Come dine with me
It’s going to be fine it’s going to be fun it’s goin – I wish that sound guy would stop hovering the boom over my fennel, it could have been anywhere. Lordy what if they used the same one for Kim and Aggy? I’m going to poison three strangers on cosy daytime channel 4 TV through fennel contaminated with the underside of someone else’s toilet seat.
“Ellie hun? We’re going to start rolling now for when the first guest arrives.” He winks at me. “You look gorrrrrgeous!” I flash him what I hope is a big shiny TV smile. “Ok, we’re rolling!”. I do the smile again properly to camera and carry on bustling round the kitchen, aligning and re-aligning plates, snipping invisible bits of stem off basil leaves, trying to create a picture of cosy in-control hospitality. It’s going to be fun it’s going to be fine it’s going to be
The doorbell rings. Deep breath. I grin again at the camera. Probably should put a lid on that soon, the sarcy voiceover’s going to pick up on it.
I step out through the kitchen door and into the hall. From down the corridor I can just make out a head and shoulders through the mottled glass of the front door. Is it male? Probably, pretty tall, not much hair. I’m only a few steps away now. The cameraman, sound guy and rogue boom trot after me. Definitely male, sharp shoulders of a suit too. Are those flowers I spy a corner of too? I pull down the latch and swing open the door.
Gleaming perfect pearly whites take over my field of vision. “Hiya!” Goddamn my TV smile’s going to look like Amy Winehouse’s by comparison. He thrusts a bunch of tulips into my hands and kisses me on the cheek. “I’m Ali so pleased to meet you! Am I the first?”. He smells like a perfectly balanced combination of Lynx, Colgate and Shockwaves hair gel. “I’m Ellie, come in, yes, yes, you are. I hope you’re hungry!”
I lead him through into the dining room. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone so well polished and turned out, and just, well, CLEAN. “Sit down, let me take your coat. Would you like a drink, glass of wine?” “Not wine thanks, I’m trying to cut it out. I mean, it’s good for you, it’s bad for you, who knows. Do you have any sparkling water?”. I take his beautifully cut wool coat and head to the kitchen for a glass.
The doorbell rings again. I peer down the hall. It’s some kind of two-headed beast. “Hey, hey I’m Marcus, err, I’m sorry I’m late. We’re late. I met Clarissa coming up the drive” drawls a shaggy head of long, sun-bleached hair. “Hi I’m Ellie”. He wriggles naked toes in beaten-up flip-flops and shifts his hands in his holey tracksuit bottoms. “Come in, you must be freezing”. He shuffles past me inside. A firm grip takes my hand and tugs it firmly. “Clarissa. Pleased to meet you.” “Come in come in”. She smartly wipes solid leather lace-ups on the doormat. Unlike Marcus, who looks like he’d be at ease somewhere considerably nearer the equator, Clarissa looks built for the English winter. She’s tiny, half the height of Ali, but appears almost spherical with endless layers of muddy green and brown tweed and knitwear.
We all pile into the dining room, the TV crew conspicuously dancing around us. “So!” There’s Ali-ing, Clarissa-ing and Marcus-ing all round.
I pop to the kitchen to get some drinks. I come back, take my seat and join in the polite eyeballing. The crew are quietly set up at one end, like a white elephant with its hands over its eyes, thinking that’ll definitely make it disappear. Ali’s in full flow. “So I’ve been in that PR agency for two years now, but I’m planning on leaving next year. It’s part of my ten year plan. I always said I wanted to own my own business by the time I was 35, so now’s the time. Own business, swimming pool, Prada briefcase. It’s going to be a line of skin products called Baby Face. Completely niche. What about you Marcus, you must be a fair bit younger than me?” Marcus looks up through his locks. He’s still got his hands in his pockets. “Yeah, yeah, well, I’m err, 26. Work for Gap Adventures. Dot com. Out in India most of the time, umm, looking for projects for the students to help, to get involved with. Awesome, totally love the country and the people.” “Ohh I could never travel” says Clarissa gruffly. “Got plenty of people and country here.” “What do you do?” “I teach at the primary in the village. Been there 25 years now”. She sniffs loudly and crosses one tweedy arm over another.
“Right, I’ll go get the starter.” I slide out of my seat and into the kitchen, tailed by a camera. Showtime. “Ellie, what’s on the menu then?” “Well, it’s a recipe I picked up in Florence. At this little restaurant near the Uffizi gallery but down a back street. Such a lovely day and then I ate this, really perfect.” Sound a bit wanky, bit smug? I am pretty smug about this one to honest, the voiceover can mock but it’s a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. Tens all round. I introduce the cheese to camera. “It’s a salad with pecorino cheese, a err, a speciality, a regional speciality made from sheep’s milk.” Another smile. I lay out the salad on the plates, acutely aware of the camera. Leaves and pear slices at exact angles, walnuts and fennel perfectly distributed yet with strewn rustic charm, pecorino laid seductively on top, honey artistically drizzled.
“Oh darling it looks looovely, really yummy!” Good start from Ali. I ceremoniously lower the plates in front of them, put a basket of bread in the middle and sit down, beaming. Marcus looks concerned. “Oh. Great! Is that, is this cheese?” I give the cheese’s back story again. “Oh. Ok. I’m really concerned about methane emissions, that’s all. You know it can trap 20 times the heat of carbon dioxide? All those air miles too….” “There’s a spiffing dairy down the road which makes its own cheese” chips in Clarissa. “Mmm, I had to go a bit further afield to get this stuff, it’s not easy to track down over here!” “Not sure why you’d want to, the local stuff’s lovely.” Another stern sniff. “The farmers down there are doing tremendous work for the local area as well. You know they’ve built all the hedgerows back up, and the spinney too, having a nightmare keeping the cows off them but it’s brilliant for the birds and biodiversity. Spend my Sundays down there now with my binoculars. Landscape’s really changed. It’s marvellous” My foreign cheese is pushed to the edge of the plate. She brightens slightly and forks a walnut. “These from the park?” “Walnuts. Amazing. Superfood.” Ali munches one enthusiastically. “No, err, Waitrose. Actually it’s, the rest of the salad’s from Waitrose…”. I tail off. I thought this was good, I was brought up to believe Waitrose was a pillar of responsible consumer society. Apparently not. “The bread, the bread’s from the farmshop!” Clarissa looks me straight on with bright lined eyes. “Jolly good.” She firmly dives into the basket. Relief, she’s going to eat something.
“These can cut the damage fatty foods do to your arteries.” Ali’s still heartily chomping through the walnuts. “Though we should be eating them for dessert really.” “I didn’t know that.” “Completely true. Saw it on the BBC. Must be. What’s this?” “Fennel. Just the fronds at the top, it’s for the flavour” “Great. Potassium. Help slow ageing too.” Clarissa looks as indignant as she can with a mouthful of bread. “Just the fronds? That’s a bit of a waste isn’t it?”
The eating comes to a halt. Clarissa’s eaten some bread. Ali the ‘superfoods’ of walnuts, fennel and honey. Marcus has picked at most of it apart from the cheese, though I suspect this is out of politeness and in his eyes airplane emissions are vaporising off his plate. I stack the plates and am escorted by the crew into the kitchen.
“How do you think it’s going Ellie?” I try and conjure some camera-friendly teeth. “Yeah, well, don’t think they were blown away. This is only the first course though, hopefully they’ll be more impressed by my authentic risotto!” But I’m worried now. I didn’t realise I was going to have to save the planet’s atmosphere, the local livelihoods and biodiversity, and Ali’s personal health as well as provide something tasty. “I would like to win you know though. I like having people round, and seeing them enjoy my food, think I’ve still got a shot. The money’d be nice too!” How morally and scientifically offensive are the ingredients of my risotto? I try and think through each. I can’t calculate it all. Too much. Just going to have to see how it pans out.
“Here you go Marcus, vegetarian for you…annndd…meaty for you, Ali and Clarissa. Tuck in.” I’m nervous. “Why are you vegetarian Marcus?” asks Clarissa. “Aren’t you worried about getting enough iron and protein?” adds Ali. “It’s just, it’s just the, the guilt really. I’ve spent a lot of time in India, ya’know with the real people of India, and these people have so little anyway and we’re, we’re just screwing them with all our emissions. So many of them live near the, on the coast and we’re killing the coral and flooding the mangroves and fucking up the weather and so much of it is because of our greed for, for meat, by eating so so much meat we’re screwing the people of India.”
I should have just served up canned worms, that would have been less trouble.
“Oh well…” Ali doesn’t seem the type to be lost for words. Everyone’s quiet. Not the quiet of happy munching. Just quiet. “The vegetable are organic” I try. “Ah, organic! What a load of rip-off lies that turned out to be!” interjects Ali. “You top up your basket with all these promises and they taaaake your money and it’s lies, all lies! The Foods Standards Whatever says there’s no difference! I might as well have been making it into DDT soup for all the good it’s done me!” He slams his fork down in disgust. “DON’T talk to me about organic.” Clarissa shifts sternly and slowly on her chair. “Well it’s not just about you young man. All these chemicals, they’re not good for the environment. They build up in the system. Then they have awful effects further up the food chain, really bad news for a lot of the birds of prey.” “Well, when I pay premium for something I expect some benefits. I buy an expensive carrot, I want my hair to be that much shinier.” “That’s very irresponsible, you should be more concerned with issues other than yourself. My, my society today.” “Well you should be more concerned about your flabby upper arms and shoddy cuticles.” “You’re both so, so selfish, what about the people of India, you’re scre” – “How DAAAARRRRRRRREEEEEEEE YOU!”
I grab some plates and flee to the kitchen. The producer comes after me, the camera crew stay, entranced by the drama. “What shall I do?” “Keep going this is GREAT TV.” I chose the only option I can: plough on with dinner party customs. I pick up my peach tart and creep back into the fire.
“No. I WILL NOT stay and be insulted like this. In 25 years of teacher I’ve never come across such rudeness.” Clarissa scoops up her tweed and knitwear and marches out of room. “Claris – I think we have to – the produ”. The front door slams. “Ohmigod that was just too much, too too much. Ellie, honey, I’m sorry, really sorry, ohh that woman! I’m sorry, lovely evening really, I’m just too angry, too too angry. Bye, kiss, ciao ciao…” He’s gone too.
I sit next to Marcus. Oh no. Fidgety silence. I glance at him with an apologetic smile. All I can think to do is keep going. “Peach tart? The peaches are English. No air miles.” He looks at it. “Yeah, err, go on then, I am pretty hungry”. “Great, guilt-free food, I’ll go and get some plates.” I get up. “Haha, although of course the flour’s probably from an Israeli settlement!” Oh no, oh no, bad joke really bad joke. This evening’s pushed me too far. “Haha, ha…that was a joke, sorry a really bad joke.” “You can’t joke about these things Ellie, Christ. Look it’s really important, it affects peoples’ lives. I’m err, I’m going to go. Just feel too weird here. Yeah, thanks, bye.”
I’m spent, totally spent. I slump in one of the chairs. That wasn’t fun. Or fine. It was awful. I’m an awful human being. I made two types of stock for that. From scratch. The Good Housekeeping way. I stirred. For hours. Had to go to two shops to buy the right kind of cheese. Shelled peas. Googled the right kind of ham.
I didn’t win the big cash prize.