Duck egg, 1988
I hate eggs. The last time I ate an egg in its pure form was at a Little Chef just outside Bournemouth in 2001, aged 16. There was nothing wrong with said egg, which was fried, but by the time I’d finished eating it I was certain that was quite enough eggs for me for one lifetime.
When I still lived in my family’s hometown of Liverpool, I spent many a Saturday afternoon with my Nan, her sister, my auntie Winnie, and Winnie’s husband, Billy. Sometimes we’d go to the swings at Sefton Park – a dream day out for a three-year-old on Merseyside – or sometimes just play in the garden at auntie Winnie’s house and have lunch.
Boiled eggs were one of the few things I would eat as a fussy child, along with fish fingers, spaghetti Bolognese, dry pasta, and Richmond skinless sausages. One of those Saturday afternoons, my Nan said she had a surprise for me. It turned out to be a duck egg, which my granddad had picked up from somewhere, and she cooked it for me with toast soldiers.
It was huge, with a creamy white shell, and was far more exciting than the boring beige eggs I was used to. Best of all, it was especially for me, in all its cartoonish glory.
Winnie and Billie died a few years ago now, and I don’t see my Nan nearly as much as I should, but I still cherish those Saturday afternoons we spent together, and few meals have given me the sheer joy I got from eating that duck egg.
Chicken McNuggets, 1990
Me, my parents and my brother moved to Birmingham in 1989, and Saturday afternoons there were more often than not spent trailing my music-loving dad around record shops, or worse, record fairs. I’m not sure there’s anything duller for a child than waiting around while nerdy-looking adults flick through box-after-box of vinyl in disused shops or empty office spaces.
On a recent Record Store Day, there was a picture doing the rounds on Twitter of a bored-looking little girl standing outside East London record shop, Rough Trade, presumably awaiting a record-collecting parent. I felt for that child. (Although I must admit, I benefitted from my dad’s dedication when years later, he moved to Spain and gave me all his records).
Around the time of my fifth birthday, on one such music hunt, we were finally heading back towards New Street Station when my dad uttered the dreaded words: “Just one more record shop and then we’ll go home”. Whatever the five-year-old version of “fuck this,” is, I thought that.
But instead of turning into the now-closed Virgin Megastore at the end of Corporation Street, we carried on into a nearby McDonald’s. Whatever the five-year-old version of “FFS, what’s going on now? What are we doing in here?” is, I thought that, because we never went to McDonald’s, except for when it was a serious treat, which there’d been no such talk of.
But a treat it turned out to be. We were going for a fifth-birthday tea and they’d tricked me with the extra record shop talk to make it all the more exciting. My best friend from school was already in there with her mum and sister, completely by coincidence, so we sat with them. Whatever the five-year-old version of “well this is a turn-up for the books” is, I thought that.
I had Chicken McNuggets and strawberry milkshake, things that taste wonderful at any time, but are especially glorious when they’re a birthday surprise and you thought you’d be surrounded by dusty cardboard for another half an hour.
Chicken and ham pie, 2007
I’m of the belief that a true food lover will embrace the whole culinary spectrum. For every fancy dinner out they might save up for, or unusual ingredient they’ll work out how to cook, they’ll have a six-pack of Pepperamis stashed at the back of the fridge and an unflappable loyalty to microwave lasagne.
At 31, I love chicken McNuggets as much as I did when I was five years old – and yes, I’ve seen how they’re made, no, I don’t care – but I’m pleased to say I’ve expanded my horizons. I find cooking deeply soothing, and I’m always keen to try and recreate a dish I’ve read about or eaten, especially if I have people around to feed it to. Bringing people together and having them enjoy food I’ve made is one of the truest forms of satisfaction I know.
I also love to have food cooked for me – particularly if it means going somewhere nice and making a night of it.
One of my first trips to a posh restaurant was by accident. I was 22 and had recently starting going out with someone, and one Friday night, we met up at a pub in Notting Hill with the vague intention of finding somewhere good, but cheap, for dinner.
We were at that stage where you’re past the uncertainty of whether or not you like each other, while still being high on each other’s existence. Several drinks in, we absent-mindedly wandered towards Westbourne Grove, not a place I would recommend for a bargain dinner, and ended up in one of those fancy restaurants disguising itself as a pub.
