By the time you read this, it will all be over: the advice about what to do in January. Either you’ll still be sticking to your resolutions, food- and exercise-wise, or you will have already abandoned them – unless, like me, you didn’t make any, for which reason you will be currently neither glowing nor guilty. Regular readers will know that I like nothing more than to sit atop my spike; after the holidays, I could hardly wait to get back to work. But I also find the winter hard enough without depriving myself of things.
Still, it was worse than ever this year: the advice, I mean. We were assailed from all sides, Veganuary joining Dry January as the latest thing. Looking over, if not exactly reading, an article in one newspaper – we’re all 3.3lb overweight, it said, and should drastically reduce our salt intake; we should also, in the interests of avoiding cancer, make sure our roast potatoes are golden yellow rather than brown – I was beset by the same anxiety I sometimes experience in a supermarket: even when it comes to self-improvement, the multiplicity of choice is overwhelming.
It’s my conviction that the only truly sustainable diet – in terms of the environment, and of one’s health – is an enjoyable diet. But what, really, constitutes enjoyment these days? In Alan Bennett’s latest diary in the London Review of Books there is an interesting bit – 11 February, 2019, if you want to look it up – where he ponders his childhood memories of food. As a boy who lived through the war, people expect him to recall doing without: the particular hunger that comes with missing things, or being told one cannot have them (rationing, remember, did not end until the summer of 1954, by which time he was 20). But seemingly, this is not so.
“What I don’t recall,” he writes, “is any longing for food (or for elaborate food) that coloured the everyday. On the contrary, what sticks in the mind is how tasty some very ordinary meals were: the first new potatoes, for instance, so delicious one would save them up till last when having one’s dinner (ie lunch).” Even the nowadays unfashionable and reviled Spam and corned beef, he reports, seemed good then; certainly, he liked both more than the stewing steak provided by his (very scrupulous) butcher father.Shop as little as possible, eke things out. Think of less as more; turn one thing (chicken) into another (risotto)
Lots of people did feel badly off in the 1940s and 50s, of course. Think of Elizabeth David, reducing her sister to tears when she came home one day with tomatoes; in her wartime diary, Vere Hodgson writes of how refreshing it was even to see a bit of orange peel on a pavement. But you get the point. Choice works both ways; even as it expands your universe, it somehow shrinks it, too. I often crave hummus, or the sweet-sour sharpness of various combinations of chilli and lime and fish sauce: things I hardly knew as a child. But I never really long for, say, the shepherd’s pie on which I grew up – until, that is, the moment when one appears before me, at which point I remember how delicious and comforting it is. How can so few un-exotic ingredients taste so good in this combination? Well, they just do.
One trick when it comes to restoring the pleasure principle in the kitchen is to have weeks when you shop as little as possible, and really eke things out. Use what’s in your cupboard; try to think of less as more; turn one thing (chicken) into another (risotto, say). At new year I served mushroom soup to friends, and of all the things I made that night, it was the one they seemed to like most. I gussied it up with leftover cream and a dash of ancient brandy, and served it in teacups to make it look dainty. But in the end, its most important ingredients were a few tatty corner shop mushrooms, a clove of garlic and a stock cube.
What made it so good? Two things, I think. The first was that I cooked the mushrooms for ages, patience doing the work of a more elaborate recipe. The second had to do with – yes – novelty. Mushroom soup? The last time anyone had eaten such a plain and wholesome dish was 12 months before, when (apparently) I dished up exactly the same thing.