Food Archives - The School Of Life

There is an age, and a frame of mind, when we are strong enough to treat luxury with every bit of the disdain it deserves, when we know how to pour rightful scorn on its cost, its futility, most of all its vanity. When we are young and hopeful, we know that there is no need for an overpriced hotel when a hostel can just as well house our dreams. We understand the folly of those overblown seats at the front of the aircraft whose occupants will touch down not a minute earlier. We have a future rich enough not to confuse paid-for kindness with love.

But then there comes an age, more sombre and melancholy in nature, when – if we have any possibility – we may find our Spartan honesty vibrate and start to crumble. We may invest in the roomier, more plushly carpeted section of the aircraft we’d once dismissed – and discover a happiness deeper than we had ever thought possible. High above the earth, we are looked after by a new friend who has troubled to learn our name and has hung our jacket in a closet with a wooden hanger! As we cross the Tropic of Cancer, as down below in Madhya Pradesh, villages flicker by the light of paraffin lamps, we receive a tray on which an infinitely thoughtful and fascinating-sounding chef has laid out a small bread roll, a lobster tail salad, a filet mignon and what might be the sweetest hazelnut and chocolate cake we have ever tasted – and we may feel the onset of what could be tears at the beauty and kindness that surround us. It is, in its way, like being a child again, ministered to by a devoted parent during an especially vicious fever. But now that parent is dead and we are far from being that little cute creature in elephant pyjamas that no one could hate and who had never done anything seriously wrong.

The SWISS Business & First Class Menu Thread - Page 28 - FlyerTalk ...

Or we may find ourselves in a foreign city and be unable to resist the call of an idiotically costly grand Belle Epoque hotel on the main square. After an hour of reading in our room’s oversized tub, we may order room service and, soon after, receive a visit from another new friend, pushing a trolley that he steers to the foot of our immaculately turned down king-sized bed. The meal itself might not be anything wondrous, considered objectively – chicken schnitzel or a salmon tagliatelle – but what it symbolises is immense. They, our new family in the hotel, have kept things warm for us in a special heated recess under the table or covered it under a silver dome. Someone, an angel, has wondered if we might like flowers, and has inserted a tulip into a narrow glass vase, so as to cheer us as we eat. Someone else, a ministering deity, has worried about bread and provided a small but fascinatingly diverse selection (one with walnuts, another with olives, a third with garlic). Now kindly George from room service interrupts our daydream. He would like to know if we would prefer still or sparkling water. And should he pour balsamic or white vinegar over the tomato salad?

This sort of thing can end up mattering a lot (too much) because, in other areas of our lives, so much has gone wrong, for reasons that are at once complex but definitive. Our child no longer looks up when we greet them at breakfast; our spouse is filled with resentments. We seem to have lost most of our friends through neglect. There is so much that those close to us seem to hate us for. We are increasingly convinced of the complete meaninglessness of our existence.

But here, in the luxury cabin or bedroom, it isn’t – for a few hours – like this at all. Here is there is only kindness and indulgence. It’s all artificial of course – engineered by monstrous sums of money – and would come to an end immediately if the credit card were declined (we’d be in prison within hours). But, while the money flows, we can be in the presence of something astonishing and delightful: a portion of the kindness and consideration we crave, but hardly ever receive and know we don’t deserve.

Money obviously cannot buy us what we truly want: the warm regard of those we live around. But it can, at points, at least buy us a few symbols of considerateness – and sometimes that might be the very best we can hope for, and that is realistically available to us, in our distinctly bathetic and radically imperfect lives. We may not always have the inner resources to find luxury the silly thing it actually is.

In so many areas of life, it’s easy to feel desperate that we have failed to live up to our own expectations.

We are evidently not beautiful enough, rich enough, intelligent enough, kind enough or clever enough. And, of course, in this context, nor are we anything like the sort of cooks we should be. We’ve seen the lovely illustrations in the glossy books, we may have equipped our kitchens with the right implements and crockery sets; we know a lot of people with hugely impressive culinary skills: we know how it all ought to be. And yet, our own efforts quite markedly fail to rise up to the requisite standards. We feel ashamed and sorrowful about just how bad we are at cooking.

