Seeing the bigger picture

Tom Wheeler reckons treading water is enough for these times, deserving of its swimming badge

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The relentless march of the information age has, I think it’s fair to say, been something of a mixed bag. On the plus side, we now have access to live bus times and self-rotating maps; and today’s teenagers, having summoned the courage to contact someone they might vaguely fancy, no longer have to undertake the preliminary trial of speaking awkwardly to that person’s mum on the landline first.

Equally, these times have also given us President Trump and countless meme-spewing accounts prominently featuring the word ‘banter’. You win some you lose some.

Sometimes, though, the demarcation between good and bad isn’t quite so clear cut. For instance, being granted the ability to photograph everything we eat – and to share those pictures instantly with a world that must have asked incredibly quietly for us to do so – is often a hideous thing, but that’s true in no more than 98% of cases. The other 2% can be terrific, leading not just to admiration but also, much more importantly, to inspiration.

A recent example of this came from Jack Monroe – a force for good in the food world if ever there was one – who came to prominence sharing imaginative, frugal and meticulously costed recipes, devised out of necessity when living in grim financial circumstances.

They posted a photo on Twitter featuring a joyous jumble of quick-pickled cannellini beans, fennel and celery with homemade vinegar, crispy chilli anchovies, smoked bacon, gem lettuce and sour cream. And as with all the best depictions of food – in words, images or in this case both – it got my brain ticking and mouth watering at equivalent rates.

I can say with confidence that I’ll never attempt to recreate this dish in full, but that’s more than OK. (Apart from anything else, I’ve never knowingly left an opened bottle of wine alone for long enough to make vinegar.)

But I’m almost certain to go through my fridge and cupboards, in the very near future, in an attempt to produce something with a similar balance of textures and flavours. It won’t be anywhere near as elaborate though, not for a basic week night dinner.

Or maybe it will. Minutes after the initial post, Jack posted a further tweet that’s worth quoting in full. ‘I’m trying to show myself some love and care to haul through a long difficult depressive slump, and food is absolutely my love language, so getting in the kitchen and cooking for myself with the same care that I would take for someone I adore seems to be doing...something’.

Time and pandemics can play tricks on the memory, but I can’t recall endorsing a sentiment as enthusiastically as I did this.

I’m no expert on self-care, as a cursory glance at me will illustrate, but I’m willing to venture that it’s rarely been more important – in my lifetime, at least – than it is now.

The initial stages of lockdown, horrendous as they were, at least had a degree of clarity to them: hunker down; stay safe; protect others.

Gradually emerging from that situation into a changed and confusing world, while still carrying so much grief, fear and largely directionless anger, brings a different set of challenges. And the sense that everyone else is doing a better job of it than you are can be incredibly difficult to shake off.

A year ago, I had a small but dependable set of strategies for making it from one day to the next, which at the time was no mean achievement. Treading water was quite enough, and fully deserving of its own swimming badge.

But eventually, the realisation grew that rewatching series five of Taskmaster for the 23rd time would have, at best, a neutral effect on my wellbeing, and eating yet another stuffed crust monstrosity pizza from the supermarket would have a demonstrably worse one.

I’ve struggled with the adjustment from one horribly difficult period into a more nuanced, differently difficult one. Some people I love have struggled with it even more, and my heart breaks for them.

In such circumstances, the temptation to cling to any piece of passing flotsam is a tempting but dangerous one; but even so, Jack Monroe’s approach makes so much sense. Time spent in the kitchen – devising, chopping, sighing, stirring, daydreaming, tasting, imagining, garnishing, and reminiscing – is very rarely wasted.

Seeing others enjoy the fruits of that gentle labour has been one of the more meaningful and enduring sources of pleasure I’ve found in recent times. Allowing myself to enjoy them to the same extent might take some adjustment, but I’m feeling suitably inspired to give it a go. I hope it has a positive impact on Jack, on me and on others. And if all goes particularly well, I might even take a photo of the results and plonk it on the internet.

I’ll take it one step at a time, though, and try to be kind to myself whenever I find I can’t quite be arsed. On which point, that series of Taskmaster isn’t going to rewatch itself, and I’ve got a revolting looking supermarket pizza in the oven.

Twitter: @tommoinleith

Jack Munroe’s quick-pickled cannellini beans, fennel and celery

The realisation grew that rewatching series five of Taskmaster for the 23rd time would have a neutral effect on my wellbeing

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