I have a vinegary-faced neighbour called Margaret. ‘My friends call me Mags,’ she would trill in her flutey telephone voice. I, affectionately, called her Mad Mags but we’re back to Margaret these days if we’re back to anything at all. The joke was always lost on her, anyway. She is 60-ish, looks 90-ish, and is as thin as gruel. She’s started a war with me, I don’t know why. Neighbours. I won’t go into the dull details, but recently she faked shingles so she wouldn’t have to sit in a room with me. She is beyond the Thunderdome, if you ask me.
When I first moved here she courted me. She was eager to be my friend. She’d invite me for coffee and breakfast. Let’s go to a café, she’s say, let’s have lunch. One evening she invited me for dinner. Her husband, Jim, and my lovely neighbour, Graham, were also there. I can’t remember why Graham’s wife Sue wasn’t. First up was broccoli soup. The jury will accept that it was made from broccoli – it was overcooked broccoli colour, anyway; khaki. It had been made with water and I don’t think anything else, not even seasoned, then liquidised. I quite like broccoli these days, but it always needs something. It has to come come with garlic, anchovy and chilli for me to love it.
I asked Margaret for salt. She told me salt was bad for me and that was that.
We discussed her vegetarianism. Why do vegetarians want to talk about vegetarianism every time they’re eating? The answer may be found in the question, I’m sure. Margaret calls herself a vegetarian but isn’t. She eats fish. A vegequarian as one once named himself to me. I don’t know why fish don’t count as animals. They have faces, don’t they? And dreams and hopes and feelings like the rest of us, don’t they?
Then Margaret delivered a dish that she called tartiflette but no Frenchman would. Nor would I. I hope you wouldn’t, either. Gloopy potatoes, both under- and over-cooked, skimmed milk, and – crucially – NO BACON. She reminded us she’s a vegetarian. I remembered Anthony Bordain’s thought that there’s no vegetable that isn’t improved by the addition of some bacon. I cried on the inside. Mmm, I said, so filling, leaving as much as I dared.
Finally, pudding! Unsweetened stewed apples, not even a raisin to add any sunshine. It looked like the tartiflette that wasn’t a tartiflette’s undernourished cousin. I made a peanut butter sandwich when I got home.
If I live another twenty-five years I will eat fewer than thirty thousand meals. If even one of them is like the one I ate at Margaret and Jim’s that night my life will feel very long and miserable, indeed.
Is it rude to leave food your host has served you? They’ve thought about what to give you, shopped for it, prepared it. It hasn’t just appeared. Isn’t it ruder to give your guest food like that? That meal was the worst meal I’ve eaten in my life and, believe me, my family is full of terrible cooks. I was once a terrible cook. I still make meals that are inedible, sometimes. I try to work out what went wrong and make a peanut butter sandwich to replace it. You work on it, you improve. You don’t invite people over to show off your cooking magic. You don’t need them to think you’re the love child of Auguste Escoffier and Fanny Craddock. But you do want them to enjoy themselves and what you give them to eat. You want good conversation and good jokes and the meal is a lubricant to that. You don’t have to stuff a swan with a peacock, it just has to taste nice, be easy to eat, even be good to eat. Be edible, at least. Not be gloop.
When I started writing this I thought it was going to be about vegetarianism, maybe vegiquarianism and my horrible neighbour Margaret. But that isn’t what made the meal so awful. It wasn’t Margaret’s complete lack of cooking skills or even her terrible taste (literally, I mean, not the curtains she has, although they’re ugly, too). What made the meal so awful was the total lack of joy in its preparation, its presentation and its consumption. I often eat without meat. If you think a meal has to have meat as its focus you only need look at Yotam Ottolenghi’s books to change your mind. Margaret hadn’t enjoyed cooking for us and doesn’t enjoy eating. She once told me she finds pleasure unimportant, feels bad for feeling good. She may need seven years with a decent shrink, it’s not for me to say. But that attitude isn’t uncommon. The people who feel that way should go to restaurants with their friends, order fish and chips, walk in the park eating ice cream, anything but hate cooking food that everyone hates eating.
There is no gesture more basic to humankind that asking your neighbour, a friend, your family, even a stranger, to sit at your table and share your food. But to do it without generosity, without pleasure, without joy is an insult to your guests and an insult to all the people who worked hard to grow that food, let alone to any animal that gave up its life to feed you. The least you can do is to cook it well and enjoy it.