First we eat and then we do everything else: Elliot Prior forgets then remembers food
It took 20 years for me to realise I had three opportunities a day to make something delicious. This fact may seem self-evident, but for me, it was revelatory. One year into my, largely unexploited, university career, bored of the procession of alcohol and processed food, I was restless to create something tangible, palpable and, well, nourishing. It was probably borne out of a self-imposed idleness and a willingness to structure my otherwise painfully shapeless days. Whilst reading Henry James was taxing in its own way, I felt a need for achievement, which wading through 19th century literature just couldn’t quite provide. However, the vacuum was quickly filled and there became hardly enough time to think of anything other than how I was going to feed myself.
Daily meals were to me simply food, fodder, fuel - something to maintain life and not a way of celebrating it. Food, stripped down to its barest essentials, is any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink or that which plants absorb in order to maintain life and growth. For me that meant an almost gravity-defying, heaped bowl of Cheerios at breakfast, a stale Sainsbury's sandwich at lunch; then without any thought, a chicken Kiev thrown into the oven for dinner, eaten in front of the television to accompany another evening drifting into insignificance. Life, just like the food I was eating had become a little tasteless. By some sort of divine intervention, at that moment of ennui, I was restored by a human and by food. I am now certain, that aside from being a nutritious substance, food can produce a strengthening, restoring and enriching of life before and after you have taken a bite.
Good food was central to my childhood. My mum is an excellent cook and most of the food I ate was lovingly handmade. I have halcyon recollections of slow Sunday mornings accompanied by American-style pancakes, the comforting tactility of late-night sticky chicken and the nascent days of early summer paired with chunky asparagus and topped with cracked black pepper and doused in golden and salty melted butter. We lived surrounded by agrarian dominance, I waved and chatted to the local butcher on my way to school, enjoyed the Friday morning vegetable stalls and was only exposed to fast food through the film ‘Supersize Me’, which we had recorded on tape. However, leaving home, I became completely detached from the increasingly clumsy food which sat on my plate. We must eat, but the importance of what we eat has to be learnt and consolidated. This does not have to be because it is ‘good’ for us, but instead it can be because of the hunger during the day, the joy of the making, the hedonism of the eating and its perennial ability to bring people together. As Virginia Woolf demanded, with her everlasting and impassioned honesty, “one cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
So why had I, or we, become so detached from what defines so much about us? Statistics show that we now only spend an average of 5 hours a week cooking, less than half the amount we did in the 1980s, compared to India where the average is 13 hours; we probably spend more time watching cooking shows than we do cooking. We have come to a point where only 22% of Britons would say they’re knowledgeable about food. Due to this, 1.6 million ready meals are said to be eaten in Britain per year; if we are not careful, we are going to lose this integral skill and culture of cooking for ourselves and for others. The power, predictably, has been given to industry and big business and if we don’t cook then they are happy do it for us with devastating effects on our health and the planet. It has become too convenient not to cook, we have outsourced our duty to nourish ourselves and it has had catastrophic consequences for the environment and our bodies. Lifestyle diseases, industrial farming, and intensively reared animals are all a consequence of losing this most important of skills. Michael Pollan, the creator of the fantastically condensed rule for eating: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”, called us to arms in his book ‘cooked’. He claimed, with his usual clarity, that cooking is "the most important thing an ordinary person can do to help reform the food system, to make it healthier and more sustainable" and to help "people living in a highly specialised consumer economy reduce their sense of dependence and achieve a greater degree of self-sufficiency". However, for me, the reason for restoring our love of cooking is about connection; cooking not only brings us closer together (as it always has), but it also re-establishes ourselves with our foundation: the natural world, the soil, and the food it produces. We need a clarion call, to reclaim what makes us.
The key to this food revolution will be making cooking communal, finding time to make food with friends and family, and allowing ourselves time to enjoy it. Once I started cooking for myself, I began cooking for others, and through cooking for friends I understood what MFK Fisher had described all the way back in 1963:
“one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.”
