Monday, January 29, 2007
Take a typical day of modern life. A man gets out of bed and the first thing he asks himself is: “why?” It’s not as if he really feels that there is any point to his job anymore. He can see right through his boss, knows full well he could run the place much better himself, and instead of giving the 110 percent he knows he’s capable of spends his days reading bullshit Internet news stories and torturing himself with the seemingly blissful existence and higher salaries of others around him. He knows that he has a greater purpose in life, of course, but is also cynical enough to realize that it isn’t going to be realized by spending all day sitting around this fucking Office whining.
So he takes up a personal-bettering hobby such as running to help focus the mind and to impart a sense of control over his life. Get a kick out of life, he reasons, by getting fitter and pumping some oxygen through his slowly decaying brain. And he spends a while on the treadmill, finding solace in the subtext of competition with other men in the Office. But he soon starts to feel terribly alone out there. It starts when he ceases to notice any further weight loss or toning, and continues until he admits to himself that the whole exercise has been a diversion to permit him to procrastinate over his exit strategy. He decides to throw himself into the work again in the hope that all the advice from friends and family and books and corporate art ‘that you only get out of life what you put in’ is really true. And the whole cycle starts over again, trundling mercilessly down a bland and heartless suburban cul-de-sac.
But what if he had something so great to look forward to each day that it turned his in-tray into a fucking advent calendar? Something which at the same time allowed him to really set himself apart from the pack because he knew that he was the only one doing it; something whose effects continued to fuck with his dopamine receptors well into the following day, providing a welcome disembodiment from his work yet simultaneously giving him more incentive than ever to get through it so that he can enjoy his reward guilt-free at the end of it. With exercise you get the precise opposite effect – nothing to look forward to but pain and cold sweat, and an enlivened brain which only serves to make more stark the mediocrity of your 9-5 existence.
He has, of course, found drugs and alcohol. Everyone is doing it to some level -- just think of the atmosphere after four o’clock on a Friday afternoon as the smoke-filled, decibel busting, suit-filled bar looms. Behaviour becomes more animated with every degree the minute-hand traces, the scene quickly verging on one of lost panic as people start to readjust to their real selves in preparation for the weekend. But sitting there quietly knowing that he is going to get even more wrecked than all of them, in infinitely better comfort and grander style than the meat market of a city-centre pay-day post work session and also using illegal, if soft and recently declassified, drugs brings a sense of calm and inner peace. And when he does arrive home to familiar familial surroundings and starts to get himself into a proper nick, he wallows self-satisfied in just how ahead-of-the-game he is and, more importantly, redeems his sense of individuality.
This can go on for years, his fogging brain finding it increasingly hard to make anything more of the job and causing him to miss out on all opportunities to progress or bolt. For this stuff doesn’t come for free. The paranoia starts to show itself and he begins to think that everyone knows he’s stoking his hash pipe in the gents’ before he heads home of an evening and then nipping into the newsagent’s for a couple of journey-cans. Before he knows it he has become so used to the effects of being high that the incentive to get through the day becomes less and less. His nerves start to shatter and the paranoia spreads to the family, shrinking the Safety Zone until it is no more appealing than the Office he was trying to escape in the first place. Soon he can face neither, and the only hope of averting the mid-life crisis is to sign up for a much better hydroxyl compound.
Suddenly take the drink and drugs away, however, and the scene looks even more desolate. For his mind will be fucking dross and the job still in the troughs of bare necessity that it was left in the day before, and not just for a few days. Indeed, time appears to slow to a virtual singularity while space takes on a cold and portentous light, the objects within it sharper and more menacing than he recalls. All a sensate occupant can do is sulk and snarl and drown itself in the gross unfairness of the world.
And then the punch-line starts to rear its demonic head, only our shell of an individual is now incapable of appreciating the tragic humour. It was cigarettes all the time that he was missing, that he was trying to replace, first with harder drinking and then with regular cannabis abuse. The master of all addictions has worked its magic so savagely that he hadn’t even noticed. But in fact all he wants is a fag and, deluded with the partial progress he has made towards conquering what he deemed much more serious addictions, the idea of sparking one up has lost all taboo and sense of failure. It seems so harmless in comparison. It would be the right thing to do in order to keep everyone happy, he reasons. And he suddenly realizes that he doesn’t know who or how many were listening to the giant conversation that has been going on in his own head for several years.
A true masterpiece of the self.
Thursday, January 25, 2007
What you do is this. Go into your nearest supermarket, probably a Tesco, and pick up a half-shoulder of lamb on-the-blade. Pause for a moment to ponder why there is nothing but
Take out and admire an array of blunt and heavy implements. Then smash up a fuck-load of garlic and pound some chilli, lots of it. Use a rake of chillies, dried, fresh, mix them up, it doesn’t matter. Just guess at how much you want to suffer and then add some more. Pulverise some coriander and fennel seeds, plenty of both. You must work as fast as you can to ensure you are running on your innate sense of reason and gut-feeling only; it is vital that you measure nothing. Smell the seeds to find out how much you want them, forget about the chillies, don’t shy away from the garlic. Mix it all together with some oil, salt and lemon to form a thick paste and then launch a frenzied stabbing attack on your shoulder. Rub into the dry wounds and spaces between fatty layers your gritty potion, and throw the job into the oven for a slow 2-hour roast.
Forget about your dinner. Do something less boring instead, such as install a dishwasher. But when your eyes start to water and you start to feel something tickle and rasp in the back of your throat, it’s time to sweat some onions and any celery, leeks or carrots that you have to hand, in oil in a large heavy pan. This is your pot, and it needs to be big. After a while throw in a little more fennel, coriander and chilli, but most importantly a load of turmeric. Let it all cook away until it smells like curry and has taken on a good deep yellow colour, and then tip in a good couple of cupfuls of water and let it boil. Empty-in your spinach, put the lid back on, and set about hacking the meat from the shoulder into rough chunks, fat, gristle and all. Throw it all into the pan along with the naked blade, making sure all is just submerged, and then top with a pound of peeled King Edwards chopped in half. A handful of salt, a lid, and back into an even slower oven for another two hours.
It doesn’t matter what you do next. Your house will slowly fill from bottom to top with deep meaty and spicy odours. After an hour, stop what you are doing to check things haven’t gone awry, spooning a few pools of sheepy fat over the tatties. Then, when the end is near, retrieve again your pot, transfer the surprisingly crispy potatoes to somewhere warm (i.e. the oven), remove the bone, stir in some yoghurt and any creamed coconut you might have, and return to the oven for five minutes to melt into a pale orange and green sludge while you roughly chop large handfuls of coriander.
You are ready to spoon it all into large bowls and eat. And you will find meat that falls apart at the mere prod of your fork, yellowing tatties full of unexpected earthy flavour, and a thick fatty sauce that warms and refreshes in equal doses. The unparalleled soothing qualities of the meal, you realize with smug self-satisfaction, are down to the lack of metrology. You are surprised by how good it has turned out, and will remember next time what needs to be adjusted to perfect your brew. What’s more, you will never again consider the twenty-fifth of January fit for Haggis.
Sunday, January 21, 2007
I should have just plumped the bastard into a pot with some veg and wine and let it roast away all afternoon. That’s what I should have done under the circumstances. But, of course, I was not thinking straight on account of my straightness. So unfortunately, while standing there with my hand up the bird’s arse retrieving its giblets, I started imagining prepping the bird as I may have done had I been up to my eyeballs in super-hybrid skunk. I’ll roast it with tarragon butter under the skin, I thought, packed full of a rich bacon, liver & herb stuffing and served with root vegetables roasted beneath it in the slow drips of fowl fat, an “independent gravy” tying it all together for its place at the Sunday family table that I wearily attempt to resuscitate from one week to the next.
But I wasn’t firing on all cylinders, and before long the scene before me was one of cowboys & Indians scrapping over chopped liver. There were herbs all over the place and pieces of misshaped onion, too many knives and pans and evidence of indecision everywhere I looked. All the while I was becoming more and more angry for having made it so unnecessarily difficult for myself (it’s not as if anyone else gave a shit). It was as if I was trying to follow a badly written recipe or something. I just couldn’t get into it. Nothing felt right. And it came as no great surprise that I could barely summon the motor skills to spoon it into my face when the time came.
The stuffing was too strong and, I suspect, undercooked. Moreover, it lacked the crucial crispy coating that had tricked me into thinking the job was a good’un when I fried off a quick sample. The skin on the bird was not crispy enough, and the tarragon butter (a freebie from the Shop) had lent a claggy, bitter taste to both the flesh and the unsuspecting vegetables beneath.
As for the independent gravy, it was a waste of fucking time. Sacrificing any hope the bird had of producing a sauce for some grease-coated carrots, courgettes and potatoes, I browned the neck and a good handful or two of diced carrots, onions and celery, then deglazed with plenty white wine and cooked it all up with water and a fat bouquet garni for a half an hour before pressing it through a sieve. It made perfect sense, but I might as well have mixed a reconstituted Knor stock cube into a pasty roux for all the effect it had on my internal well-being.