You’ll know when you’re in one because despite the casual façade, you won’t be allowed to sit at a table if all you want is a pint and some chips, and said tables will be set with heavy cutlery and more than one kind of wine glass.
Resigned to our fate (and let’s be honest, drunk), we decided eat there anyway and deal with the consequences later. As we were being seated, I spotted BBC Sports veteran Des Lynam across the dining room, enjoying dinner with a group of respectable-looking friends. This was going to be expensive.
I got a creamy chicken and ham pie that had the crispiest pastry and juiciest, smoky ham with the kind of obscenely buttery greens you only eat in restaurants, and dauphinoise potatoes. All of it was as comforting as you’d imagine a table-full of high-end stodge to be to a pair of pissed people, and we washed it down with another bottle of red wine.
I remember waxing lyrical about the wine’s “deep cherry flavours”, like simply entering a nice-looking, grown-up restaurant had qualified me as a sommelier. In all likelihood I’d read it on the menu.
Turns out though, throwing such rich food crashing into the waves of a stomach full of booze is prone to make one sick and walking to the tube station afterwards, I began to feel very queasy. But I was determined not to ruin the evening’s romantic vibe by heaving behind a parked car and I didn’t want to splatter £30 worth of food – a lot to me at the time – all over the pavement. Thankfully, I managed to hold it in.
The next afternoon we sat in the park finishing off half a bottle of last night’s wine that we’d been too drunk to drink, and too poor to consider just leaving. It didn’t matter that we were probably too hungover to properly enjoy it, or that the weather was greyer and damper than you’d want for sitting outside. Life felt sweet.
Roasted cod with confit cherry tomatoes, 2012
Just under five years later, we split up. For months we dragged out conversations about what we could change or things that might make each other happier – insisting that all couples go through rough patches, and that if we just spent a little bit of time doing things separately to work out what we each wanted, everything would probably be fine.
What we wanted, we eventually admitted, was to spend all of our time separately.
When a relationship has simply run its course, rather than ended as a result of an event or betrayal, it can be hard to know where the full stop goes. We knew it would be at least another month before we could get rid of the flat we rented, but in reality, we’d not been “together” for months, even if we hadn’t known it ourselves. Keen to avoid such limbo, and not to have yet another, “is this over?” conversation at home, which would only end when sad and exhausted, one of us would tearfully fall asleep, we decided to go out for dinner to discuss our next moves.
Choosing a restaurant to mark the demise of something you once thought might have been forever, is, as you can imagine, tricky. Pick an old favourite place and good memories will make the process all the more painful, let alone ruin it for the future. Go somewhere you don’t like, on the other hand, and you’ll simply invite further displeasure into an already bleak situation.
In the end we chose Dean Street Townhouse, which has a chic, brasserie-style dining room and is on the discreet, rather than grand, side of elegance – like an expensive black silk shirt or a light pinot noir. Neither of us had been there for dinner before, so it held no associations, nor was it somewhere either of us were likely to frequent much in future.
We would have dinner, formulate a plan, and then go home together, perhaps for the final time. I arrived first and sat at the table for two I’d reserved with a glass of crisp white wine and the paper, before our waiter showed my soon-to-be-ex-partner to the table. It probably looked like we were on a date.
The roasted cod I ordered was light, juicy, and fell into delicate flakes with the slightest prod of a fork. I’ve never been able to get fish right when cooking it at home – it always ends up dry with slimy skin. But in a chef’s capable hands, it was perfect. Served with it were sweet little confit cherry tomatoes, offering a burst of intense flavor to the mild fish.
We talked about how sad the last few months had been with a glimmer of hope that it proved we were making the right decision. The four-and-a-bit years we’d spent together had mostly been great, and we were thankful to each other for that. We could still be friends, which was far preferable than growing to resent each other by dragging something out that wasn’t meant to be. I could stay with a friend for a couple of weeks while we looked for new places, and he’d heard earlier that day from our landlady that she was understanding about breaking the lease on out flat.
It was early summer, and the soft, golden evening light poured through large windows into the airy dining room, shimmering on polished cutlery and voluptuous wine glasses. I was glad we’d decided do this over dinner. It felt like we were raising a glass to the past, rather than severing ties and burying it.
When I think of that relationship now, I think of happy times from a different life, and I’m certain that having ended it over a dignified, memorable, and ultimately celebratory dinner plays no small part in that.