I felt that wish to nourish my beloved few, even if the beloved few had to endure some fairly catastrophic meals. After three years at university, I found myself living with my girlfriend and nine art students. The house was in a perpetual mess, you had to swim through rubbish to get to the kitchen: a twenty-first century No Man’s Land of leaking bins, broken beer bottles and mouse traps. And life didn’t get too much clearer on the other side. A Neanderthal would enter this house and complain of its barbarism. However, in this house I met Ben. Ben was a peroxide-blonde-haired Bristolian, who, when away from his skateboard, spent his time baking banana bread and braising beef. Ben had spent a lot of his time at university cooking for this ravenous assortment of artists and we quickly found each other as much-needed companions in the kitchen.
Ben and I spent most our weekends attempting to cook the cheapest and most delicious meals possible for the rest of the house. These meals would end as either catastrophic failures or culinary triumphs. Two particular disasters at dinner stick in the mind: a puff pastry chicken pie, which certainly lacked puff and was mercilessly wrapped in layers of uncooked pastry. The eaters ate and nodded, feigning enjoyment, but Ben and I knew that each bite was slimy and insipid, with a subtle taste of disappointment.
We were also given the envious task of cooking Christmas dinner - cooked in an oven which struggled to heat a baked potato; after 10 hours in kitchen Ben and I were left in a state of shock and exhaustion. When the food finally made its way to table, the last thing we wanted to do was eat. However, since, I have learnt to love an assortment of hungry flatmates, surprised family members, and friends. Fear keeps us out of the kitchen: when we lament ‘I can’t cook’, the world of industrial food rubs its hands together with glee, but making good food can be simple, enjoyable, and quick, and if it’s not, it makes for a good story. Food, as it has been said a million times before, brings us together, but perhaps that fact has become more prescient than ever. Cooking for one another is a tangible way of redirecting our daily lives towards each other and rebelling against the atomisation of our society.
The first thing to do is simply to start cooking and I cannot think of any better place to start than with pasta. The perpetual comforter, the weeknight nourisher, and the vegetable-versatile friend. Pasta, or ‘barley porridge’, as it was originally named, has satisfied civilisations across the world for centuries. In Greek mythology, a device created by Hephaestus sounded awfully similar to a pasta maker; evidence of fried wheat dough goes all the way back to the 1st century AD; and pasta was even used at one point as an edible container for food; but the Italian variety which the world has come to love arrived in the 13th century. The ability to store this most versatile of foodstuffs, dried and portable, led to its being taken on voyages to the New World and it never looked back. From the ships of the 15th century to the sitting rooms of the 21st, pasta has remained an integral part of the world’s diet.
I, like most students, loved the immediacy: the quick deliverance of a wholesome, hearty, and simple plate. A few good ingredients, 15 minutes, and a Jamie Oliver cookbook later, and I suddenly felt that magic of creation. However, as I slowly began to realise, it was the pasta water, long forgotten by the British, which provided the depth to a pasta dish. The emulsification of two liquids - fat and water amalgamated into one smooth, inseparable mix. It is a climactic moment, after tinkering and tasting your sauce to the point of perfection, time to throw the pasta and its beautiful juices into the pan. With this action the two are intertwined, combined, into a singular dish. After you master that, you have the foundation to a catalogue of delicious meals and will have taken a little bit of autonomy back from the industrial food system. Power to the pasta. Power to the people.
Cheese Pasta (Cacio e pepe)
Ingredients: Olive oil or butter, Parmesan, Pasta, Pepper.
This, as you can probably tell from the curious omission of ingredients, is a simple dish. It is the process of cooking pasta reduced to its purest principles, the blending of two liquids, fat and water, elevated and given structure by our good friend pasta. This is your groundwork, your guiding principle for any other pasta dish you wish to cook. Its humbleness and frugality are typical of Italian cuisine and any human wanting sustenance at the end of a long day. Use good cheese and good oil.
Put good quality pasta into a well salted pan of boiling water.
Heat butter or olive oil in your pan, on a medium/ low heat. Add a generous grind of pepper (I also enjoy the addition of rosemary or bay). Allow to simmer until the pasta is al dente (For the as of yet uninitiated, meaning still slightly firm.)
Scoop yourself a mugful of pasta water and grate yourself a generous handful of parmesan.
Now, here is when you learn the craft of emulsification. Take the pan off the heat, add the pasta to one half of the pan and the cheese to the other. Pour the cooking water in and mix it all together, either tossing in the pan or using a wooden spoon.
The final consistency should be loose, saucy and delicate.
- Elliot Prior