An old flame tells me men keep serving her spaghetti carbonara – of course

Spaghetti carbonara, or, as I see it, bacon and eggs applied to a foreign base for a spurious sophistication.

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A visit from A——, with whom I used to step out until she realised that: a) she wanted babies and b) I had no intention of helping to make any more. (Another friend was telling me about a man his age – in his late fifties – who had recently started on his second batch of children with a younger woman. “I’ve never seen anyone look so close to death,” my friend said.)

A—— has many amusing traits. She generally doesn’t listen to anything you say unless you say it twice, prefacing it with the words “Listen to me” and a deep, powerful pause. This also applies to direct answers to questions that she’s just asked, and although conversation with her is easy, it never really goes from A to B, but goes from A to every other letter in the alphabet except B.

Despite this, or perhaps even because of this, she is most excellently un-dull company and we see each other from time to time. Also, I have not seen anyone socially since Christmas and I am beginning to go a little cray-cray, as they say in LA.

A—— is perhaps keener on my cooking than she is on seeing me. But then she is very keen on my cooking and says that it’s the only cuisine that comes close to rivalling her mother’s. I have never met her mother but I gather this is high praise indeed. (“Is that old man still following you around?” was apparently the view she took of our relationship, as reported back to me, so I thought it best to stay away from her and not waste any time meeting her with the bunch of flowers and the warm smile.) Her cooking must be very good. It’s Persian, that I do know, and some of the finest meals I’ve eaten have come from that neck of the woods.

A——, who has been starving herself all day so she can eat more of my grub, is more conversationally focused than usual. I ask her about her current relationships. I always do so with a slight pang, but I am curious, not so much about her love life as about what men in their early thirties are up to.

“Is this going to be the start of one of your rants about men in their early thirties?” she asks.

“Perish the thought,” I say. (I have a long roster of complaints about men in their early thirties. From what I have picked up, they have poor taste in shoes, are hopeless at commitment and can’t cook. Mentally, I pick up my notebook and pen.)

She tells me of a young man she met quite recently who seems to be lasting the course fairly well. She tells me about the time he invited her round to sample his “signature dish”. I am too busy adding the final touches to the pheasant, ensuring that the skin is crispy but the meat properly moist, to guess what it is, but when she says “spaghetti carbonara”, I am not surprised. This, apparently, is all that men of that generation know how to cook. Then again, it is perhaps all that most men know how to cook, if they are asked to cook something more complex than toast.

“Why is it that this is the only [swear word] meal men know how to cook?” (We are talking here, incidentally, of Oxbridge graduates. She is picky.)

“I suppose it’s because it’s a reconstruction of bacon and eggs, applied to a foreign base for a spurious sophistication,” I say, not having the heart to say that a proper carbonara is actually a slightly fiddly affair, involving cream, pancetta and egg yolks (not the whole egg), which is probably not what she is being served by her swains.

A——, despite eating half a tube of ancient Pringles before dinner, gobbles up her food like a tiny horse and between mouthfuls showers me with praise. This is most pleasing. She promises to come round more often so she can eat my dinners. In return, she will finish my portrait – left poignantly as an eyebrows-to-nose sketch when we split up – and help relieve me of my excess review copies.

She also says that she will help me with a dating site that she claims will be just the ticket for me. Apparently, only women can answer the ads, and they can only do so within 24 hours. How this helps, I am unsure.

Meanwhile, I have a flashback to ——, with whom I was in love for quite some time, but who, I suddenly realise, never praised me for anything – especially (for these are the rooms where such praise really counts, and is welcome) for things done in the kitchen or the bedroom. How simple it is to make someone feel happy, and how even simpler to withhold happiness: you can do it as easily as not thinking. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 26 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West

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