After another shapeless, meandering day of working from home, trying to read the entire internet by way of displacement activity, I know exactly what I need to help me destress: a cucumber and a teaspoon. I head to the kitchen and peel the cucumber in long downward strokes, attempting to get each ribbon off in one, itself a victory of sorts. Then I slice it vertically in two. Now I take my teaspoon and run it with extreme prejudice straight down the vegetable’s central canal to remove the seeds. I watch the watery mush fracture and roll away to leave the pristine, scooped-out hollow. I do this to the other half. And breathe. God, but it’s satisfying. Sometimes I make cucumber salad just so I can deseed a cucumber with a teaspoon, rather than the other way round.
I have never been quite as aware of my charmed life as I am during the current crisis. I have a home, a garden, a job and a family that doesn’t seem to hate me, or at least who hide it well enough if they do. But I also have another benefit. I like cooking, which is helpful given how much of that we’ve all had to do. However, the thing I’ve really clocked during the past few months is that there are certain jobs during cookery, certain simple tasks, which give me such intense satisfaction they can improve my very sense of wellbeing.
Deseeding a cucumber is only the start of it. Using that teaspoon to scrape away the woody bark on ginger, as if excavating my own dinner, is also a joy. I adore taking an aged spring onion which appears to be far beyond its best, and peeling back the papery outer layers, to reveal the shiny and new, touched for the very first time, as Madonna would doubtless say if she was into cooking. I love taking the hard, unyielding murder-weapon-in-waiting that is a butternut squash and, courtesy of more peeling and scooping, turning it into promising cubes that now better resemble something to eat.
I get an anticipatory rush of excitement when I find a chunky garlic clove with a heavy skin, which I know will discard its peel without a fight if I press it in the right way with the flat of my knife. (I was once shown a video of someone peeling whole garlic bulbs in seconds by shaking them inside two metal bowls, clasped together. I did not find this satisfying in any way, for it was clearly witchcraft.)
Then there’s the transformative act of applying heat. I crave the opportunity to deglaze a roasting pan with wine and stock, before chucking in a glug or two of double cream, whacking up the burner and standing back to watch a sauce thicken. I know that if I pile a mound of fresh spinach the size of my head in a frying pan with a little stock and turn up the flame it will wilt before my eyes. I love pureeing vegetables with a hand blender like I’m grinding up the bodies of my murder victims in an attempt to hide the evidence. All of these activities I find very satisfying indeed.
What unites them is that none results in a finished dish. They are mere landmarks along the way. Instead, what they give me is a sense of power in an overwhelming world, and the more of that we have right now the better. I only regret I haven’t got one of those hand-sized retro gizmos with a wire lattice for slicing up boiled eggs. I don’t much like sliced-up boiled eggs, but I would bloody love doing the slicing. Is that so wrong?