Image result for masterchef winner

This sort of tragic gap between how we want to be and how we are was of great interest to the pioneering child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. He was struck by the way that many very well-intentioned, sincere and decent parents would come to his consulting room in distress. They were paralysed by the fear that they were doing so many things wrong in bringing up their children. They felt disgusted with themselves and as a result, were unable to enjoy their roles or make even modest improvements to their techniques. To help these parents, Winnicott developed a concept that he called the ‘good enough’ parent.

Of course, parents would make mistakes, he reassured, but these were almost always far from serious. A child – he argued – doesn’t need a perfect parent anyway, they just need an often kind, sometimes muddled, generally well-meaning and real human being, in other words, a good enough parent.

A similar attack on vicious perfectionism needs to happen around food. We have been tortured for too long by images of ideal meals. We have come to hate our efforts, despise ourselves and refuse to let other people taste what we make – because we are haunted by glossy ideals. The desire to cook very well indeed has fatefully undermined our capacity to take pride in the quite decent, sometimes charming and at other points really quite wonky results we are capable of.

And yet, despite all our insecurities and occasional kitchen fiascos, as Winnicott would surely have told us, we are ‘good enough’ cooks already. In the greater scheme, it doesn’t matter at all that our meat is often over-cooked, our pasta is seldom al-dente and our cakes look nothing like they should.

This section is a guide to, and celebration of something that almost never makes it into cookbooks but is infinitely more important than the visions of manicured perfection they tease us with: flawed but good enough cooking and eating.

1. I just can’t cook!

It can’t be true.

A self-described inability to cook is always relative to some internal vision of what ‘cooking’ means. A real cook, we tell ourselves, makes their own mayonnaise, they have a special way of washing and drying lettuce, they are obsessive about the quality of the knives they use; they always follow recipes precisely or they have invented their own wonderful variations; they have a store cupboard full of things they prepared; they know how to break bread, they can make a souffle rise; they know a great deal about the quality of ingredients, and go to special shops to find exactly the right things; they don’t get stressed in the kitchen; when they cook a chicken, the breast meat never goes dry.

By this standard, of course we can’t cook.

But we can. We can cook all sorts of things that are absolutely lovely to eat – even if we don’t get them perfectly right. A fried egg is still delicious, even if it goes a little crisp around the edges or if the yoke gets a bit over-cooked. We can still enjoy eating our pesto-pasta even if we did forget to salt the boiling water before putting in the pasta (and some of it stuck to the bottom of the pan when we drained it). These dishes, and thousands more like it, are hugely tolerant of a bit of erroneous handling. Like a good friend, they won’t hold our slight mistakes against us. The ultimate goal is simply that we enjoy our meal.

What we’re doing here isn’t just about cooking. We’re telling ourselves a more universal truth, via our modest adventures in the kitchen. The idea of being good enough is one that can be helpfully invoked in so many areas: there’s the good enough marriage; the good enough job or the good enough holiday. A demanding vision of perfection isn’t an avenue to great results or a better life: it is, on the contrary, pretty much a guarantee that we’ll be and feel like failures. Our imperfectly seared, slightly unevenly cooked and in places plain charred piece of chicken is a grand symbol of a big idea: a wise accommodation with the imperfect nature of reality.

2. Am I allowed to order in?

To go by most cookbooks, the idea of ordering in simply doesn’t exist, not even as a concept. This is what barbarians and infidels might do after sacking a city.

But of course, ordering in has a hugely legitimate and noble place within the repertoire of the ordinary good enough home cook. Knowing when not to cook is a skill requiring as much self-belief and emotional maturity as cooking itself.

