Lucy Mangan

“I am not exotic – I am mince in oxtail soup”

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I received the best of all possible emails the other day. It was from my friend Dina, inviting me to dinner the next evening. It was all I could do not to grab my bag, a bottle of wine and zoom over there immediately, coming to a stop so sudden on her doorstep that I would still be vibrating like Road Runner when she opened the door.

She’s the world’s greatest cook, you see – a potent and precious combination of confidence, creativity and patience that lifts her way above the ranks of the merely kitchen-competent. She is also half-Iranian and prefers to cook the food from her childhood. I remember one particular dinner, to celebrate a birthday, when we were seated at a table piled high with dishes of feta cheese mixed with pomegranate seeds, grapes in yoghurt and brown sugar, vine leaves stuffed with I can’t remember what, let’s just call it the ambrosia of the gods, lamb and chicken stews suffused with turmeric, saffron, lime and walnuts and bowls and bowls of different rices that she had somehow transformed from the plain white stuff that lurks on the shelf into something I would plunge a dagger in my thigh and sell my child as a galley slave to taste again. It was like walking into a Persian fairytale. Other friends draw on their ethnic influences or their time living, working or gap-yearing in foreign parts to inspire them. I could eat my way round the world in a week if they would just coordinate their invitation schedules.

None of this is available to me. Put me in a kitchen and I cower in fear. Even if I’m just cooking for myself. “Why?” asks Dina, puzzled. “What’s the worst that could happen?” The answer is – I don’t know, but I would hate to find out. If forced to embark on culinary endeavours, I stick slavishly to the simplest of recipes. Delia recipes. Not Nigella, or Jamie, or Nigel or Yotam. I need someone who tells me exactly how much to add (Delia does not ‘glug’ or ‘sprinkle’ or ‘drizzle’ anything. She adds a precise measure and will reach out from the book and slap you round the face if you even think about going off-piste) and when. I have no creativity, no imagination, no common sense, no palate whatsoever and therefore no idea whether at the end something would benefit from a bit more salt, pepper, olive oil or garlic. For all I know, it would taste better with a cupful of glue and pennies thrown in there. This is why I use recipes and why people beg me to continue to do so.

I have no patience. The length of time it takes potatoes to boil drives me mad, especially as I know there’s a chip shop down the road frying the things to a mouthwatering crisp and I could pick up a bag in half the time it’s going to take my pallid lumps of starch to soften into edibility.

For all I know it’d taste better with a cupful of glue in it

And unlike most of my friends, I have no exotic influences to lift anything I do out of the prosaic, mundane run of things. Not only do I have the world’s most insular ethnic heritage (both sides of my family have, for as far back as anyone knows, come from the same three square miles around the small Lancastrian town of Preston. Our gene pool is barely a puddle. It’s a miracle we all still have chins and the right number of fingers) but I’ve never even travelled. I don’t mind the absence of exposure to and immersion in other cultures and climes leaving me narrow-minded and bereft of the kind of knowledge and intimate understanding of other people and ways of life that only travel at a young, optimistic and enthusiastic age can bring, but I am beginning to regret the lack of decent food.

My two staple recipes – handed down from my grandma – are chicken in mushroom soup (chop up a chicken breast and, if you can be bothered, an onion and some bacon. Cook on too high a heat so they are done quickly but become rubberised. Pour on a can of Campbell’s Condensed Mushroom Soup. Serve with rice you forgot to add salt to and eat joylessly in front of the telly) and mince in oxtail soup (fry mince until something more interesting distracts you. Pour on a tin of Heinz Oxtail Soup. Garnish with tears of futility and serve with potatoes you forgot to add salt to and eat joylessly etc etc). And it’s too late to do anything about it now. I’m sure you can learn the basics of any kind of cooking but as with any form of knowledge, you have not only to master the facts but give them time to percolate, become part of you, before you can apply them and create something worth having. And I, alas, am as confident, patient, imaginative and well-travelled as I’m ever going to be. Thank god for my friends, without whom my body would starve as surely as my mind and soul have. I’m so hungry.”

Do you agree with Lucy? Share your views in the comments below.

Picture credit: Rex Features

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