Since the start of lockdown, my friend and I have been engaged in a continuous WhatsApp conversation about cravings. Food has always been the main topic of conversation, but it’s taken on a more urgent, desperate tinge over the past nine weeks as we are denied both each other’s company and any shared food experiences, one of life’s greatest pleasures.
Whether it’s a drive-through Maccy D’s eaten guiltily in the car after the gym, or a ‘quick glass of wine’ after work that turns into two bottles, a cheeseboard and dessert, food with friends tastes better, feels better, is better in almost every way. Our cravings updates are now coming in thick and fast, multiple times a day, and range from the familiar (Billie’s breakfast hash), to the extravagant (truffle crisps), to the highly specific (the Cubano from Chef).
At the start, we tried to be positive, optimistic, grateful. With no option to go out, we made elaborate plans for complex dishes, convinced ourselves we’d learn new techniques, memorise the flavour thesaurus, and easily recreate all our restaurant favourites at home. And for a while we did. Attempts were largely successful, made easier by the fact that restaurants have been generous in sharing their recipes online, and when you’ve got the time you can make the oils, purees, and crumbs that make restaurant dishes feel special.
Restaurants don’t guard the secret to good food (spoiler, it’s butter and salt, always), they just do it better, and they’re doing it for you. Nevertheless, I’ve made Chilli Pickle’s Kerala fish curry, Gail’s sweetcorn pancakes, yakisoba, a whole freezer full of fresh pasta, Cin Cin’s famous ‘crack crumb’, Pho’s bun noodle salad, one million Negronis, the obligatory Nandos – they all worked, they were all delicious, but none of them felt like the real thing.
Inevitably, the good weeks were punctuated with anxious and sad ones. In normal times, we’d pick a date, pick a restaurant, and we’d get through the day or week knowing that soon we’d have a glass in our hands, delicious food in front of us and time to unload. But we couldn’t do that anymore. This was when all the equipment and gourmet ingredients got pushed aside and the toddler food came out – and the sugar.
In a particularly bad week, as we waited for Rishi to decide if the self-employed would live or die, I lost myself to a brief but passionate love affair with potato waffles, the only deviation from my childhood ‘sulking food’ being the addition of sriracha. Later that month my friend got through an entire tub of clotted cream in 12 hours. It’s not surprising, food is comfort, after all. But if a toddler tea is the food equivalent of a hug from your mum, going to a restaurant feels like a mark of independence, autonomy and control. Whilst we’ve all been shut away trying to literally stay alive, actually living has taken a back seat.
But if a toddler tea is the food equivalent of a hug from your mum, going to a restaurant feels like a mark of independence, autonomy and control.
While we wait for that to change, I’ll continue to plan my first meal back, destined to be a multi-venue, all-day affair. The thought that any of the places on my longlist might not be there when we surface, ready to be fed, is hideous, so for now I’ll suck up the Deliveroo charges, buy the ‘restaurant ready meals’, watch every IGTV, like every post and queue up at Taj for overpriced ingredients. If any of our Brighton gems have empty seats at the end of all this, it’s not because they spilled their secrets on social media and now the whole city is whipping up osso buco at home for a Tuesday lunch, it’s because people turned their backs and tightened their belts when times were tough and forgot that food is literally life. What we’re all craving, I think, is some TLC, and restaurants know how to make you feel good – so when this is over, I don’t want to step foot in my kitchen for a long, long time.