Food has lost much of its meaning for me. Well, its meanings, to be more accurate. A typical late autumn of eating has its rhythms: shortly after decorative gourd season and past toffee apple weekend (both cancelled due to lurgy), many of us move seamlessly into pre-Christmas hoarding and restraint mode. The hoarding begins with a casually snaffled box of stollen slices or a little bag of Lindt chocolate Christmas tree decorations, chucked into the shopping basket “just to get things started”. Then a shufti around Marks & Spencer’s food hall, where the displays of shortbread in commemorative tin boxes (those nice ones your mother used for her sewing kit) always bring a sense of minor panic that holidays are comin’ and I am unprepared. Begin the lists, open the iCal, commence the slightly terse intra-family emails. Panic!
I do not have a yuletide shopping delivery slot. That dodgy shelf in my chiller will not survive a fortnight of festive season fridge Jenga, and a better woman than me would have made her own figgy pudding by now. But, as I say, the hoarding won’t happen this year. The big Dent jamboree is cancelled. And the restraint – which runs in parallel from about now to late December – is off, too. About now, I generally have in the diary at least two festive gatherings where I envision myself slinking in wearing some frock that will require me to be a bit hungry for at least 22 days and say things like, “No, I love running five miles pre-dawn dodging flashers – it centres me”, and, “Toast is too filling and carby. I’m so happy with this bircher muesli.” The only thing most of us will be wearing this party season is slightly smarter pyjamas.
Life is quite bizarre now that the usual run-up to New Year has been steam-rollered. How empty does late November feel without a low, bubbling, passive-aggressive email chain between siblings about how much room a nut roast takes up in an oven? I feel oddly bereft without any invites to a mock-Bavarian Christmas market where I can drink £8 glasses of glühwein and eat a reheated wurst on the waltzer while listening to David Guetta. This week I noticed the first of the “What to do with Christmas day leftovers” tips and tricks in the papers. The notion of having so many visitors that you might be caught with a glut of food already seems oddly archaic.
Buying, planning and hoping for things to run like clockwork is a mug’s game. The rules are that there are no rules. “I’ve given up trying to control anything now,” I announced last Tuesday while breakfasting on a packet of jelly babies. I think it was Tuesday. It may have been Thursday. The Gregorian calendar feels so meaningless these days. Anyway, each baby was so chunkily delicious, and their pudgy little lightly frosted bellies slid so soothingly down my throat, that they felt momentarily like love and order. This one lemon, yum yum. This one raspberry, schlurp. I rarely ate sweets before the pandemic, but now, in the blur of news about possible vaccines, permanent restaurant closures and the millions of wonderful hospitality workers who will no doubt need to retrain in cyber, they’re the only thing that piques my attention some days.
Small bursts of sugar whisk me away from everything for a second. A friend sent me a gift box containing a smorgasbord of joyously wicked nonsense from yesteryear: cola bottles, Wagon Wheels, sherbet spaceships, Mint Viscounts and Curly Wurlys. “I’ll give this to the children in the family,” I thought. Yet, as the days have plodded on, I have poked a hand in the box more times than I’ve reached for my Hadrian’s Wall of beautiful, educational cookbooks. The child, it turns out, is me.
Regardless, my Instagram feed is filled with stoic sorts still laying down nutritional dinners night after night, but I do wonder what we are all actually, secretly eating now that food is being robbed of its places and people and times. Am I the only one skipping breakfast and finding solace in lunchtime crumpets with lemon curd? Or pre-steaming white rice, then eating it over the day with soy or chilli sauce and a scattered handful of spinach, or with oat milk and honey in a rudimentary rice pudding? My other half, Charles, appeared from the kitchen last weekend with a supermarket garlic bread that he’d “modified” to contain a star-shaped arrangement of fish fingers and chopped-up potato waffles.
“I’ve invented the answer to Covid,” he declared solemnly in front of the 9pm news, before devouring it with way more vigour than he does my serious cooking. I had the rest of the jelly babies and a glass of gavi. Instagram said we had pilaf.