The No Recipe Man: The perils of potential


Posted by in February's Magazine

Alpha Centauri: You don’t want to go reaching for that

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You should stay away from your potential. It’s potential – leave it! And anyway, it’s like your bank balance – you always have much less than you think. You don’t want to find out that the most you could possibly achieve, if you gave it your all, would be eating slightly less cheesy snacks.”

I’ve quoted Dylan Moran on these pages before, but given the undeniable gravity of the matter at hand, I make no apology for doing so again. And should you be at all inclined to doubt the wisdom of the sage of Morningside, ask yourself this: who was it that urged us to embrace the opposite view and “reach for the stars”? S Club 7, that’s who – and they cynically neglected to mention that even if we stood on tiptoes, our starward reach would still come up a good 25 trillion miles short of Alpha Centauri. Even the staunchest optimist would struggle not to be a touch disheartened by that statistic.

Nonetheless, in defiance of all probability and logic, most of us choose to align ourselves with Club S rather than Team Moran. Never mind what’s genuinely feasible: let’s focus our attention on what’s just about once-in-a-blue-moon-possible, then react with horror and teeth-gnashing when it fails to come to pass. But it would be harsh to pin all responsibility for our collective self-delusion on those fun-loving late-90s popstrels – it’s only fair that the Great British Bake Off should take its share of the blame.

The parallels between S Club 7 and Bake Off are as startling as they are underexplored. Both are enduring British institutions on a par with Thora Hird and casual post-pub violence. Both have painstakingly cultivated images of cheery innocence, punctuated in one case by a police caution for drug possession and in the other by the perpetual presence of a sinister, growling Scouser. (I forget which is which.) And the appeal of both is predicated on the viewer’s barely suppressed wish that the hopes and dreams of all involved will unravel into spectacular public disaster.

When we watch Bake Off – as I’ve become inclined to do myself, despite all my best intentions – is it so that we can admire the skill and artistry of the participants? Is it bollocks. It’s because of the suspense created by the faint possibility of unlikely triumph, set against the overwhelming likelihood of everything going to shit. And that would be absolutely fine, if only we took the correct life lessons from it. But when we subsequently find ourselves in the position of cooking to impress, which path do we follow? The rational one of working within our own realistic limits? Of course not – all we remember is that one time in a thousand when someone’s ludicrously overambitious Showstopper actually came off. And if they can do it – once, against all odds, and with vastly greater skills, experience, equipment and know-how – then why the hell can’t we?

Good cooking – or should I say, successful cooking – has more to do with acknowledging limitations than maximising possibilities. Set out to make the most ambitious, spectacular meal you possibly could, and you never know: you might absolutely nail it. Far more likely, though, is that you’ll fatally poison your nearest and dearest, unless you happen to pre-empt that by burning the house down while attempting to flambé an artichoke. Either way, everybody will die, you’ll serve a lengthy stretch for manslaughter, and on release you won’t be allowed within 200 yards of a cooking appliance for the rest of your days. Honestly, it’s just not worth the risk.

And if that all sounds faintly depressing, console yourself with this: most of the limitations within which you cook have absolutely nothing to do with your own skills, or lack thereof. You’re also restricted by time, resources, inclination and money, among countless other things. Even Tom Kitchin would struggle to rack up a Michelin star if he was armed with a butter knife, a camping stove and a colossal overdraft. In the main, your limitations aren’t your fault – so they’re not to be ashamed of but to be embraced. If you know you can make a cracking beef stew, why would you choose to take a hopelessly optimistic punt at a thrice-cooked Armagnac-glazed crab soufflé, to be delivered under extreme stress to Bake Off-esque time limits? Instead, visit the best butcher you know and pick up their cheapest, tastiest lump of cow. 

The evening before the event, cook the stew at happy leisure, taste it, adjust it and leave it in the fridge overnight for the flavours to mingle just as you hope your guests will. Buy the nicest bottle of wine you can reasonably afford – guaranteed to impress at least as much as anything you might cook, but with none of the attached risks – and some tasty but simple accompaniments. Bung it all in the oven to heat up on the night, and you’re done.

And, I hardly need add, don’t go anywhere near your potential. Because as S Club 7 really should have sung, there ain’t no party like a relaxed, reassuringly unambitious, hassle-free party.

Twitter: @norecipeman

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