My diet of “hot items”: why I pity people who have learned to cook

Something I've noticed cooks often say is: “You can keep it in the fridge in a Tupperware and have it every night and every day at work too if you want.” That speaks for itself.

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The thing is, I know I need to learn to cook, and will, but really, I don’t know when that day will come. It’s not fear that stops me. It’s because cooking is so deeply boring. It makes me want to cry. When an amateur chef tells me what I’m missing – how easy it is, how creative, how relaxing – I look at them as if down the wrong end of a telescope. I feel pity, because unlike me they are denied the pleasure of getting very hungry in the middle of some late afternoon activity, imagining what they want (the creative part), instantly buying that thing and eating it on the train, or in the road, and satisfying their needs within seconds.

There are various commonly repeated phrases cooks like, which also make me pity them. One is: “I love doing it to unwind when I get home from work, with a glass of wine.” When I get home from work, I need to eat straightaway. Why would I want to look at the broken down components of the meal I crave, and push them around in a pan while listening to Front Row, feeling my hunger wane as I watch the fibres sinking, the sauces coagulating, all the mystery gone, for one hour, before eating the meal in a tenth of the time it took me to make it?

Another thing cooks say is: “It’s really great, you can make it and keep it in the fridge all week in a Tupperware box and have it every night and every day at work too if you want.” That one speaks for itself.

Perhaps I should clarify my skill level. When I say I don’t know how to cook, I mean I don’t know how to warm things up either. I keep light bulbs in my oven. I can put beans in a microwave but I don’t know, say, how to cook a piece of bacon; I wouldn’t know how long to keep it in the pan for, to make it safe to eat, and not grey. Likewise an omelette (“so easy”): I would get salmonella.

And how do you stop it sticking to the pan? Butter? Oil? I have watched it being done so many times but, like a kind of dyspraxia, I cannot take it in. My mind goes dark. Many years ago, I decided to boil an egg for my breakfast, so I looked up the instructions on the computer. By chance, the recipe that I alighted on was a ten-step recipe, which I assumed was normal. The egg took a long time and was hard, confirming to me that cooking was complicated, and that the process strips all the pleasure out of the end product.

Not being able to cook does not mean I dine out in restaurants. I have no money for that. I dine on what I’d broadly call “hot items”, individual morsels which satisfy the instant hunger that seems, mysteriously, to be such a part of my life. Wraps. Falafels. Hot dogs. Samosas. Bits of hot meat. Greggs vegan sausage rolls. Buttermilk fried chicken cutlets from the branches of Sainsbury’s that have a hot oven.

I conscientiously counterbalance the saturated fat elements of these items with small amounts of fruit – and in the evening I regularly enjoy a tin of peas covered in soy sauce, eaten cold with a teaspoon from the can, while standing in the kitchen. And rather than going for volume – which would be unhealthy – I like to substitute flavour in my food, adding Tabasco and chilli seeds to most things, including a sandwich I recently had in America, which was listed on the menu as the Elvis, and featured banana, peanut butter and bacon within deep-fried bread.

When I go to America, I get the sense of how I could live. Apart from corndogs (the ultimate hot item, the longer left turning on the rollers the better) my favourite American snack is Slim Jims, a brand of cured meat and “cheese food product” manufactured in Illinois, packaged as two separate, foot-long strands. You tear off the top and bite a mouthful of meat and cheese together: the salt and fat are an instant pick-me-up, perfect for breakfast. I get them in gas stations, and return to the UK with my holdall laden – only to find them slightly less appealing on the other side of the Atlantic, when they’ve sweated on the journey, and lost a bit of their structure.

Yes, I recommend my diet to you – it keeps me relatively slim, and it saves my evenings for things other than stirring a pot, relaxing and sipping a glass of wine. 

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's features editor. 

This article appears in the 24 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation