If someone had told me in my twenties that it’s possible to eat healthily and enjoy it, I’d have looked at them balefully, slowly shaking my head as I picked a piece of congealed lamb off yesterday’s T-shirt, contemplating microwaving it.
I mean, it’s obviously nonsense isn’t it? Everything I’ve ever had advertised at me suggests vegetables are dangerous and sweets are magnificent. It’s cheaper, easier and better in every way to crack open the Fanta than attempt to make or consume a ‘pineapple and spinach smoothie’. At no point did any of my parents suggest that broccoli is anything more than an obstacle between me and the ice cream that I want right in my face right fucking now please.
Apparently it didn’t cross their minds to teach me how to cook properly. So it’s with mixed feelings I report to you that, believe it or not, I now can.
Staggering as it may seem for a man whose life revolves around pubs and the places you go after pubs, I’m making a serious hobby of cooking. Real food, with actual ingredients and recipes and that. With some distress I realise these days I probably look less often at BBC News than BBC Good Food. The latter does have a lot less Boris Johnson to be fair.
It was a trip to Spain some years ago that set me on my journey towards culinary legend. I was asked to stay with my grandfather for a week to make sure he didn’t fall onto the massive prostate that would ultimately prove his undoing. As Brits abroad always somehow manage no matter where they are, he had UK channels piped into his house, and the old sod got me hooked on Masterchef.
Why couldn’t someone have explained the fun of cookery to me before then? How healthy could I have been if I’d learned at 5 years old that peas are for boiling and not firing out of your nostrils? A better diet in the last few years has led directly to much less time spent on the pan. Sure my body’s been trying to kill me in other ways but at least an Elvis-style death by screaming blockage seems off the table now.
It’s just so much easier to eat well when you’re in command of the menu. It really isn’t hard to follow a recipe. I might even have got half decent at it by now if someone had explained to the student me that there’s more to cooking than unwrapping a massive Budgens pizza and hoping not to doze off and set fire to everything. The single lesson I remember an adult drumming into me about cooking is ‘Don’t microwave metal’.
As a result, all my learning has come from Masterchef as an adult. I don’t generally do cooking shows – Bake Off can Fuck Off, especially since that comedy black hole Noel Fielding got involved in it. Ainsley Harriott has the wide-eyed stare and lunatic grin of a man one split ganache away from a machete rampage. I can’t watch that Sunday Brunch thing in case some bellowing halfwit like Su Pollard or Alan Carr turns up on it.
But I can’t not watch Masterchef. Partly I watch it to remind myself what I never want to become: one of these cretins who throws nouns at saucepans, praying for accidental genius like Jesse’s Diets. My main will be a banana radish pistachio lamb cherry meringue with coconut chorizo duck and Bovril chips. For dessert I’ll be serving a lemon liver sardine beetroot chicken chickory panacotta crumble, and a Yorkie.
Not that I mind the invention, just the over-confidence. A remarkably cocksure man named Nic suffered a cascading nightmare to much hilarity this week when he found out that the judges were curiously reluctant to eat raw goat. His psychological descent, from the lofty “For me, cooking with fire is the purest technique” to serving a pudding of egg in some kind of whisky sauce that made one judge ‘uncomfortable’, could be played in the film version by Christian Bale in full method mode.
Still, you can’t help applaud the contestants’ guts for giving it a crack. I can never go on Masterchef because I don’t have the mandatory pair of sleeve tattoos, and in any case I know my level. I cook for two in a wee north London flat knowing the worst criticism I’ll get is a raised eyebrow, though that is very clear code for ‘Never feed me that filth again’. I mess about with bizarre combinations that’d make Gregg Wallace cry – I just don’t have the arrogance to assume they’ll work.
And yet sometimes they do, and I keep a list. This currently includes such gems as ‘Squid, Caper and Raisin Pasta’, ‘Armenian Lamb with Apricots and Kale’ and ‘Chipotle and Almond Haddock’. Mackerel is a particular favourite of mine, and anyone who disagrees should be killed, and then cooked and eaten, with a lovely red wine jus. The other day I conjured up an extraordinary thing we’ll call ‘Mackerel Moussaka’, though it’s fair to say that one had a 50% success rate with the judges FINE MAKE YOUR OWN TEA.
Lunch has become a daring set of experiments involving whatever’s to hand: various vinegars and mustards, cabbage and peanuts, cayenne pepper and fennel seeds, tins of dubious meat the council sent us during lockdown. There are, of course, many mistakes and sometimes poor Chris goes hungry. But for every ‘Anchovies versus Worcester sauce’ outrage there’s a beef, fried banana and rocket salad that would have John Torode reaching for himself in pleasure.
There’s a limit to what I can get up to. My kitchen is basically a cupboard under the stairs with no room for the type of weird equipment that makes tomatoes levitate. I don’t have space to deconstruct a carbonara even if I wanted to, so it’s handy that only dickheads try. But even my low-level tinkering is more fun than yet another season on the laptop trying to stop Burton Albion going into administration.
It just enrages me the time I’ve lost to eating utter shit. Pies made in some northern factory months ago, the cheapest sausages from the cheapest supermarket, frozen chips you always get out of the oven too soon or too late. Ready meals, jars of suspect ‘pasta sauce’, sandwiches in clear film that taste just how you deserve. So many takeaways, so many regrets.
(Kebabs are sacrosanct. It goes without saying I’ve attempted my own large lamb doner at home, but I didn’t have enough rat tongue and pigeon bollocks to make it work.)
How hard can it be to devote a little time to this in school? I know they do rudimentary home economics lessons, but all I remember from mine is that obsessively trying to get the cling film flat on top of a bowl of chocolate sauce will end up with a mop in your hand and detention for being late to maths.
If someone would explain to kids that you can make all this stuff for less money, with better ingredients, we’d ultimately have a populace in better health, freeing up hospital beds for this exciting new Covid variant. Tell them they can enjoy the sense of achievement in cookery, and make people happy through food. They can even save the world: with a little education a couple of decades ago, would we really now need a debate on whether we’re ready to ban single-use plastic cutlery, for God’s sake?
I suppose I can at least thank parents and teachers for not turning me into someone like poor Nic, utterly confident in his ability until he forgot to bring any of his famous fire with him. Thankfully any form of professionalism is beyond me. So long as it tastes all right I don’t care much what the end result looks like, and my timings are to shit.
So no, you won’t see me cowering under a Monica Galetti backhander any time soon. I refuse ever to become a cook who’s utterly and completely obsessed with ‘seasoning’. I cannot and will not bake. Puddings must come complete, in glorious plastic. I do not brew beer because come on now.
But maybe I’d have liked the chance to be Nic. Please, teach your children the importance of eating sustainably and all that, but also the pleasure to be had in making your own scran. It can be about more than just licking the cake mix bowl after Grandma’s done the hard yards. I swear if you let a kid loose in the kitchen – safely, if you must – they’ll reward and thank you for it one day.
They might even make sure the home they put you in has a proper canteen.