For a start, in order to order in, we need to learn to like ourselves – and accept that sometimes, we deserve to let others help us. We have to come to terms with the concept of dependence – and the legitimacy of our own feelings of exhaustion. Perhaps we’ve simply done enough for now and need to let the Star of India or the Jade Garden do the work for a while. Asking for help, realising that one can’t cope alone, is at times a genuinely wise piece of self-knowledge. We’re admitting to ourselves – and a lot in our past might have made it this very hard – that we can be tired, or fed up, or depleted and that these needn’t be signs that we’re shirking or lazy. Perhaps we’ve had a reversal in our love life, perhaps work has been extremely taxing, perhaps we couldn’t sleep last night… When we go to the door and take a bag from a helmeted bike-delivery person, we’re inducted to a general idea: we’re entitled sometimes to be looked after. We can from time to time skip on certain duties and still be acceptable, honourable human beings.

Image result for take out food

We should feel no less ashamed to admit our weaknesses to others. Imagine that some old friends are coming round and – theoretically – we’d love to prepare something wonderful to charm and impress them. But we are exhausted and weepy. We want nothing more than to curl up in bed and be held. What should we do? We’re operating under the punishing idea that our friends will like us only if we perform at our very best, which here might mean unveiling a home cooked pie or roast lemon and thyme chicken with triumph and composure. But we’re forgetting something crucial to friendship. Our friends like us despite, and in fact almost because of our failings, weakness, incapacities and imperfections. Being flawless would only serve to threaten and intimidate them. They would far rather connect with our vulnerability than be awed by our superiority. Being impressive can win one admiration; being it’s revealing our broken ordinary selves that is the only way to create proper friendships. We should dare to take our friends into our darkened kitchen, dressed in an old T-shirt and jeans, with tear stains around our eyes (we’ll be ready to explain to them soon), and declare without embarrassment that a large bag is currently on its way from Memories of China. That is, in the deepest sense, the beginning of true hospitality.

3. What do we do with leftovers?

The standard answer is to tip them into the bin. Like much that is flawed, imperfect and less-than-acceptable about human existence.

But the good enough cook knows that leftovers are a fundamental part of the weekly diet. Viewed with sufficient creativity and free spiritedness, there is something especially beguiling about cold curry, congealed steak, gelatinous beans and last night’s half-eaten roast tomatoes.

The pleasure isn’t just that they taste nice (often nicer than the first time around); such dishes are hinting at a bigger theme: the way that something which has been rejected can in the right circumstances, become central and impressive. In religion, this idea crops up in the Gospel of St Matthew. In one of the parable stories, Jesus declares that ‘the stone that the builders have rejected will become the cornerstone.’ What he means is that ‘leftover’ people who are so often regarded as unworthy – the meek, the poor, the untalented – will one day have a completely different place in the Kingdom of God, where the secret merits of their souls will be properly recognized.

The idea stretches way beyond religion. In our own lives too, we can sometimes see that low prestige things (the ‘leftovers’ of the predominant culture) can turn out to be lovely if we give them a chance. It might, for instance, seem that no-one could ever really want to go on holiday with their elderly aunt in a caravan. But it can be enormously pleasurable to spend time in an ingenious compact mobile home in unexplored bits of the landscape with an aunt who, even though she dyes her hair badly and wears rather unflattering clothes, turns out to have very interesting past and intriguing views on literature and politics. Generosity of imagination is what we will all need someone to apply to us one day. We too will, at some point, be a ‘left over’, a slightly dispiriting item in the back of the cupboard of life – and we too will need others to come along and know how to perceive our potential beneath the unprepossessing exterior.

When we make a pleasing meal the next day out of the things that were unwanted late last night, we’re enacting one of the profoundest themes of existence: redemption.  

4. Can I eat the children’s food?

It can seem slightly ridiculous for an adult to want to eat things that have been specially prepared for a child. In a restaurant, we’d probably be too embarrassed to choose something for ourselves from the kids menu; we have to suppress our curiosity about the smiley face pizza or the plate of soup with animal crackers. But secretly we may be very charmed by the soft textures, mild flavours and funny shapes.

Our attraction isn’t merely linked to taste: through such foods, we’re hovering around distant (but powerful) memories of being little: when we were cared for and looked after, when we had no responsibilities, when we were deeply loved just for existing, when we could be thrilled by a snowfall or a puddle, when people carried us if we got tired, when we didn’t have complicated emotional drives and rather dark bodily urges.

There’s a benign kind of regression – activated by certain foods – in which we can reconnect with what was lovely and good about our early childhoods. We are back in touch with our warm readiness to be loved; our enthusiasm for simple things; our sense of trust and admiration; our hopefulness. We’re not becoming five again, but thanks to a mini-burger or alphabet spaghetti, we’re letting the best parts of who we were in childhood enter into dialogue with the more forbidding, complicated and sadder creatures we have become.


Image result for children's food

Eating off our own children’s plates is also confirmation of the deep ties of loyalty and love that connect us to our offspring. When they have run off to play in the garden and we are left at table (too tired as yet to start clearing up), we might reach over and munch on the bit of sausage smeared with tomato sauce they abandoned on the side of their plate; we’ll eat the remains of their sandwich or finish an apple they’ve taken three bites from or finish the remainder of a half-eaten fish finger. Such things would be very disgusting if we did them in a work canteen or if, on a plane, we stretched over and scooped up the remains of a ham sandwich on the tray of the stranger sitting next to us. But around our children, such picking becomes an act of precious intimacy. We’re demonstrating our closeness by eating no just the same kind of food, but the very same bits of food, complete with their teeth imprints.

And for the child who comes in and sees us devouring the last of their beans or mousse, it’s perhaps rather lovely to witness their parent wanting what’s on their plate so badly: the child can see that they have something the parent really wants – when too often, it is the child who is envious of the parent’s possessions: the electric saw they’re not allowed to touch; the car they can’t possibly drive, the credit card the adult waves in shops. For a moment, in the company of fishfingers or mashed avocado, the hierarchy is nicely reversed and it’s the child’s situation that is established as infinitely more appealing and profound.  

5. Dare I be a bit bad?

Of course there are people who should try a lot harder to be good. But for most of us, the problem lies elsewhere: we’re already very predisposed to making our best efforts, we’re dutiful and responsible, ready to abide by the rules and devoted to trying to do the right thing. Indeed, we’ve grown a little sick from trying so hard to measure up.

Our culture generally isn’t very good at lessening the strain on an already severe conscience and allowing the less righteous sides of a personality some freedom.  At the root of its moralism is a thesis about the relationship between justice and effort: if we are good we will be rewarded. If we work hard, our careers will flourish; if we are polite and modest we’ll have nice friends. If we are kind, we will find love. And if we regulate our diets in all the ways experts tell us we’ll be healthy and live a long time.

It’s a powerful idea, stemming originally from a religious belief that virtue will be rewarded in the eyes of God. But in reality life does not reliably live up to this vision of justice. Our efforts don’t routinely result in us getting what we want. We put in long hours but the company we work for gets into difficulty because of an ill-judged expansion in Eastern Europe with which we had nothing to do – and we are sacked. Or we try hard to listen to our partner, but our sex-life withers all the same and we end up in a divorce; or a friend who was very careful around what they ate still got cancer and died  before their thirty-fifth birthday.

Our bet on the link between being good and getting our just reward doesn’t reliably pay off. It’s not surprising and should indeed be celebrated that, at times, we get fed up with self-abnegation and the frustration of our promises. We’re not simply weakening: we’re making a proper protest against the injustice of reality. We’re not going to go off the rails entirely: but if we’re occasionally naughty and strategically ‘bad’, we’re acknowledging a darker fact about existence: effort, sadly, is no guarantee of a good outcome.

