Food and Drink: I could eat pasta for ever

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE OTHER day my wife asked our young gastronome what he would eat if he had to have the same meal for the rest of his life. At the age of nearly seven, the concept of the 'rest of life' does not weigh heavily, especially when his remotest ambition is to become a teenager with the attendant privileges, such as his own music, and freedom to indulge in all sorts of disgusting habits.

Speaking, therefore, for the conceivable future, and after much thought, he decided that he would have roast chicken, preferably a French farm chicken (scrawny but full of flavour), rice, carrots, a salad, French bread and perhaps his mother's elegant, light chocolate cake. To start with, maybe some San Daniele prosciutto.

The obvious consideration, if one is to take this prospect seriously, is that almost anything one might be forced to eat every day would become exceedingly monotonous. Predictability itself is monotonous and that, I feel, is what most marriages founder on - 'If I hear you say that once more, I'll scream]' - rather than on some character defect of one's partner.

Monotony and predictability are at the root of our distaste for politicians, the most repetitious of men (and women), forever selling their brands of whatever. It is the same with food. If one knows that every Tuesday there will be ham, one develops an understandable aversion for ham - and for Tuesday.

That is why I find Junior Gastronome's school menus ( pounds 2) remarkably refreshing. They offer him, say on the day in question, a tomato vinaigrette, a brochette of chicken with butter green beans, cheese and an apple pastry, all served on proper plates with proper decorum. Admittedly, meals are repeated by the Sete canteen, but it is the individual dishes that are juggled, so nothing is ever repeated exactly; and if he does not fancy the menu he eats at home.

But as I pointed out to him, there are circumstances in which one eats the same meal day after day. In a Thai jail, expect rice, rice and rice, flecked with greens and occasionally with fish or meat.

Similarly, in my usual empathetic way of reading, I have often tried to imagine myself facing Solzhenitsyn's daily menu of bread, bread and more bread; bread and watery soup. Spoilt darling of the times, I said to myself: you get to pick and choose what you eat.

Then I realised that one eats to stay alive and that in the 5Gulag, as in Thailand, people fought and bribed and made deals just to get a little more of that monotonous food - so that our liking of variety is really no more than a by-product of having enough food and being sure (we think) that we always will have.

Hence Nurse's stern admonitions when I failed to finish a dish, that were I 'a starving Chinese' I would happily put away that slice of liver.

But I am neither in jail nor starving; I am simply, at regular hours, hungry. I suspect that it is variety that stimulates this appetite. I love cheese, and have a dozen varieties I particularly like, but feed me a reblochon daily and wouldn't I say: 'What's the matter? Has France run out of chevre?'

The argument would then turn to whether there are any dishes we would eat day in, day out without complaint. It would be cheating to say, as the good Italian a large part of me is, that I could probably start every meal with pasta, for pasta comes in some 20 or more forms and with an almost inexhaustible number of sauces. The same is true of rice, potatoes and many other basics.

Then there is the question of what cuisine one might find most acceptable. I readily say Italian. Why? Because, despite the absence of any utterly remarkable dishes, and any of the publicity French food seems to generate, Italian cooking is still, on a daily basis, one of the most satisfying and healthy diets in the world.

Italians, as is well known, have a proper scorn for the French propensity to 'fiddle around' with food, to dress up its inadequacies in sauces, to experiment for experiment's sake.

As staunch traditionalists, Italians believe in - more than governments, or art or even love - the food they know. If it was good enough for their grandfathers, it is good enough for them. Seventy kilometres from home, a Sienese is vaguely ill-at-ease in Florence.

In a sense, then, regularity - which implies a degree of monotony - is reassuring and desirable. The stomach knows what the mind does not: that what it anticipates, expects and appreciates is probably more satisfying than the hodge-podge eating to which many of us have become prey; aujourd'hui, Tex-Mex; demain, cabbage with paprika Hungarian-style; then a bit of Thai, a bash of Brazil, a Portuguese soup and whatever might be the latest bit of exotica.

The boy was right. If one has to eat the same dish daily, let it be something one likes. Variety is the spice of life; but marriages can be stable and instructive. To be a Don Juan with a wife is as unsatisfactory as being promiscuous at table.