Recipe for contentment: cook and take life one meal at a time

I used to fancy myself as a special occasion cook, marinating and reducing for occasional wows, but since lockdown I’ve mostly taken over – with as little control freakery as I can muster – doing my full share of proper family meals, well. Does that count as a hobby? Of course not. But when you are writing and reading and wandering and watching for a living, it can feel that all of life is a form of solitary indulgence, so the distractions I crave are generally communal, and simply hands on.

That feeling has become more urgent in the last two years. Having worked from home for a couple of decades, I was used to mostly being alone with the contents of the fridge. Now, there were four of us in the house, Zooming and essay-writing and being lectured online and the days seemed to demand different kinds of punctuation marks.

A few things conspired to make that effort seem more of an adventure than a chore. For quite a few of those weeks and months, in and out of bubbles, we were joined by my daughter’s boyfriend, James, who is vegetarian. It seemed a good time for us all to cut out meat, so that happily concentrated our minds, too: how do we create flavour and variety without the fallback of a slab of protein? (Most of the best answers I found were inevitably plagiarised from Anna Jones or Ottolenghi or Mr Slater.) Then there was the question of supply. I stopped going to supermarkets entirely and got to know the strengths and weaknesses of local greengrocers – my 10,000 steps were usually directed towards a mission for tarragon or Swiss chard. And then, I guess, mental health.

The real challenge of a life of blank pages to be filled on screens has always been, for me, how to negotiate that early evening switch over to not thinking all the time about filling blank pages on screens. Suddenly, in the absence of the prospect of ever going out, chopping herbs and crushing garlic and rolling pastry seemed like a far better strategy for that gear shift than just opening another bottle of wine (though that often happened, too).

I realise, writing this, that for many people, particularly from and in countries and cultures where food preparation is indistinguishable from the regular flow of life, the idea of cooking as a brand new hobby might seem somewhat perverse or nonsensical. But, in small ways, ludicrously late, I’ve found that the new habit of starting the day discussing what’s for lunch or what’s for supper and then later doing those things, together or alone, the best you possibly can, alters the balance of how you think about any of the day’s challenges. We are forever fed the lie that our psychological ease lies in greater convenience, speed, the avoidance of complication and difficulty; that life is a battle for me-time; that work is the enemy and leisure the goal. It almost goes without saying that those ideas empty out life rather than fill it, and miss the texture of what makes most days worth living: doing things as slowly and well as they demand (even if it’s only making a great omelette), mastering skills for their own sake, searching for tomatoes that taste like tomatoes.

Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to meet or write about a few people for whom that speed of life has been second nature. More often than not they have been people who have learned to pace themselves by the rhythm of days and seasons, rather than trying to force time to their own will. I once spent a few days staying in the Provençal house owned by Richard Olney, author of The French Menu Cookbook, who was instrumental in reminding western cooks that food was all about rootedness. Or I think of Simon Hopkinson, formerly chef at Hilaire and Bibendum, whose eyes lit up when he described the thrill of finding mackerel at the market that morning so fresh they were still a little curled, and going home to cook them. If there had been a rulebook to make the last couple of years a bit more bearable it would, for me, certainly have involved Hopkinson’s mantra from his Roast Chicken and Other Stories: “It is important to cook in the right frame of mind (we are not talking everyday chores here) and to do things in the right order. Ergo: feel hungry; go out shopping with pen and paper and money. See good things, buy them. Write down further items that will accompany previous purchases. Come home. Have a glass of wine. Cook the food and eat.”

If I’m honest, the first two entries on that list have always presented the biggest challenge for me. While envying a little the joy people like Hopkinson found in mastery, I realise I’ve tended to accept that such commitment might be beyond me. I had a powerful feeling growing up, I think, that, in contrast to the men of my dad’s generation, I would always be a corner-cutter, a bit slap-dash when it came to practical tasks, a DIY bodger, a dabbler rather than a perfectionist.

One of the things that cooking has taught me in recent months is that those kinds of self-images can perhaps, even in your (sometimes terrifyingly) advancing 50s, be unlearned and rewritten. Sometimes, late at night, as I go round turning the lights off in the house, or loading the dishwasher, I find myself totting up the day just ended, in the manner of Ronnie Barker, as he used to shut up shop in Open All Hours. Just lately, it’s been good to have a few new phrases entering that internal voiceover, along with the tally of uncompleted tasks and worries to sleep on – “that watercress sauce, wasn’t half bad, was it?” or “next time, I think, a little less cinnamon in those poached pears”.