With the revelation of hindsight, its tempting to ascribe Damascene conversion status to minor events in your life which didn’t seem particularly relevant at the time. In the rewriting of my own personal history I have pinpointed two seismic events that made me interested in writing about food. The first was my obsessive reading of the feasts sections in the Redwall series; even the name ‘Vittles’ is an allusion to my identification with the greedy moles with their West Country burr, deep pies and shameless appreciation of eating (if you too are someone interested in food who read Redwall as a child, please message me -I have a theory). The second was my discovery as a teenager of a Wikipedia page called ‘Sandwiches That You Will Like’, named after a TV documentary of the same name. For the nation which supposedly invented the sandwich, we are blessed with relatively few versions of it that we can be proud of. Yet here was the entirety of Americana represented between two pieces of bread, all fiercely localised and debated over: the cheesesteak in Philly; pastrami in New York; the French Dip in Los Angeles. I learnt that many of these sandwiches were a by-product of immigration, and their character told stories about the cities they were invented in: the Italian Beef in Chicago, sliced thin by Italian labourers and served in its juice to make the meat go further; the St Paul served at Chinese takeaways to appeal to Mid-Western palates; the beef on weck, a remnant of German immigration that didn’t conquer the world like the Hamburger, but is no less delicious.
I was thinking about how formative this was recently because I have gained some minor following for the sandwiches currently coming out of my own kitchen on Instagram. What started as a joke has now become a very serious curation, a series of one-upmanship with myself. The sandwiches, whether they’re lamb keema sloppy joes, or mortadella with mam tep chung thit, are characterised by their demolition of cultural barriers in pursuit of deliciousness. They are slightly demented insights into my own personal cravings: I could not defend a sandwich of fishfingers, fishballs and melted Oglethorpe in a court of law. They are also stories of London: these sandwiches could not have been created anywhere else; the ideas for them have come from eating in London’s restaurants, the ingredients bought from London’s shops or even (in the case of the mam tep) from the restaurants themselves. They are my own answers to the questions I asked myself when I first read the ‘Sandwiches That You Will Like’ page: why doesn’t London have a sandwich like this, and if it did, what would it look like?
Fellow food writer George Reynolds has been doing the same thing over on his Instagram, although he hasn’t constrained himself to the medium of sandwiches. Big plate chicken fried with nduja and Catalyst’s coffee sriracha, the Pollo Feliz tortillas with bacon and egg; a pizza with Catalan ingredients. With no disrespect to either of us, I don’t believe these creations activate the part of our brain that can cook, but more the capacity that our minds have for depravity, via the diabolical assemblage of ingredients. It is a skill in itself. George’s newsletter today advocates what he calls ‘getting horny in the kitchen’ - to use this knowledge gained from eating out in restaurants to create our own misshapen offspring that only we can love. They may reveal slightly more about yourself than you want to, but that’s fine. This is the time to access that part of cooking that gives you pleasure - think about what you love, what you want to eat, and then make it, even if it might make a grandma somewhere cry.
Getting Horny In The Kitchen, by George Reynolds
In 2018 I wrote a piece for a very good US food website called TASTE, about something I called gross recipes. You probably have a gross recipe of your own, if you stop to think about it: a weird combination of ingredients that you can put assemble on autopilot, a bowl or plateful that comforts you in a way that no other dish could (you might, in fact, already have been subsisting on little else for the past few weeks). Mine was, and still is, a demented mash-up of a salade Niçoise and Italian tonno e fagioli; for the piece, I spoke to someone who did appalling things with eggs, cottage cheese, and maple syrup. You get the picture: these are not things you would serve to most other people, maybe not even those close to you.
This, of course, is part of the point of a gross recipe. So much of the cooking that takes place in the world today is either performative, at one extreme, or totally automated, at the other. So much of it requires making concessions – to other people’s tastes, or their dietary restrictions, or some totally arbitrary ideas of which ingredients belong where in what quantities. A gross recipe gives you the opportunity to reject all of this – to do something entirely for yourself, entirely on your terms, at a time and in a place entirely of your choosing.
What I’m not sure I realised at the time – but which the past few weeks have made clear to me – is that ‘gross’ was not quite the exact word to describe this kind of cooking (although if I dolloped my favourite fishy bean-mush in front of you, ‘gross’ would almost certainly be in the top five words you reached for). I think I missed the fact that gross cooking was just one strand of what I’m tentatively going to called ‘personal’ cooking.
To clarify: personal cooking is not what chefs on Great British Menu think of as personal cooking. Their dishes may emerge from family history, or autobiography, but are mediated through a flattering sheen of fine dining smoke and mirrors, with an intended final audience of banquet guests (in about 2025). Truly personal cooking is about cooking just for you, about your tastes bad as well as good – not just revealing them, but revelling in them.
Perhaps an example would be helpful. So: in the halcyon days before novel coronavirus was the all-encompassing nightmare it is now, I was driven mad by an idea I had sitting inside Turpan, a Uyghur restaurant located, improbably, in the shell of a fully-functioning traditional British-Italian café. You could have big plate chicken – but you could also have a fry-up, or a breaded chicken escalope. A plate of noodles arrived, looking uncannily like the pici I had enjoyed a few days earlier at Padella in Shoreditch, except doused in a reddish-brown sauce that itself looked uncannily like a chunkier version of something you’d eat in a 1980s Italian restaurant. In one of those weird happy collisions that tend to happen from time to time in a truly global metropolis like London, the two hemispheres – of the world, of my brain – came together in an instant: what if spaghetti Bolognese, but Uyghur?
This, I think, is closer to truly personal cooking – cooking as a mixture of self-expression and self-discovery. It can encompass a ‘project’ dish that takes multiple days to cook (might I suggest cassoulet as a wonderful time-suck); it can be as simple as a sandwich larded with every pickle, hot sauce and melty cheese currently taking up precious space in your apocalyptic fridge. It can entail getting seriously old-school and digging out your aspic-preserved Escoffier; it can involve a weird act of alternative historiography in which strands of the Uyghur diaspora found their way to Modena, and supplemented the ingredients that they found there with the spices and seasonings central to their culinary tradition.
Being neither Italian nor Uyghur, it was maybe a little easier for me to make this sort of mental leap without the stern ghost of a scandalised nonna staring down at me, but part of the joy approaching cooking like this – whatever your background – is that it affords you the freedom to do things you might never normally think permissible. The point is, it’s all about you: who you are as a person, who you are as a cook, how those things come together in what you want to see on a plate. What interests you; what weird mental runnels your imagination now has the time, space and seclusion to explore in their entirety.
The COVID-19 lockdown of Spring/Summer 2020 will doubtless, in time, come to be seen as the most fertile spawning ground for new gross recipes that we have ever seen. The raw materials are all there: millions of people bored witless by prolonged semi-incarceration; a period of mandated social isolation which keeps prying eyes and prissy dinner party guests out of the kitchen; pantries haphazardly stocked with whatever oddities were still left on the shelf during a 5PM Waitrose dry goods and Cooks’ Ingredients panic buy.
But there is also scope for us to embark on a much wider range of personal and creative culinary projects. When I originally sat down to write this, I had just flicked through Instagram and seen Guan Chua cook a Spam Sambal Cheese Sando; shortly afterwards, Nigella herself posted a recipe for what she called ‘Mexican lasagne’, a chaotic-good assemblage of tortillas, tinned tomatoes, red pepper, onion, chilli, corn and cheese that looked, in the best possible way, like four slices of Papa John’s pizza stacked on top of each other. In normal circumstances, it might be a dish that could inadvertently start a war; in the current feverish climate, where people in their kitchens are approaching cooking with the anything-goes gonzo enthusiasm that George Miller threw at the wardrobe choices in the Mad Max franchise, it felt almost reassuring to see Nigella get down and dirty with the rest of us.
I am no social scientist, but I am fairly confident the next few months will see a whole host of inter-flatmate hook-ups, for better or for worse, as low-key anxiety and high-key horniness mix with enforced indoor proximity to create a heady recipe for deviance. In much the same way, I wholeheartedly urge you: get horny in the kitchen, too. Work out what really turns you on, and cook it for yourself – not out of bullshit prayer-hand self-care Insta-nonsense, but because it will feel good, and sometimes that’s enough. We live, temporarily, in a world without restaurants; no one else is going to do this for you. Be the depravity you want to see in the world; go forth and satisfy.
Recipe: Uyghur Spag Bol
Olive oil, for cooking
Handful of spring onions, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 stick celery, diced
Fresh red and green chillies (quantity and type dependent on your tolerance for spice)
1 pack chestnut mushrooms, diced
A bowlful of lentils, cooked (I used the Beluga ones that come in a pack)
2 tbs Toban Djan chilli bean sauce
2 tbs Sichuan peppercorns, finely ground
2 tsps cumin powder
1 tin tomatoes
Half bottle red wine
Soy sauce and black pepper, to taste
The thing to note here is you are basically just making spag bol. Obviously you could use mince instead of the mushrooms / lentils); from experience I can attest it also goes great with tofu the next day.
So, sweat the onion / carrot / celery / chillies in some oil until soft. Put aside, and brown the mushrooms in more oil until really reduced and brown. Deglaze with a bit of the red wine. Add your spicy soffritto back to the pan; add lentils and the chilli bean sauce, Sichuan peppercorns, cumin and tomatoes. Mix it all together, add the red wine, and cook for as long as you can be bothered (the longer the better, as you want the lentils to really break down). Season with soy and black pepper and serve with pasta, noodles, or both.
George Reynolds is a food writer who writes for Eater London, Noble Rot and The Sunday Times, as well as his own blog http://www.egoscriptor.space/ . He donated this article to Vittles.
The illustration is by Reena Makwana https://reenamakwana.com/ . Reena was paid for her work.
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