Are we there yet? I’m not sure. The cartoonist Adrian Tomine’s latest New Yorker cover, which is titled Easing Back, depicts a small party: a group of friends, or maybe colleagues, drinking and smiling and talking, while in the foreground, a new arrival, about to hang up her coat, opens a cupboard to reveal box upon box of surgical masks, huge bottles of hand sanitiser and an extravagance of loo roll. The question this image subtly asks is: backwards, or forwards? Freedom has lately made a return to our lives, but for the time being the happiness involved in this is still shadowed by the fear that our liberation may not be permanent; that we may yet have to fall back on all the stuff piled up in our cupboards.
Looking at my shelves, I suspect that I have enough pasta, flour and tinned tomatoes to see me to the end of the year – and yet, the habits of lockdown are so hard to shake off. My supermarket order, planned with military precision, is still big enough to last a fortnight, in spite of the fact that we can now go out to eat (and do, with alarming frequency on my part). I fret constantly about the freezer, and how I might ever manage to defrost it, given that I’m so nervous of emptying it – and I worry, too, about shortages, even if the insufficiency in question is only a premium (ha ha) beef crisp for which I developed a nagging craving in lockdown.
Meanwhile, the pile of recipes torn from magazines appears, even now, to be growing, and it was already a fire hazard. Rifling through it, the culinary equivalent of Leonard Bast in Howard’s End (if he was killed by a bookcase, I expect to meet my end beneath my biggest Le Creuset saucepan), I see that the most recent addition involves desiccated coconut (of which there are three bags in the house, the last bought – what’s wrong with me? – only last weekend). Will I ever make this “very simple” cake, a delicacy reminiscent of those you find on breakfast buffets in posh Italian hotels? Though I’m unlikely to be going to any Italian hotel, posh or otherwise, any time soon, I have a feeling that I won’t – at least, not while Pizza Pilgrims, Dishoom and Royal China remain open.
But it’s not all bad. I like Dr Michael Mosley’s new BBC podcast, Just One Thing, in each episode of which he suggests a single, easy-to-achieve improvement to one’s health and wellbeing (it goes without saying that the only tip on which I’ve acted so far – a daily dose of microbe-rich kefir – involves eating), and it strikes me that we could take a similar approach in terms of what we learned in lockdown. What’s the one thing you did that you won’t change? I’m sure I’ll always shop more locally now – there is no better flatbread than that sold by the little Turkish bakery I discovered on my daily walk, and when I finally get to see my Sheffield family this month, I’ll be taking them a tray of its baklava – and I hope that the firm determination not to waste anything, born of the first weeks of the first lockdown when shopping was suddenly such a slog, will stick, too.
Most of all, I’d like to maintain a certain level of mealtime fuss. I’ve always loved the rituals of eating. I like freshly laundered napkins and cut-glass salt cellars; my only major purchase last year was a new canteen of cutlery (it has aquamarine handles, and came from Paris). But in lockdown, such things seemed important, too: symbolic of hope and forbearance. I found then that a few love-in-the-mist, cut from the garden where they grow like weeds, and shoved in a pot, buoyed me up at suppertime like almost nothing else – though a candle, or a slab of butter on a pretty plate are just as good, out of season. The self-help gurus instruct us not to sweat the small stuff. But I think sweating the small stuff makes the big stuff more manageable. The rites of the table lend order to our lives and express our gratitude for whatever’s on it – and somewhere between the two of these things, perspective can usually be found.