I I used to fantasize about myself as a cook on special occasions, marinating and sauteing for the occasional wow, but since lockdown, I’ve mostly taken over — with as little obsession with control as I can muster — doing my full share of proper family meals, well. Is this considered a hobby? of course not. But when you write, read, wander, and watch for a living, it can feel like all life is a form of solitary immersion, and so the distractions I crave are generally generic, and simply practical.
This feeling has become more pressing in the past two years. Having worked from home for two decades, I was used to being mostly alone with the contents of the fridge. Now, there were four of us at home, zooming in, writing articles, lecturing online and it seemed like the days required different kinds of punctuation.
A few things conspired to make this effort seem more of an adventure than a chore. For weeks and months, in and out of the bubbles, my daughter’s friend, James, who is vegan, joined us. It seemed like a good time for all of us to cut out the meat, so that our minds happily focused too: How do we create flavor and variety without turning back to a protein bar? (Most of the best answers I found were inevitably plagiarized from Anna Jones, O’Toolinge, or Mr. Slater.) Then there was the issue of supply. I stopped going to the supermarkets altogether and learned about the strengths and weaknesses of the local vegetable vendors—my 10,000 steps were usually geared toward the tarragon job or Swiss chard. And then, I think, mental health.
The real challenge of a life filled with blank pages on screens, for me, has always been how to negotiate the shift early in the evening to not thinking all the time about filling the blank pages on screens. Suddenly, with no prospect of ever getting out, chopping herbs, crushing garlic, and rolling pastry seemed a much better strategy for this change of pace than simply opening another bottle of wine (although that often happens too).
I realize, as I write this, that for many people, particularly from countries and cultures where food preparation is indistinguishable from the regular flow of life, the idea of cooking as an entirely new hobby may seem somewhat skewed or illogical. But, in simple ways, and with ironic delay, I have found that the new habit of starting the day by discussing what to have for lunch or dinner and then doing those things later, together or alone, as best you can, shifts the balance of how you think about any of the challenges of the day. We are forever fed on the lie that peace of mind consists in greater comfort and speed, and the avoidance of complications and difficulties; That life is a battle for me time. This business is the enemy, the goal is free time. It almost goes without saying that these thoughts empty rather than fill life, and miss the feel of what makes most days worth living: doing things slowly and as often as they require (even if it’s just making a great omelette), mastering skills for their own good, searching for tomatoes that taste Like tomatoes.
Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to meet or write about a few people for whom the speed of life has been second nature. Often, they were people who had learned to organize themselves according to the rhythm of days and seasons, rather than trying to force time to their will. I once spent a few days in the Provençal house owned by Richard Olney, author of french cookbook, who was instrumental in reminding Western chefs that food was all about rooting. Or I think of Simon Hopkinson, the former chef of Hilaire and Bibendum, whose eyes lit up as he described the thrill of finding mackerel at the market that morning so refreshing that they were still a little wrinkled, and they went home to cook it. If there had been a rulebook to make the last two years more bearable, it would, to me, surely have included Hopkinson’s mantra of Roast Chicken and Other StoriesIt is important to cook in the right frame of mind (we’re not talking about everyday tasks here) and do things in the right order. Ergo: feel hungry; go out shopping with pen, paper and money. See good things, buy them. Write more items that will accompany previous purchases. Come Come home. Have a glass of wine. Cook and eat.”
If I’m being honest, the first two entries on that list are always the biggest challenge for me. While I envy a little the joy that people like Hopkinson have found in their mastery, I realize that I was inclined to accept that such a commitment might be outside my embrace. I had a strong feeling growing up, I suppose, that, unlike men of my parents’ generation, I would always be a corner cutter, a little impulsive when it came to practical tasks, DIY bodger, and dabbler rather than perfectionist.
One of the things cooking has taught me in recent months is that those kinds of self-portraits perhaps, even in the 1950s (horrifyingly at times), can be unlearned and rewritten. Sometimes, late at night, as I wander around turning off the lights in the house, or loading the dishwasher, I find myself spending the day just ended, Ronnie Parker’s way, as the store used to close in Open all hours. Lately, it’s been nice to have some new phrases inserted into that inner voiceover, along with the number of uncompleted tasks and sleep worries – “Arugula sauce, it wasn’t half bad, was it?” or “Next time, I think, a little cinnamon in those boiled pears.”
How do I do it
Ravnit Gil Damson Jelly Academy Offers online lessons for beginners and PRINT KITCHENIt is run by baker Richard Brittnt from his base in Bath. Try it on our classic baking and pastry making and pie making courses. Walk School It teaches you dishes from most of the cuisines of South, East and Southeast Asia. Lion It has options ranging from online classes for enthusiasts to professional courses. immigrant It is a charity that hosts classes for refugees and immigrants. You learn how to cook food from another culture; Your chef gains training and employment.
To try out the recipes of the chefs who inspired Tim Adams, Anna Jones offers online courses or attends her book The Year of the Modern Chef. Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson with Lindsey Bareham is as fun to read as it is to prepare the dishes. For new recipes from Nigel Slater, read his weekly column at Observer Magazine.