In John Irving’s Life According to Garp, the protagonist is a writer who develops a love for cooking. He argues that “sometimes it is the only worthwhile product you can salvage from a day; what you make to eat.” My housemates for the last year have witnessed me attempt to adopt this mantra. When I have nothing to do, or too much to do, I have birthed many a failed lasagna in an attempt to regain control, or simply as part of a procrastination-fuelled existential crisis.
This is never helped by our failing kitchen appliances. Our combination oven is only really capable of thawing and heating a frozen pizza: everything else it will scorch or leave raw. However, recently, with access to a friend’s functioning oven, I came good on Garp’s philosophy, and ‘using good ingredients’ with ‘no shortcuts’ I came up with a pretty convincing rendition of Samin Nosrat’s vegetarian lasagna. With the traditional meat sauce substituted with a mixture of creamy ricotta, tender spinach and grated parmigiana, it was a certified dinner table hit.
Many people love Italian food (including Italy and its inhabitants) so I am aware this is not a personality trait. I love cooking Italian food not just because of the simple ingredients, but the method and time just cannot (and should not) be fucked with. A traditional Bolognese takes around three to four hours, and it really deserves every minute. As a British person, I first became aware of the watered-down version of this dish known across the country as ‘spag bol’. Spag Bol is fine, but it is a pale simulacrum of the real thing. This year has been one of let-downs and disappointments all round, but after four hours of cooking sofrito, beef, pancetta, and wine, sitting down with a friend to share a rich comforting plate of Bolognese delivers every time.
I do wish that all of life’s ills could be remedied by braised beef, but this arguably isn’t the case. As much as I like to be in the kitchen, I have also been known to subsist entirely on toast, coffee and the occasional cheeseburger for days at a time.
In the same book John Irving coins the term ‘undertoad’ – a grand metaphor (based of Garp’s son’s mispronunciation of undertow) for anxiety, which constantly pulls like an undercurrent, and, whether it’s strong or weak, it is always present, just beneath the surface. For me, this has not been the year of the rat or ox, but of the undertoad. Whether I’m in my pyjamas at 2pm eating a third slice of white toast, or up early planning what to cook this evening, the undertoad is always there waiting. As an existential amphibian, there is no way to turn this dread into Cuisses de Grenouille: sometimes in life, even if you have all the right ingredients, and don’t take any shortcuts, you will still be disappointed. And that’s ok – there is always the next meal.