The occasional indulgence around food is making (to put it in a usefully grand way) a metaphysical statement: the cosmos is not a moral machine. We’re accepting a tragic dimension in life: the person who does the right thing can still meet with a grim fate. We should, at points, knowing that the good can die young and the talented fail, deeply enjoy the pleasures of ‘bad foods.’

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6. In praise of the dish that goes wrong

Instead of being a deep, bright runny yellow, our scrambled eggs are pale and flakey; instead of reaching the plate as a whole, firm slice, the salmon has flaked off into a dozen messy fragments; the crust of our pie doesn’t rise into a neat glowing dome but sags anaemically.

We might be tempted to throw it all away. But we shouldn’t. As we enjoy these apparently woeful meals we’re signaling an important general truth to ourselves: something can be wrong and look and sound a little awful and still be perfectly good enough.

Most recipes don’t tell you how to make sure that a pastry crust goes soggy, or how to ensure that a soup that’s meant to be clear can be made to turn out cloudy. But perhaps they should.

By openly embarking on cooking projects that are likely to turn out rather badly (judged by an ideal standard), but are still actually good enough to eat, we are forcibly – and usefully – keeping ourselves in touch with the profound truth that we can fail by the standards of an overly-ambitious world – and yet still be fine and on some days truly happy.

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Readers’ Favorite Dishes Celebrate The New Season

At the moment, food is highly prestigious. A vast amount of attention is paid to celebrity chefs, dietary advice, new restaurants and cooking shows. We have, it seems, become collectively obsessed with what we eat.

But the question of what we need from food, other than just physical sustenance, is rarely taken up. The issue sounds a bit weird. And yet food is evidently not just ‘fuel’. It offers help with certain of our psychological needs. It has, if you like, therapeutic potential.

That’s because every kind of food not only has nutritional value (the sort you’ll see on the label), it also carries with it what one might term a psychological value. The value emerges from its character. Every food hints at a personality, an orientation, a way of apprehending the world, who it would be if it was magically turned into a person. You could ascribe to it a gender, an outlook, a spirit, even a political dimension.

Typical house on the island of Alicudi

Take the lemon. Nutritionally-speaking, it has 29 calories per 100g, 2.8g dietary fibre, 2.5g of sugar and so on. But psychologically-speaking, it has also ‘ingredients’. It is a fruit that ‘speaks’ (quietly but eloquently) of such things as: the south, the sun, the upstanding and the hopeful, the morning and the simple. It suggests calls to action, it wants us to brace ourselves to take on what matters and focus on what we know we have to do. It is against sentimentality: it is brutally honest, but kind. Or take the hazelnut. Again, full of nutritional value, but at the same time a receptacle of such things as: autumnal briskness, maturity, soberness, self-sufficiency and an almost childlike neatness (like a 10-year-old who keeps his drawers tidy…).

Botany - Trees - Betulaceae - Fruits of common Hazelnut (Corylus avellana). Illustration.

Foods contain edible philosophies of life, to which we may be seeking to get close by doing that most direct and understandable of things: eating. We are ingesting physically, but also trying to take into our souls the psychological nutrients we intuit. We want food to bolster certain sides of our natures and compensate for certain weaknesses of spirit. That’s what makes eating more than just fuelling up and restoring the body, it’s also about rebalancing our misshapen souls.

We want the foods we eat to help us become a little more as they are; we want to take on the avocado’s confident serenity, the figs’ ease with sensuality, the scallops dignified privacy, the asparagus’s resolute commitment to individuality. We invest in a steak out of a new commitment to vigour and courage, we turn to honey to lend weight to a desire to be more satisfied with simplicity. We might drink a whole glass of cold milk to put a wall between the present and a sexually dissolute past few days.

What's Cooking?