The worst, however, was still to come - and it was much worse than I could have imagined. It meant I would not be able to eat for five whole days, nor participate in any task, trip or conversation for more than five minutes before having to run to the nearest porcelain bowl to jettison another 2-300mls of hot liquid faeces. I was as sick as a pike. I had given myself salmonella.
At least, that was my diagnosis. The medical establishment would have asked for all manner of stool samples that would have to be left under a heat lamp for a week before I could possibly be told what was in there, not to mention fobbing me off with helpful suggestions about the possible route of infection such as the usual Office air-con et cetera. But a modicum of cerebral activity pointed directly to the Fucking Chicken. Apart from the fact that those bastards are all full of the stuff, especially happy flappy farmyard ones like mine was, it was the only explanation as to why nobody else around me had got lucky too. Being too liver-like, the Wife hadn’t touched the lukish-warm stuffing that had been nestling up close to the unwashed walls of the body cavity for a good 45 minutes in bacterial-multiplication heaven. The children neither. And in a last attempt at making me feel that my sober efforts had been worthwhile I had decided to make a show of stuffing as much of it down me as I could (which wasn’t much) at the table. I have only ever poisoned myself once before now, and that was pale in comparison.
But somewhere in the midst of crippling stomach cramps, dry-retching and almost hallucinogenic headaches, I received frustrating confirmation that my sobriety is having and adverse affect on my home life and, importantly, on the way I cook. I received a little green present from the neighbour, a pipe or two of dried up old skunk. And thought - for Christ’s sake - that the world owed me that much. And even through the mist of my diarrhoea delirium, I suddenly felt alive and well. Within a few hours I was throwing out effortless bowls of impeccably seasoned fish curry followed by sexy squares of warm treacle tart with thick dollops of clotted cream, and by the time my serendipitous stash had run out we had put away plates of prime veal & pork sausages & mash with a blood-red sauce made from the best part of a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and tubs of beef and veal stock, garnished with char-grilled courgettes and tomatoes. And before I had time to fully experience the unparalleled glow that such ingredients bring to a cold January soul, it was back to the numbing reality of porcelain, dihydrocodeine and electrolytic sports drinks.
Saturday, January 13, 2007
Ostensibly, I was marking an end to the festive cholesterol with a trip for some fish and chicken. Chicken? By the time I had got myself through the Shop doors, hovered towards the meat counter, and pointed wearily to an oven-ready carcase it was too late. One fresh fat winter mackerel and ten quid later, my fate was sealed.
I got back to the safety of my void-like home and rushed the ingredients into the fridge before I had a chance to get out the knife. And after spending some time pretending to consider the meal I would make, when in fact all I could think about was the fact that by the time I came to eat it I would be feeling exactly the same as I was now, decided it would make good use of my disembodied hands to throw together as quickly as I could some sort of one-dish baked mackerel affair.
It is obvious when you should stop cooking when you find yourself chopping roughly and unevenly your vegetables without a care in the word. It takes no more time to prep them properly, to normalize their cooking times and render them appealing on the plate. But like wrecking your own bedroom in the search for the sock that you know must exist, the sight of your cowboy cutting sends you up and produces dregs of inspiration such as throwing a few sliced parsnips into the fray and scattering the whole fucking lot with cumin and fennel seeds. As for the fish, it seemed ridiculous not to snip off its tail and leave it looking just slightly deformed, for I would be so fucking straight by the time it came down to eating it that I’m sure I would hardly notice.
It was all over within five minutes, the dish in the oven leaving time once again to fidget and twitch and snap at anyone crossing my path. And after an attempt at making presentable the pile of veg by tossing it in some, err, al dente sliced spring greens, I remembered why I don’t like mackerel cooked on the bone. It is too oily and claggy and bursting with fishy fat, made more sickly thanks to the sweet cumin and parsnip slices, nothing in the meal holding together and cruelly hammering home my feeling of fractional existence.
But nothing that fish could do could have prepared me for the chicken.
Saturday, January 06, 2007
It occurred to me that I haven’t properly suffered the harsh light of day for several years, whereby I am not either under the influence or comforted by the imminent prospect of being so. Nowhere is this more evident than in my kitchen. A bottle of Red oils the cogs of a weekend roast; a chilled opened White turns the fridge into a secret lucky dip; a stiff vodka tonic jumpstarts a midweek pasta special; while a blast of White Widow magically transforms the mundane into a joyous moment of self-congratulation. None of this was around, however, to take the edge off this particular Friday night.
Instead, I got through the boredom and pointlessness of my meal prep (I wasn’t even hungry - I just wanted to gorge myself on SOMETHING) by imagining a moment when things will be different. Saturday & Sunday mornings, I thought as I fried some smoky chunks of bacon for my eggy pasta bowl, were so much more relaxed now because I didn’t have to try and find ways of putting off the start of the day’s drinking or smoking; my ability to spend freely on the best food I can get my hands on, I told myself as I tossed in some black olives and garlic, would not exist if I had a two- to three-hundred quid intoxication bill each month; and one day, I mumbled out loud while stirring some milk and grated parmesan into a beaten egg, I would get back that feeling I had as a kid before I drank or smoked and never saw the point of either.
Unconvinced, I sat in front of YouTube all night slurping down great forkfuls of olive- and rocket-enhanced carbonara, trying to manage the sporadic microsecond moments of excruciating anger and frustration by actively telling myself to remain calm and ride them out. They’re not physical junky pangs, of course, just occasional peaks of white noise that threaten to take over and turn a Friday night into what it always was and should be.
And then I found myself lying in bed, tossing and turning and stuffed full of eggs and cheese, thinking hard about the story of a man who drank 100 units of alcohol on Wednesday. New Year is only now beginning to taper off in the Highlands, and tales of horrific abuse spread out over several days will have been widespread. But at 33 times the recommended maximum intake, 100 units in one session - imbibed in the form of three bottles of red, 15 pints of lager and a good few drams - is surely a record breaker. It sickens me to think about that. But not nearly as much as it does to know so well just how much craic I missed out on by not being there with him in that tiny, fucking bar on a dark and otherwise lifeless post-Hog evening.
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
I mean, the place is famously pricey so it wasn’t surprising to find a car park full of Mercedes and SUVs and a shop floor teeming with well-out-of-season tans. It was the expressions of disgust-in-waiting that these people were wearing as they pushed harassed through the empty aisles, however, that caught me unawares (the same one they wear on the street in preparation for the lonely cyclist, who they would rather see mangled before them in pile of twisted flesh and metal than share their pavement when the 2.63m cycle lane along side comes to an unexpected end in the middle of a busy dual carriageway). The women looked like Cruella De Vil on imaginary missions to out-buy each other, while the markedly fewer blokes were the bulging-belly-beneath-hand-made-shirt types in search of meat and bargain clarets. There were a few sandal wearers in amongst it too, but you had to look twice to notice them.
The contrast with my local Tesco couldn’t have been more rude, with a distinct lack of doughy midrift, nothing in the way of sickly sweet alcoholic sweat, no babbling Poles with baskets of battery eggs perusing own-brand forty-ouncers of vodka and, most sadly of all, not a single smile in the aisles. I could draw some crass conclusion from my trip that money can’t buy you happiness. But that’s just not true. These people were just as bothered as they always were, like I am, yet have perhaps bought-out the ability to reflect on this and have a good old laugh at themselves.
Going to a new supermarket is always an exciting experience, but one which is short-lived as it dawns on you just how much your diet and cooking is defined by powers outside your control.
Seeing as fish is pretty hard to come by at this time of year, however, I thought I would take advantage of the Waitrose fish counter by picking up a fillet of smoked haddock for a Cullen skink (bizarrely, the only other item the “fishmonger” had on display apart from some overpriced and far too old tuna loin was three rows sardines standing upright like miniature obelisks, frozen solid with their tails snipped for ease of insertion). And then, in all the excitement of flicking through the supermarket’s exceedingly glossy magazine, I went and left the bastard haddi at the checkout.
Angry with myself for not being able to present my family with a hot bowl of thick fish soup to counter the chilly January air, I decided instead to substitute the fish for the scraggy leek in the fridge and to make the best fucking leek & tattie soup the world has ever seen.
So I fried some thick bacon chunks with cross-sections of leek until they were good and brown and transferred them to a plate while I set some chopped leek and half an onion sweating in the pan and peeled four maris pipers and half an ex-festive parsnip for sweetness. Next went in a pint or two of aromatic veg stock. It may have looked like manky tap-water ice when I hacked up and threw large chunks of it into the pan, but once it started to melt it underwent a magical transformation to cloves, star anise, apple, leek, onion, celery, bay, parsley ….
Half an hour later I blitzed the lot into a silky smooth soup, slipped in the plate of leek and bacon and adjusted the seasoning (read: threw in an ungodly quantity of Maldon). It was tasty and wholesome, and the leeks had taken on a strong hint of peanut. We dressed it ourselves at the table from a bag of roquette and a small bottle of truffle oil, ate it mostly with our hands with hunks of crusty white bread, Nige-style. It would have been the greatest leek and tattie soup had I fucked-in some double cream too.
