, who actively enjoys culinary repetition ( before he met me, he happily dined almost exclusively on smoked salmon and brown bread). But there it is: unless a person has no choice – and I understand that some people don’t – I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to eat as varied a diet as possible. The only time I feel differently is when there are leftovers that actively improve with time, something that applies to stews, and also, I think, to trifle, which is really good for breakfast the morning after the night before (so shoot me).
Doesn’t everyone feel like this? Apparently not. In a rival newspaper, a young columnist described how freeing it is not to have to make decisions in the matter of supper, for which reason he only ever cooks some kind of fried eggplant dish with paprika and yoghurt. He told me later on social media (I was outraged, and had come after him, poor guy) not only that this concoction – picture a bowl of spicy slugs, floating in whiteness – is delicious, but that he’s convinced lots of people eat something similar, and on most nights of the week. Hmm. At this point, I thought of a recipe from beloved Katharine Whitehorn’s 1961 classic Cooking in a Bedsitter: The Dish, so called because she and her flatmate at one point cooked almost nothing else for two years (made of braising steak, vegetables and tomato puree, it is slow-cooked and served with rice).
Can this guy be right, or is he a crackpot. Where is he getting his information? I know some dubious survey or other once found that a third of Britons eat the same lunch daily. Goal dinner? (Or tea, if you prefer – which I still do, secretly.) Surely not. Life, which is hard, is about small pleasures; it’s about what Victorian writers such as George Gissing and John Ruskin used to call – with such relish – morsels and dainties.
The older I get, the more I want to really savor things, and I don’t think this is possible, after a certain point, in the case of foods that are eaten over and over. Such mechanical, unimaginative consumption leads in the end only to boredom and melancholy. The taste buds grow dull, and the jaw listless – and it’s a slippery slope. The next stop, once you’ve rolled all the way down it, is food eaten straight from the can, or a boil-in-the-bag curry that reeks more of desperation than it does of cumin.