My nest is officially empty. After some last-minute flapping (how many succulents can you squeeze into a wheelie case, don’t pack a pestle and mortar heavier than a neutron star, that kind of thing), the last fledgling left. So it’s just the two of us and that means one thing. Not nudity – it’s 14C indoors here. The end of cooking. “I’ll make your birthday dinner,” I told my husband, grudgingly. “Then we stock up on beans and baking potatoes.” This is no empty promise: I’ve been preparing and anticipating for months.
Well before my sons left, I ran down our overstocked cupboards, treating food requests with miserly suspicion. No, you can’t have broccoli, this gluten-free muesli bought by accident in 2017 is sufficiently nutritious, and no, the black specks aren’t weevils. Probably. I used to be appalled at what my father would offer on my impromptu visits: three wizened apples, a thimble of sunflower seeds and a two-pack of shortbread fingers from Great Western Railway, the latter presented proudly as a decadent indulgence. Now that seems aspirational.
Not that food – that most reliable of pleasures – is the problem. I still love eating. It’s cooking and the subsidiary, possibly worse, chore of deciding what to cook that I’m sick of. I have been feeding others as well as myself daily for over 25 years, from spat-out baby puree right up to last night’s burritos. Please don’t imagine I am some put-upon housekeeper for complacent man-babies who expected to be fed at every meal. They would have happily cooked, but I am a fussy eater and a controlling one, with opinions on everything from pasta shapes (ban fusilli) to where black pepper goes (not on chips). It had to be me because I would be insufferable otherwise.
But I am fed up of feeding. How many weeks of my wild and precious life have been spent staring into a full fridge that, inexplicably, seems incapable of yielding a meal? Or chopping and frying onions, or picking up those papery garlic skins that float everywhere? A 2019 survey found 51% of people were willing to spend up to 30 minutes on week-night cooking, and 43% up to an hour. Even if you stick to 30 minutes and discount weekends, that is 130 hours a year on the ordinary grind. If you did it for 50 years, that is 6,500 hours – about nine months. Not that I’ve never managed to cook that quickly, and there’s definitely no such thing as a 15-minute meal, unless it’s an egg, Jamie Oliver – that is gas(hob)lighting.
I know people enjoy cooking. Some even cater happily for households like ours, which for most of the past two decades contained at least one vegetarian, someone who hated cooked vegetables and others who wouldn’t eat eggs, cheese or mashed potato. Those people view it as a fun, nurturing challenge, rather than a Venn diagram devised by Satan.
But I don’t, and successive lockdowns, during which no one ate anywhere but at home and a fridge filled in the morning was empty by dinner time, pushed me from jaded to mutinous. I stopped caring where pepper went: I was ready to join the shakily defined but much-deplored swathe of the population who spend more time watching TV chefs than cooking (I do enjoy that: why haven’t you deveined those prawns? That quail is raw!).
Now I have: the kitchen is closed and dinner is toast in front of MasterChef. I’m not alone. “We are done,” confirms a friend whose adult daughter is baffled by her empty cupboards and refusal to cater at weekends. I’ll get bored, eventually, but there’s a giddy freedom to living on bourbons and radishes for a while.
I don’t regret the cooking years, though. They were an act of love: inept, cursing, over-seasoned love, but love all the same. Overstretched and out of ideas, I asked my son to make dinner last week. Working upstairs, I could smell garlic, onions, tomato; hear the clank and bustle of someone putting in time and effort to feed me. It felt good; I’m glad I gave them that. But there are other ways to show love, I hear and I’m ready to try them out. Train shortbread, anyone?
Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist