Caroline was pretty heroic during the first lockdown. She’s used to having no children to deal with between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., into which she crams her part-time job, food shopping, exercise classes, tennis lessons, dog walks and a hundred other things. But during our children’s three-month break from school they would appear in the kitchen at 1 p.m. and ask what was for lunch and, in spite of her other commitments, Caroline would always do her best to rustle something up. ‘I’m like Nigella Lawson on steroids,’ she said at the time.
But she has drawn the line at repeating this Stakhanovite labor during the third lockdown. ‘I can handle everything, but not the cooking,’ she said on the day that Boris announced it, with an air of finality. So the kids have been instructed to fend for themselves at lunchtime, with packets of bagels, ham, salami, lettuce and cheese left on the kitchen table, and we’re all mucking in when it comes to supper.
Not that we’re actually cooking anything from scratch. Rather, my three sons and I have become customers of Gousto, a company that delivers the raw ingredients for several meals in a box, complete with detailed instructions. It’s like a halfway house between a recipe book and a ready meal. You still have to cook everything, but there’s no weighing of ingredients and the fiddly bits for each meal are bundled together in a brown paper bag. It costs about £50 ($68) for four meals, which is pretty reasonable given that they can stretch to six people.
The instructions are supposed to be idiot-proof, but the company clearly didn’t envisage that anyone could be quite as incompetent as me. I have yet to cook a single Gousto meal correctly. One difficulty is that the recipes aren’t always in chronological order and you start off meticulously following the first instruction, only to discover when you get to the second that you should have begun with that one. So the chicken is already frying in the pan before you realize you should have marinated it first. The solution is to read the recipe in its entirety before you start — and to be fair, it tells you to do that at the top of the instructions. But obviously the Galloping Gourmet here imagines he’s above having to do that, hence the culinary car crashes.
On the plus side, I’ve discovered that if I don’t tell the kids I’ve messed up, they’re none the wiser. For instance, I cooked a lamb stew last week and squeezed all the little sachets of wine vinegar into the stew pot when it should have been combined with some chopped red onion to create a garnish. I had a sinking feeling when, after placing the pot in the oven, I read the next instruction: ‘Do not include the wine vinegar with the other ingredients as this will ruin the flavor of the meat.’ But I kept a poker face when serving it up to the three boys, and they wolfed it down in the usual fashion. My youngest, Charlie, said he didn’t think it was one of Gousto’s best, but apart from that there were no complaints.
The biggest test to date was when the company delivered a box with all the recipes missing. Other customers must have complained, because we got an apologetic email from Gousto telling us how to find the recipes on its website. But trying to follow the instructions by squinting at my iPhone while pots and pans simmered on the stove proved quite difficult, particularly as I need reading glasses to see anything on a screen. My spectacles kept falling into the boiling sauces. I tied some string to them and looped them round my neck, at which point the kids, who’d been watching with amusement, told me I looked like an old-age pensioner. Such, such are the joys of Lockdown III.
I realize that this sounds as if I do bugger all most of the time, but that’s not strictly true. For instance, I pay for the cleaner, and cleaners are allowed to travel to work during lockdowns. No, seriously, I do all the ‘blue jobs’ — putting out the rubbish, picking up the dog’s poo, doing the washing up. I even helped my eldest son put up a Rick and Morty triptych on his bedroom wall on Monday. I also go round the house obsessively turning out all the lights so as not to waste electricity. Funnily enough, none of the kids ever bother, even though they profess to be worried about carbon emissions. Still, at least this makes for lively dinner-table conversations when I serve up the next ruined meal.