The Power of Pimping
Never averse to a spot of amateur self-analysis, Tom Wheeler explains why things have taken this turn
Every now and then, a single view instantly conjures a long-forgotten memory. And it doesn’t have to be the most dramatic or spectacular view either.
In Oban on holiday recently, wandering around with no great purpose, I noticed a fairly unassuming pub, tucked away from the main tourist routes and with better views of Tesco than of the harbour. But I knew it at once: it was the place where, killing time between the ferry and the train, I happened upon the pair of newspaper articles that gave me the idea for my very first cookbook.
Now, if you Google my name, you won’t find any evidence of that cookbook, or any others for that matter. A decade or so after my epiphany in the pub, the book remains unpublished. (As do all my other books, though they also have the considerable limitation of being unwritten.)
Over the intervening years, I’ve occasionally threatened to revisit the manuscript, polish it up and put it out into the world. But then I’ve also threatened a cricketing comeback over a similar period, with identical results, and in response to roughly equivalent levels of public demand.
Nonetheless, my memory jogged, I took some time to look over the text again, and while I cringed at some of it (okay, lots of it), I still stand by the concept. The articles that set my mind to work in Oban that day came from the same section of the same newspaper.
First, there was a preview of that evening’s episode of the Great British Menu, with all its foams, reductions and ostentation, rounded off with something called a ‘bunny pentathlon’. Then I read about the results of a survey indicating that a third of Britons ate the same thing for lunch every day: in most cases a cheese sandwich.
I was struck then, and still am now, by this apparent contradiction between what we choose to watch being cooked on TV and what we end up eating in real life. What I wanted to do in the book was explore how we might address that contradiction.
In broad terms, I suggested two approaches. The first was to build up cooking skills and understanding through simple, repeatable techniques; an area in which I’m probably underqualified to dish out advice. The second was more straightforward and closer to my comfort zone: take whatever you were planning to eat anyway and pimp it. Find ways to breathe life into your meal, even if that’s as basic as adding crisps to that cheese sandwich.
Leaving aside my memories of the abandoned cookbook for the time being, I made my way from Oban to the Isle of Eigg for the ever-magical Howlin’ Fling music festival. The food at the site, courtesy of Glasgow catering gurus Girl Party, was exclusively vegan, reliably delicious and – most interestingly of all – gloriously pimped.
Dishes of miso aubergine or black bean tofu would have been delicious in themselves. But sprinkled liberally and irregularly with black sesame seeds, cracked Szechuan pepper, cut herbs and numerous other treats – the details of which have been rendered fuzzy through enthusiastic consumption of the wares of the island’s brewery – it was close to transcendental.
Every mouthful was a new and thrilling adventure, and in no time, I was a wild-eyed acolyte, imploring everyone I knew, and plenty of people I didn’t, to go and check it out.
On revisiting my cookbook in the days after the festival, a starker thought occurred. No wonder I was so blown away by the food on Eigg, because when I cook at home these days, I’ve largely stopped practising what I was preaching ten years ago.
My meals have become ever more repetitious, and aside from the ever-present bottle of Sriracha and tub of crispy onions, most of them remain resolutely unpimped. If this pattern continues, within a year or two I might well find myself eating a cheese sandwich every lunchtime. And not even bothering to put crisps in it.
Never averse to a spot of amateur self-analysis, I’ve an idea why things have taken this turn. The past couple of years haven’t exactly been the best for anyone. And against a grim backdrop of Covid, war and creeping, state-endorsed poverty, I’ve had a few tricky things to cope with personally. So I’ve resorted, understandably but unwisely, to familiar food served in familiar ways.
Why unwise? Because sometimes what we eat needs a lift as much as we do ourselves; and in my experience at least, one such lift can help bring about the other. And when every day begins to feel the same, it’s all the more beneficial to make sure every meal doesn’t.
Which is not to claim that a cursory reread of my own cookbook and a few meals at a festival – albeit inspiring and delicious ones – collectively represent a cure for all ills. Nonetheless on identifying an unhelpful cycle, sometimes the best thing to do is find a constructive way to break it.
And if that’s as basic as remembering to pimp your lunch: well, it’s a start, isn’t it? ■
Tom’s favourite condiment, add some crispy onions to make a happy boy