Tuesday, January 02, 2007
It didn’t help either that every single newspaper I glanced at to try and take my mind off the nasty taste of modern life was offering twenty or more ways to create the new 2007 you. Coping with booze and food featured large, of course, with one rag offering a few special “advice from the experts” boxes to help us along. But the relevance of this for civil servant Geoff, 44, from Newcastle -- who had recently vowed to try to address his six-pint a day habit with the help of Leigh Clarke of the North East Council on Addictions – is highly questionable.
In the left-hand column there was Geoff describing how surprised he was that his newfound alcohol diary rang up an impressive 86 units on his first week, followed by his pride and satisfaction that he managed to get it down to 55 the following week: “If I get it down to 40, I'll be happy,” he added. But this is hardly going to cut the mustard for Leigh who, in the adjacent column, spends most of the small space available telling us yet again that the safe weekly limit for men is 21 units, and that anything more than 3 or 4 units in one sitting [i.e. a pint and a half of Stella] constitutes a “binge”. So Geoff is a chronic binge drinker who I can only guess, according to national health guidelines, is already dead.
I left the Office arrived home the same me, or at least that’s what I am telling myself. In fact, for the first time in several months tonight my brain will not be enjoying the thoughtful detachment provided by increasingly large doses of tetrahydrocannabinol, knowing full well as I do that I have been using this increasingly as a dangerous replacement for drink in the last few months. Strangely, the papers contained not a single mention of how one might go about coping with such a loss.
And if food&cooking is to be my escape then I shall need to come up with a slower meal than tonight’s leftovers of prime rare ribeye and a great little salad made by tossing small florets of al dente broccoli, a few fine beans, some leek, rocket, dill and tarragon in a mustardy dressing. It only took five minutes to prepare.
Monday, January 01, 2007
For there wasn’t much other than a table there. It was almost a proper Highland Hogmanay in fact, with people sitting around sober with all the lights on and the only action being the occasional rapid and synchronized right-arm-raising of three ugly men and the sparking up of the odd heavy Eastern European fag. Admittedly this action became more frequent and animated as the night wore on, and suddenly they had got enough inside them (about two litres) to be able to launch some extremely large rockets by hand in the street out front. Trying to explain why you don’t drink in such circumstances is futile to say the least, especially when you have less than a dozen words in common of which most relate to drink anyway.
So the first and least surprising hurdle I came up against on this annual celebration of alcohol was the disheartened feeling that, culturally, the human race was missing out here. Had I been drinking, naturally, the evening would have been very different indeed: language wouldn’t even have entered into it after a while, and we would have stumbled or been carried to our beds buoyed every so slightly by the bonds we had made. It would have made us happier neighbours. Because in the main it doesn’t matter a flying fuck where you come from once the playing field has been levelled by a few bottles of hard spirits.
The next hurdle, however, was much more of a struggle. There was nobody around by me and the Wife; it was one minute to ; and I had in my hand a heavy bottle of good, cold
This morning I felt better about it. It was nice to be up doing things with the children early in the morning in the knowledge that there wasn’t a single person in the world right now who is likely to call or knock on the door. I hung around in my all-round dish-cloth again, nipping outside in the crisp quiet air with my coffee for a strong blast on the last of the grass, before returning to my prep.
It didn’t take long at all to slice a few carrots, sprouts and greens, parboil some tatties and boil up some shallots, rosemary and peppercorns in some red wine. So I for the eldest to help me make a buttery apple and apricot crumble too, the topping made from equal ratios and full of toasted almond flakes.
Once again I was cooking as if for a family of 6-8, when the reality was that my only dining partner was lying crippled upstairs and would probably still be in her dressing gown by the 3pm schedule. I mean for fuck’s sake, I had before me a bloody 1.5kg rib roast. Those bastards always look smaller in the shop, but I suppose I should have noticed when it rang up £20 on the scales – all measly one-rib of it. It is really tricky to cook such a thin slice, so I chucked it on the rack with a good hand-full or two of floury tatties, parsnips and some smoked bacon chunks that needed to go, all of it waiting below the sprawling joint for the beefy baste of sweet yellow fat, and cooked it for 40 minutes. I don’t fully understand why, but there is something incredible beefy about a rib roast, the eye having the texture and bite of fillet yet tasting like the darkest marbled steak you’ve ever had. The sauce was equally meaty, based on a tub of veal stock and good red wine. All roast dinners look the same after a while, even if they are traditional New Year’s Day affairs.