Clem Bastow made a decision to stop feeling guilty about not cooking for herself. Photo: Stocksy
When I was little, there were two things I knew would, when I eventually obtained them, mean that I had finally become a grown up: the first was a collection of chandeliers, and the second was a cool bachelorette apartment like Dana's from Ghostbusters.
The less said about the former the better, but in Dana Barrett's pastel-toned penthouse in "spook central" (55 Central Park West for those of you who might want to, say, pose for a photo outside), I saw a vision of cool and capable womanhood. Despite the irritating presence of interdimensional beings inside her refrigerator, Dana seemed to have it all: she lived alone, was gainfully employed, did workout videos in her living room, and most importantly to my 8-year-old mind, cooked herself delicious meals.
This was something that stuck with me; later, in my teens, I collected cookbooks from the 1960s and 1970s with titles like The Busy Woman's Cookbook. My plan for life was to to be as busy as I could be as I climbed the career ladder, while still finding time to cook incredible food every night.
In other words, I developed a serious case of "The best laid plans…", and even as I became too exhausted and overworked to do any more "cooking" than eating a tin of tuna over the sink, my inability to cook – Busy Woman-style – gnawed at me.
The fact that The Busy Woman's Cookbook, in near-satirical fashion, expected a working woman to be able to return home from the office and have either the time or the inclination to whip up a three-course meal was immaterial to me: I didn't have time to cook for myself, and I felt like a complete failure as a woman.
Not only that, but when I did cook, I wasn't very good at it: a "35-minute" recipe would take me three hours to get my head around, and I would inevitably miss an ingredient or instruction. More than once I "plated up" a roast at 11:45pm. (I did master a couple of recipes, but a woman can't live on risoni salad and lamb backstrap alone, though I'm sure you could fashion a celebrity eating plan out of the combo.)
Every now and then I would buy a sad microwave dinner from the supermarket, and trudge home with that '90s "Yes, dad, your little girl is looking after herself" advertisement ringing in my ears.
Adding insult to injury was the knowledge that, as a person prone to depression, I should be eating well. Each desolate McFeast or plate of carrot sticks and dip felt like a further tumble into a shame spiral. I'd cry to my therapist about not being able to find time to make food. No matter how well my writing career was going, I was too tired or frantic to cook for myself, and in my mind that made me a failure as a capable modern woman.
(And, to return to Ghostbusters for a moment, it's telling that after Zuul retreats from inside Dana's fridge, her healthy Whole Foods-type groceries are replaced in a moment of paranormal personal cheffing by crap, prompting Venkman to remark, "Look at all the junk food!" to Dana's immense dismay.)
Even after years of women's liberation, and despite the presence of countless male celebrity chefs on television (and in our supermarket aisles), the cooking industry is still incredibly feminised. It might be tempting to assume in 2016 that cooking has become a gender neutral chore, but then why do "blokes'" cookbooks need to differentiate themselves from the other kitchen tomes by daubing their covers with steaks (you gotta eat meat to feed meat, hur hur!) and classic cars?
My shame and resentment, then, was twofold: on one level, I felt bad that I couldn't or didn't have time to cook, but on another level, I resented the very idea that as a woman, I was expected to. I thought of Simone de Beauvoir's criticism of housework as Sisyphean torture: "Eating, sleeping, cleaning – the years no longer rise up towards heaven, they lie spread out ahead, grey and identical. The battle against dust and dirt is never won."
So, rather than raging against the dying of the refrigerator light, I made a decision – "I'm going to let somebody else do it!" – and started having meals delivered.
The delivery meal industry is as bewildering as any other, with options ranging from relatively cheap to eye-wateringly expensive, from "locavore" fare to paleo, fresh or frozen, delivered by bicycle; the list goes on. I settled for a non-frozen, non-"diet" option that would get me out of cooking seven lunches or dinners a week. The cost is around $80, and before I took the plunge, I studiously kept supermarket and restaurant receipts for a fortnight and discovered I was spending around $150 (if not more) on food each week, so I'd be saving by not cooking.
(At the time of writing, I looked on Woolies' website to estimate the price of the ingredients in one of my $9.95 meals, were I to make it myself; it would cost me roughly $20, not including the time and psychic agony required to assemble and cook the meal. And it's not just a "big two" problem; shopping at independent grocers or fresh markets, at times, turned out to be more expensive.)
I kept the receipts because I knew I needed a solid alibi, as in my "I can't cook" shame, I felt even more mortified that I had resorted to delivered meals: Isn't this some sort of bourgeois indulgence? Did I fail home economics class?? WHAT WOULD DANA BARRETT THINK?! Gradually, however, the shame subsided, replaced by something approaching calm (and a full stomach).
And, reader, three weeks into my new regime, I can tell you it's been worth every cent: the gnawing shame about my cooking skills has evaporated, and cleared out mental and emotional space that I can use for writing. The fancy cookbooks I bought in a last-ditch attempt to rally cooking enthusiasm don't throb like Raiders' Ark of The Covenant in my bookshelf anymore. I no longer solemnly unload masses of wasted vegetables, bought with cockeyed optimism, into the bin because I haven't had time to cook them before they rot.
Were Peter Venkman to investigate my refrigerator tomorrow, he may well remark on the number of "plane food"-esque containers stacked in neat little skyscrapers, but in jettisoning the expectation of cooking, I've never felt closer to my childhood dream of capable Dana Barrett womanhood. Dreams, eventually, come true - just turns out they arrive on a Friday morning in a polystyrene esky.