I very nearly ordered a veal's head in Paris last weekend. I couldn't help it – I've been conditioned by so many trendy new London openings into thinking that eating out should be an experience akin to going to a theme park, with the point of ordering like the slow ascent up the initial climb, and the presentation of the dishes that heady, brief pause before you whoosh into the om-nom-nomming of stuffing your face, as if your mouth were bagged open on the descent by G-force.
When I eat in restaurants, I'm often constrained by the guilt factor of choosing something I can't have at home – hence my almost ordering the veal's head. I very rarely let myself have pasta if I'm eating out, which doesn't make sense because I cook so little that even pasta dishes are beyond my ken if I ever do find myself in a kitchen, where the utensils stare at me like surly school kids.
Nevertheless, this is definitely something I will never make at home, I thought. Not just because I can't cook, but because even contemplating the act of toting a head back from the butcher makes me feel a bit funny, and I can't begin to imagine what my flatmate would make of the whole thing. It was at that point I realised that one should never order something that one can't even imagine carrying home. (This sort of logic is no doubt why kebabs, sausage rolls and Scotch eggs are so perennially popular – they all have an easily transportable, edible casing that a calf's head simply doesn't.)
But all these themed restaurants that keep opening – hot dogs; greasy pleb burgers; posh burgers made to look like greasy pleb burgers; menus that feature only samphire, wet polenta or two of the following in very specific combinations: beef and lobster, chicken and beef, lobster and chicken, a chicken dressed up as a lobster – they make you feel like you need to inhabit a certain personality as you eat, rather than just being a dumpy little person who quite likes eating crackers with salt on top and considers them to be a perfectly agreeable meal.
Like being handed a sombrero upon entering a particular type of tequila-slamming Tex-Mex affair, you put on the garb of the person who is supposed to be eating the poultrified crustacean. Or in my case, you imagine you must be a Parisian gourmande, and you end up nearly having to eat a baby cow's face.
I'm a big fan of eating like yourself, if I'm honest. I can't do it all the time because I'd get scurvy within a month. But sometimes – especially when it's a bit cold and a lot dark – it's worth listening to your id when it tells you to have Super Noodles for tea, washed down with a floppy pizza. Winter menus are all about ordering for your id: warm, stodgy and snuggly. The gastronomic equivalent of a double Slanket and cuddling on the sofa. Winter food props up the heartsore, shrouds those who are sad in a glutinous coating of comfort and of clag.
Clag is very important at this time of year, but is often maligned as filler, boringly beige, as not the right kind of food for foodies. Well, sod the foodies: pass me some batter and I'll eat it raw if I have to.
In the veal-head restaurant, I was pleased to see that the menu relied heavily on clag. It was a proper posh establishment, so it allayed any residual fears I had about the fact I eat as if rationing is still in effect. Most things came in pastry, and the pastry came with a side of mashed potato. When the quenelle de brochet – a dumpling filled with pike – came with a side of mashed potato too, the expression on my mother's face took in everything from confusion to ecstasy.
Back in London, I am faced with a foodie dilemma: I'm due to cook a Christmas-ish dinner for my sisters and their husbands next week. Given that my signature dish is either spaghetti-and-sausages-on-toast (from a tin, with a garnish of grated cheese) or a Thai green curry that owes more to Loyd Grossman than it does to my own efforts, I'm a little anxious about poisoning them. Or making them cry at the very least.
Still, I'm determined to make a go of it. I've just ordered a ham from the local butcher. Actually, what I meant was a gammon, as he pointed out. I was feeling pretty good about it all, until someone else, quite reasonably, told me I'd also have to think about starters and side dishes. And then somehow make sure they were all ready at the same time as the ham… sorry, gammon. With this in mind, I thought I'd just serve up mash (although I'll obviously be calling it fondant potato) in a big trough at the end of the table. Clag-tastic, and not a veal's head in sight.
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