"When I go out to my local cheap and cheerful Thai joint, I’m eating with other people, even though none of them are actually talking to me."
I’m 35 years old and I can’t cook.
Well, that’s not quite true. I’m 35 years old and I don’t cook. When the mood takes me, I can cook spaghetti bolognese that has been described as “surprisingly good”, in what I would describe as a “triumph of low expectations”.
I can also cook a serviceable roast, probably because it only seems to require me to buy an expensive piece of meat and whack it in the oven for as much time as the sticker on the cling-wrap tells me. Any culinary task that only requires, a clock, an oven and basic literacy, even I can accomplish. Unless the only clock available is the one built into the oven, in which case there’s no way I’ll be able to get it to work.
I can boil an egg with aplomb, as long as I Google to remind myself how long you’re supposed to boil it for. I can also boil water and put ravioli in it and microwave the accompanying sauce, and indeed did so through many of my university years. In those days I also cooked tinned spaghetti, which was dull, although not as much as those times when I was broke and feasted on white rice and soy sauce.
Nevertheless, my repertoire is best described as limited. Which is a pity, because I was quite the culinary innovator at the age of eight, I’ll have you know. That’s when I invented my trademark dish, ‘Bread Bits’. Here is the recipe, exclusively for Daily Life.
© Dominic Knight 1985
1) Take two slices of bread. Nothing fancy now, just regular sliced multigrain will do.
2) Artfully rip the bread up into pieces of roughly a square inch in size. (Roughly 2.5cm in metric.)
3) Sizzle a knob of butter in a frying pan and place the bread on it, frying it lightly.
4) Break two eggs over the top and stir.
5) Continue until the egg seems to be cooked, and then serve.
6) Garnish to taste. Adding tomato sauce is advised in order to make the dish taste primarily of tomato sauce.
Optional step: Before eating, take a moment to reflect on my extraordinary ingenuity at the age of eight, and what I might have accomplished by 35 if I’d stuck with this cooking lark.
The dish isn’t perfect, I’ll admit. For one thing, had I been more of a foodie back then, I’d have called it frittata del pane. But I think it holds up fairly well.
Now, I’m not one of these dudes who thinks that food preparation is a woman’s job, and happily sits watching the football and then makes a big production of stacking the dishwasher, as though that in any way constituted an equal division of labour. I’m more than happy to share equally in such important domestic chores as dialling for takeaway pizzas and throwing away the boxes afterwards.
What’s more, I quite enjoy cooking when I give it a go every six months or so. But since I live by myself (op cit), it feels like a waste of effort that could go into more important activities like watching Game of Thrones and wondering whether I should get a flatmate and/or pets.
Plus, when you spend the best part of an hour faffing around in the kitchen only to spend ten minutes eating it in front of the television, you feel like a bit of a loser. Whereas when I go out to my local cheap and cheerful Thai joint, I’m eating with other people, even though none of them are actually talking to me.
What’s more, the social rituals of dining are very much group-based, so when I cook at home and then sit there finding fault with my own cooking, there’s nobody there to protest that it’s lovely and that they don’t know what I’m talking about.
So I save cooking for those rare occasions when I hold a dinner party. The problem with that, of course, is that the pressure to succeed is high, and that I lack experience. This can lead to situations like a recent dinner party when the roast wasn’t ready to serve until 10pm. Unfortunately hilarious jokes about my general hopelessness or how we’re eating “European style” can only do so much to mitigate the embarrassment.
I’ve never stuffed up a meal to the point of total inedibility, or at least if I have, people have been sufficiently polite not to tell me, but it’s a fairly foolhardy approach. Cooking only when you’re hosting a dinner party is like not doing much preparation and expecting to get straight into the Olympic swimming team. In other words, it’s like being Ian Thorpe.
The other problem is that our society’s obsession with cooking has raised the bar uncomfortably high. The old staples no longer cut it in an era where most of my friends won’t dream of serving anything at a dinner party that hasn’t come from a fancy providore or a farmer’s market. And thanks to MasterChef, you can’t just serve up a Sara Lee apple pie and Blue Ribbon ice cream for dessert. Nowadays, you’ve got to attempt a snow egg.
I tell myself I’ll get into cooking eventually, much as I tell myself I’ll get into golf. When you have kids, cooking becomes essential, for reasons of both economy and logistics. And I already know how to cook my own favourite childhood dish of spag bol. Maybe, on special occasions like birthdays, I’ll even serve my kids a bit of my special frittata del pane. But in these solo days, mine will remain a casa del takeaway.