Separated from his family by last year’s lockdown, writer Tom Usher was saved by an unusual gift
When it comes to cooking, I’m no expert, but I’m not completely useless. I can comfortably make a chilli, a curry, and maybe wrestle around with a roast, or a Victoria sponge. But looking at something like the Masterchef skills test fills me with the Lovecraftian horror of the unknowable. I can imagine the torture of Greg Wallace bombarding me with bonhomie while I’m burning butter and clumsily dissecting monkfish in front of the expert chefs who wince at my cooking for the camera.
You’d think lockdown would have been a great time to remedy this lack of expertise, what with all the free time I had stuck in my house. But, like most people who slowly realised they wouldn’t actually become a genius novelist, artist or entrepreneur if left completely to their own devices, I ended up ordering loads of takeaways and spent the rest of my spare time gaming and feeling sad.
Tom Usher with his brother, Patrick
So that was my 2020, and it would’ve carried on well into 2021 if it were not for my brother Patrick and his uncanny ability to pick great Christmas presents. Because, despite not being able to actually see him, my mum or the rest of my family over Christmas for the first time in my life due to there being actual police guarding the train stations as if they were bouncers for a Christmas-themed Fabric, my brother still managed to get me an air fryer. He had to nervously drop it off to my front door, because at the time we all looked at each other like Matt Damon looked at his dying Gwyneth Paltrow wife in Contagion. But drop it off he did, with literally one bit of advice: “You can make banging chicken wings with this.”
Unpacking it, I saw a contraption that looked like the bigger, scarier cousin of a George Foreman grill that had gone through puberty and was now waiting for you outside school to beat you up for picking on his younger relative. I plugged it in, and followed the simple recipe my brother had given me: put salt on the chicken wings, put them in the air fryer for 20 mins, turning them over halfway, melt butter in a pan, chuck half a bottle of hot buffalo sauce in there, then throw all that together for wings that are just as good as any overpriced American barbecue place in east London.
And despite me not being an expert, the wings I made really were just as delicious as any I’d eaten out. The air fryer perfectly crisps the skin on both sides with minimal fuss, so even with just salt and some seasoning rub they’d be great, but with the buttery hot sauce they were fully next level. As someone who eats a lot of wings, it was a lightbulb moment: maybe I could make the things I liked eating in overpriced fast food restaurants, but better, or at least the same, and at home.
When, in the course of writing this piece, I asked my brother Patrick about the thinking behind such a great gift, he said: “We both love buffalo wings and I’d managed to reproduce the same vibe with the air fryer. I thought that you would really enjoy cooking if the process was more accessible. My intention was to show you how to make wings and get you interested in cooking as you love food, but hadn’t found a way of enjoying making it. Cooking is hard, learning is hard and the air fryer gives you a lot of reward for a smaller investment.”
And it’s true. I do love food, and since getting the air fryer I’ve basically been able to pretend I’m good at cooking without actually being that good. Just rub a load of seasoning on some meat, chuck it in the air fryer and it comes out perfect pretty much every time. I’ve even got extremely good at cooking my second love, which, after fried meat, is chips. Toss them in a tiny bit of oil, salt, and this weird chip seasoning I’ve found, and they come out literally just like my mama used to make, except she was deep fat frying them.
In a family WhatsApp group that is 90% pics of babies and discussions about buying houses, I, The Last of the Millennials, with no baby pics to send or house to discuss, keep my presence felt with pictures of air-fried lamb, battered prawns, or ham, egg and air-fried chips. In a family where I’m the youngest and least able to cook, it’s been a nice reminder that maybe at age 34 I’m finally trying to grow up and face the realities of adulthood.
“I feel like it’s given you confidence to cook for the family, like you want to bring it for Christmas this year,” Patrick continues. “You can obviously cook already, but now you have food you can make that you’re proud of. There is nothing better than giving a gift that is more than just the present.”
This rang true to me. The air fryer has, if not changed my life, then definitely been something more than just the usual Christmas pressie. It’s changed the way I cook, made me eat healthier, stopped me from getting as many takeaways and even helped me lose a bit of the lockdown timber I accrued in 2020, and I couldn’t ask for more than that.
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