Five-minute memoir: Jon McGregor recalls an ominous omelette


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The Independent Culture

I was 13, I think. My parents were out. It was late summer, and I had the kitchen window open and the radio turned up loud and I was wondering what to cook for tea. For the sake of some nostalgic detailing, let's say it was "I Am the Resurrection" by the Stone Roses, and that I was lunging around the kitchen playing air-drums during the extended instrumental section. I was feeling adventurous. I decided to make an omelette.

Had I ever made an omelette before? Possibly. Did I follow a recipe? Of course not. I hunted around the kitchen, rattling off drum-breaks on the worktops, and found eggs, cheese and oil. That didn't seem like enough. Maybe I should add some onions. I went to the vegetable rack by the back door, where I found carrots, potatoes, cauliflower and a brown paper bag of some small baby onions. Or maybe they were shallots? Whatever.

I warmed the oil in the pan, chopped the baby onions/shallots/whatever, softened them until they began to colour, whisked the eggs into the pan, grated the cheese over the top, scraped around the edges, folded it over, turned down the heat, and tipped the result out on to a plate.

And then, because my parents were out, I went and sat in front of the television to eat it. The omelette was burnt on the outside and a bit undercooked in the middle. The onions/shallots/whatever tasted slightly burnt. But that didn't really matter. Because look at me now! Cooking for myself! Eating in front of the television, listening to loud music with the windows open!

I was basically all grown up and independent already. Pretty soon I'd be living in a squat and hitch-hiking to free festivals, probably. In the meantime, I did the washing up, closed the window, and went out.

I walked across town to meet up with a couple of mates. I started to feel sick. We hung around for a bit, kicking a ball about and trying to impress a girl who lived in the same street, and then everyone stood back while I puked into a drain. And this wasn't the standard, break-your-stride, fairground type of vomiting: this was serious, prolonged, purgative throwing up, the sort of thing I've since come to associate with written accounts of shamanic mescaline experiences.

I don't think the girl was impressed. Someone's mum came out with a bucket of water and sluiced the gutter clean. I said I thought I should be getting back now, and walked home on my own. The next day, my mum asked if I'd seen the daffodil bulbs she'd left by the back door. I asked whether "by the back door" meant "in a brown paper bag on top of the vegetable rack". Yes, she said. Why?

This was over 20 years ago, and still, at family gatherings, it only takes someone to mention omelettes, or onions, or daffodils, for the roar of "Don't eat the daffodil bulbs!" to go up and a wave of laughter to come crashing in my direction. Somehow, the joke has always been on me. The fact that I wasn't the one who left the daffodil bulbs in a brown paper bag on top of the vegetable rack is mostly overlooked.

The story has become one of those legends which all families have, where the facts are obscured by the central narrative; in this case, that the absent-minded kid who always had his nose stuck in a book cooked daffodil bulbs for his tea.

But sometimes, when I tell this story outside the family, people are shocked not so much by the fact that my parents left poisonous horticultural goods in the vegetable rack (have I made that clear yet? In the vegetable rack?) as by the way I'd been left at home to cook for myself. But then, those are usually the people who turned up at university with a suitcase full of instant-noodles, and took their laundry home once a month. What would they know?

My parents encouraged me to cook for myself from an early age, to get involved with shopping lists and budgets, and to take pride in serving decent food to others. (Even when those others were calling out about how much they hoped you weren't cooking omelette.) And part of that encouragement involved giving me the space to work things out for myself, and to make plenty of mistakes along the way.

On balance – and it's an admittedly delicate balance – I'm glad to have had the occasional poisonous mishap as part of the gift of independence which my parents so generously gave me. It's a gift I'll be trying to pass on to my own children, along with the instruction to clearly label horticultural goods.

Jon McGregor is a writer. His new collection of stories, 'This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You', is published by Bloomsbury