For a few weeks we haven’t been able to escape each other or ourselves or our own terrible cooking. But at least the celery soup is a prison of my own making.
Read more from the lockdown letters here.
I’m not a good cook. “What’s for lunch?” my workmate Kirsten used to ask, as I emptied a cold slithering mass from a container and into a bowl in the office kitchen. “Just, uh . . . a big ol’ pile o’ veg.” And so it was. My thing is the pile o’ veg. Or more simply, the pile o’. Nothing more, nothing less. Something you can eat with one hand, with a fork, elbow propped on your knee.
My palate has been in lockdown for years, only venturing beyond its neighbourhood out of obligation. But for the past few weeks, at level four, the pile o’ has not satisfied. I think lots of us have been asking much more of our meals. We want from them feelings of purpose – of having arrived. We want them to reassure us that we know what we’re doing. But most of all we demand that they be really delicious.
Since a lot of the other pleasures are on the sidelines, we really need this one thing to perform. If you make a bad meal, the day might not be ruined exactly, but some of its lightness will be gone. The day’s childhood is abruptly over. You might as well go to bed. Seinfeld has that old bit about how he enjoys adulthood because it means he can intentionally ruin his own appetite whenever he wants. “Even if you ruin an appetite, there’s another one coming up right behind it. There’s no danger of running out of appetites. I’ve got millions of them, I ruin them whenever I want.”
It’s true, but when you’ve ruined an appetite with a bad meal, you really feel the loss of it, no matter how many more you’ve got. And the next one seems so far away, in an unimaginable future.
At the supermarket I reached out and touched a bushel of celery. I can’t explain why it happened. I’ve been good at not touching things, so it was a freak incident. I didn’t want the celery but I felt obliged to buy it.
The celery was about the size of the America’s Cup and it wouldn’t fit in the fridge, so I chopped most of it up and improvised a soup. While making the soup, and this was my first mistake, I listened to an episode of Where Should We Begin? with the psychotherapist Esther Perel, in which she was counselling a couple in lockdown with their three children in a small apartment in Sicily. They’d been emotionally disconnected for years but they were trying to hold things together for the sake of the kids. He did most of the housework and cooking, while she worked as a midwife at a hospital.
“What’s the one thing that you’ve been wanting to say to her?” Esther Perel asked the husband. This was the first time she’d done a remote therapy session – usually the sessions are recorded in her office in New York, and you could hear sirens and construction noise in the background. And the husband said, directing his reply to his wife: “One thing that I wanted to say to you? I miss you. I miss you. I miss you. I know – I mean, I know I can’t just say I miss you and then you come back suddenly. But I miss you and I want you. I want to be with you. You know, somewhere along the line, we were together and then somewhere, something happened and we weren’t together any more.”
The podcast was not good to cook to. It was too sad. I turned it off and tried to reconnect with the soup, but it felt like it was too late, even though I tried to do all the right things. I even put onions in it, and normally I won’t go near an onion. Plenty of stock, salt, pepper, olive oil. Potatoes. Somehow the potatoes didn’t take. The problem, in the end, was the fact of the celery. So much celery. That was all there was, finally. No escape. We were stuck with each other. The next day it tasted a little bit better though, as if it was making peace with itself. I’m about a third of the way through, and can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Back when I ate meat, around 1994, some friends and I would send ourselves into reveries talking about “KFC skin”. We just wanted the skin of the chicken – the greasy, crispy bits. None of the rest of it: just the skin. “KFC skin,” we’d hiss at one another, like vampires who never reached their full potential, “KFC skin.” We would taunt my vegetarian friend – who, with her mum, were the only vegetarians in the town at that time. My friend would plead with us to stop. We were idiots. Food held such power over us, and meat always won – always. The power of KFC was also to do with its scarcity: to get it you had to leave town and go to Te Awamutu or Hamilton, and you needed someone’s mum or dad to drive you. So you had to look forward to that meal with total derangement, and then you had to make yourself sick, or it wouldn’t be worth it. Lolling in the back of the car, groaning “I’m never eating again” – that was our freedom and it was incredible.
On Tuesday the 28th, when we go to level three the first thing I’ll get will be a mixed veg kebab from, if they’re working, Café Laz in Newtown (a kebab is essentially a pile o’, but with the friendly delivery mechanism of the pita bread). But people seem really excited about KFC, and it’s made me think of that skin again. How all it took to strengthen the bonds of friendship was to hiss, “KFC skin”. And how KFC is still, even now, a symbol of freedom and uncomplicated joy. It doesn’t make much sense when you consider KFC’s track record of treating its employees badly and, well, I get that many people aren’t as bothered about this as I am, but I don’t agree with their guiding philosophy of killing hundreds of millions of chickens – which live brief, miserable lives – every year.
Still. Food is incredibly powerful, and historically we’ve allowed ourselves to overlook things like this or to convince ourselves we’re fine with it. The words that echo down the years – endlessly, endlessly, passed from generation to generation with love and kindness – are “it’s yum tho”.
For a few weeks we haven’t been able to escape each other or ourselves or our own terrible cooking. But at least the celery soup is a prison of my own making. I want to think differently about freedom, when it comes again. What it is built on. What it knows but ignores. What I can do with mine.