Let’s sum up what food does for us at a psychological level:

1. Food rebalances us

All of us are a little unbalanced in some way. We’re too intellectual or too emotional, too masculine or too feminine, too calm or too excitable. The food we love is frequently something that compensates us for a lack: it counterbalances us. When we’re moved by a food, it may be because it contains a concentrated dose of qualities we need more of in our lives. Perhaps it’s full of the serenity we admire, but don’t have enough of (bircher muesli). Perhaps it’s got the tenderness we long for, but that our jobs and relationships are currently lacking (peaches). The food we call ‘tasty’ gives vital clues as to what is missing in our psyches not just our stomachs. It’s in the power of food to help us be more rounded versions of ourselves.


2. Food reconnects us with important but currently elusive parts of ourselves

We are complex, layered beings. Not every part of us that matters is close to the surface at any time. We have too much history and so much going on, we lose sight of it. So one’s more playful side may get buried. Or the capacity to be awestruck and quietly, but deeply, moved by simple things may get neglected (but not destroyed) in the normal demands of daily life.

Great Yarmouth, May 1966.

The intense evocative powers of certain foods makes them powerful conduits for helpful memories and associations. The right food can provide access to neglected psychological regions. It might be that one needs to eat fish and chips brought from a street stand to be linked, internally, to one’s eight-year-old self and to recover some of the freshness and thrill of existence one had at that point. Or we might need a particular kind of ham to take us back to an energy we knew in the South of Spain at the age of 28.

Thanks to food, one can reconnect with crucial – but easily forgotten – epochs of one’s own intimate history.

3. Food can help us to change our lives

Foods are bearers of philosophies (be kinder, remember sweetness, learn courage…).

When we are trying to change our lives (and we should quite often), food can play a role. Certainly we need to surround ourselves with other things, books which pull us in the right directions, friends, work, holiday destinations… But food has something to contribute to this effort at inner reformation as well.

VIENNA, VA, DECEMBER 20, 2013: Chili-crusted tilapia and cam co

It isn’t simply a case of ‘going on a diet’, as if the only thing one ever needed to change about one’s life was how heavy one was. We might ask food to help us on a mission to lead a less cluttered life, or to connect more with others, or to be more engaged with one’s own country… How we eat backs up ambitions for how we’d like to be.

4. Food can compensate for the decline of religion

One of the benign functions of religion has been to provide ritual; to make us set a date to meet up with important ideas and experiences and – fascinatingly – these religious rituals often centre around foods carefully chosen because they symbolise certain of the virtues the religions want to highlight.

For example, Zen Buddhists were encouraged to remember the value of friendship over a cup of elaborately brewed and very slowly consumed tea. In the early years of Christianity, the faithful would gather to remember the Saviour over that noble yet vulnerable creature, the lamb. The Jews use unleavened bread and bitter horseradish to embed the courage the believers displayed on the flight from Egypt.

The precise things religions want to tell us about how to lead our lives (with the help of food) may not necessarily be compelling at this moment. But the background idea; of using food to encourage you to think and feel in certain ways at certain points, remains highly useful.


We need to find our own equivalents of these religiously-choreographed foods, the tea, lamb or horseradish. That is, we should locate values we find supremely important, and then connect them up with particular foods with which they have most sympathy – and then, lastly, regularly ingest them in a ritual way.

For example, because in the long winters of Northern Europe, Korea and America it is so easy to lose sight of pagan virtues (the sun, the body, expansiveness, freedom, sensuality), an ideal modern secular ritual might call for regular celebrations centred around three foods in particular: the lemon, the papaya, and the olive – each of these guardians of values heavily under threat in downtown Frankfurt or Seoul at 4pm on a February afternoon.

5. Cooking as a route to individuation

In our own lives, it always starts with someone else giving us the food they think we’d like. They often get it wrong. For long periods, we’re eating stuff that doesn’t make us happy, that just keeps us going in the barest way.

17th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards Food And Wine Tasting Event

Part of becoming an ‘individual’, as opposed to merely existing, is learning how to arrange bits of the outer world around us in sympathy with our own internal worlds. Learning how to cook has a big role to play in this, for it betokens a commitment to aligning what goes in our bodies with our true beliefs and hopes.

