I’ve always been more than usually alert to the human appetite, and not only because I’ve long since learned to be highly suspicious of the kind of person who’s apt to “forget” to eat lunch. Like the writer MFK Fisher, a new edition of whose wartime classic, How To Cook a Wolf, is published this month, the older I get the more I grow convinced that our basic needs – for food, for security and, above all, for love – are “so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others”. Consider hunger, and you’re also pondering love. Think about love, and you’d probably do well, at some point, to mention dinner.
Will coronavirus produce the best book to be written about appetite since Fisher was at work? (She died in 1992.) My hunch is that it just might. Unlike certain of my acquaintances, I haven’t enjoyed lockdown one bit; for me, these months have been relentless and lonely, and I find it hard to understand why anyone might feel differently. But if there is a silver lining to be found in all this, I’d head for the kitchen, where our seclusion has provided near laboratory-style conditions for the study of the unaccountable whims of the human appetite. I can’t be the only one to have noticed that, sequestered indoors, many of us are hungry like never before – and without having done a thing to earn it.
At first, I assumed my newly ravenous appetite must be the result of boredom. Except, I’m never bored. I work like mad, I read, I watch telly, I listen to music – and when I’m done doing those things, I faff about (I’m brilliant at faffing about). So what was its cause? Had it something to do with all the food in the house? Or did it betoken a need for comfort in the face of great uncertainty? (I’d hardly be the only one: once the run on loo rolls and flour ended, it was soft brown sugar, Angel Delight and Fab ice lollies that began selling out.) But here, I also drew a blank. I’ve never been someone who binges; when I’m low, I eat less, not more.
I’ve come to believe that there can be only one explanation for it, which is that my appetite has genuinely been stimulated. Life having dramatically narrowed, every meal is now a treat: the sole provider of the sensory pleasure of which I’m so sorely in need in a world without friends, restaurants, concerts, theatre, galleries and all the other things I love. And this, surely, is why it is so easy to satisfy: only a hunger that is real can be sated. For dinner the other night, I got together some spicy merguez sausages, some couscous, some roasted peppers and a bowl of ratatouille. I looked at it all, and felt starving, after which I ate a little of everything, and quickly felt full. Afterwards, I found myself thinking that I haven’t eaten this well – by which I mean, heartily and healthily – in years (let us ignore, for the moment, the lake of wine with which I washed it all down).
I’ve spent my whole life arguing that pleasure is a human necessity, something that might occasionally have sounded self-serving to others: a means of excusing my urgent need for more trifle or another (third) slice of cheese. But I always meant what I said – and now I see that it really is true; the case is made, thanks to this lockdown, without me even needing to open my mouth (except to put cake in it). In such times, pleasure really is vital – and where else might we find it, save for in our supper?
It hardly needs saying that comparisons with the war are invidious; even when people were still going bonkers down at Tesco, we were a long way from rationing. But open How To Cook A Wolf – a book that at first gracefully, and then more lustily, fully acknowledges we can cope with meagreness of all kinds only for so long – and you’ll see immediately that those times, and these times, have commonalities. That pasta you ate last night; those strawberries. Weren’t they the most delicious things you’ve tasted in years? I bet they were. My roast chicken and new potatoes were the same: such green beans as were worthy of a queen.