No longer are we merely fed by the world, and passively ingest whatever it serves up, we learn to define what we need and ensure we know ourselves how to secure it.

6. Food is an act of communication

Not all of us are very good with words. We want to get ourselves across, but stumble.

We’d like to express gratitude to someone, or show them more complex parts of ourselves. We’d like them to know about our imagination, our dexterity, or our commitment to dignified simplicity.

But what it can be hard to express with words, one can get across via food at the table. Our penne with fresh basil may be an essay on the love we feel for someone, the grilled mushrooms may be a way to say, in the deepest sense, welcome home, the roast chicken may be a plea for greater harmony in the family, the mango sorbet served with squares of black chocolate externalises a vision of utopia. Like music, food is extraordinarily direct. It can say the important things without having to go through the bore of language.

Book report for May 11

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A few months ago, we built a microsite to act as a guide to how art might fit into one’s life – and how it could bolster one’s best sides: We’ve now built a companion site that aims to do much the same with food, guiding you to what foods you might cook and eat to back up certain psychological ambitions. Please visit:

How do we eat when no one is there to see us? It’s tempting to think that it’s just a solo version of what we do when others are around. One setting, rather than two or more.


But, individually, in our hearts, we know that’s not true. We know, privately, that on our own we are far weirder, greedier and more imaginative than when we’re witnessed. But it’s a lonely, guilty knowledge. Because the cookery pages keep on pushing a different vision of what we’re like: that the norm is to be smart but casual, and to rustle up well-organised, carefully nutritious meals for one.

But that’s not normal at all, as we’re coming to realise, in part thanks to insights afforded us by new websites.


This is what we’re really like

It turns out it’s normal – indeed pretty much universal – to do odd things. So, in truth, they are not really odd at all. Alone, we are all less fussy, more fun, more idiosyncratic than we believe others might be. We think nothing of shoving some fish fingers on buttered bread and liberally coating them with ketchup. We try out pasta with marmalade sauce. The ideal feast might be six chicken drumsticks and a bar of chocolate and nothing else. We know this about ourselves. Yet we feel exceedingly reluctant to try it out with others. When you invite friends round to eat, you fuss and worry and make up elaborate concoctions. But in truth, they too might be delighted with a cheese sandwich and a bag of crisps.


Ideal, but not on the menu at the restaurant

At a smart restaurant, one might secretly wish for canned tomato soup served with fries or a baguette stuffed with sausages. But deference to an idea of what is appropriate or normal prevents these desires being voiced and transmitted to the kitchen.

The distinction between what we actually like to eat and what we’re supposed to like eating is mirrored in so many other areas of life. We are gradually coming to recognise that, in a great many fields, it is normal to be a bit ‘abnormal’. Our true selves are not quite aligned with the way we’ve imagined other people to be or with the way we’ve described ourselves to others. The problem is not that we’re weird, but that we’re operating with a skewed picture of normality, one that leaves far too much of our real selves out.

Through the first half of the 1800s, the English painter JMW Turner worked for his own pleasure on pictures which he never exhibited or even showed to anyone during his lifetime. He didn’t dare to try to find an audience. They were only discovered decades later, rolled up and mouldering in a basement.


Art as a solo supper

In private, he happened to love watery effects in diffuse sunlight and didn’t much bother whether the outlines were accurate – which was totally at odds with sophisticated assumptions of the day. He could do the expected thing very well; it’s just that he really loved certain elements that official public opinion rejected.


More expected – just less true to himself

But when the more adventurous works became known, they were widely admired, far more so than the standard works for which he had been recognised to date. It was ironic in the extreme. It turned out that a lot more people sympathised with Turner’s intimate tastes than – in his lonelier moments – he had ever imagined. He thought it was just him. It squarely wasn’t.

In a less dramatic – but still very important way – our secret eating styles are like Turner’s hidden pictures. In so many areas of life, we are still discovering and shyly daring to own up to our true selves.


The real me