Clare Mackintosh: The last course
PUBLISHED: 14:51 15 October 2018 | UPDATED: 14:51 15 October 2018
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‘What meal would you choose, if you could only ever eat that meal three times a day forever and day?’
Last night at supper we debated a variation of the death row conundrum: what would you order for dinner if your head was on the block tomorrow? We called our (slightly less macabre version) the ‘forever food’ question: what meal would you choose, if you could only ever eat that meal three times a day forever and ever and ever?
“Steak,” said Josh, who from the age of four knew exactly what he wanted at every restaurant we ever visited, and has never once changed his choice. That boy has expensive tastes (or a lack of imagination). “Salad,” declared George, whose fondness for lettuce knows no bounds. Evie struggled to decide. “Chilli con carne,” she plumped for eventually. “With tortilla and guacamole and grated cheese. That way, if I get bored, I can just have a cheese wrap. Or an avocado one.”
The kid’s smart. Clearly she gets it from me, because my own forever food strategy follows a similar line of thought. One meal, forever and ever? Easy. I’d have a picnic. Oh, how I love a picnic! It is a continual source of disappointment to me that picnic season is considered to run only alongside the summer months, because I would happily snack on pork pies and cocktail sausages at any time of year. Nor do I require a beach or sunny park for my buffet spread: I have eaten picnics in the pouring rain on a clifftop, sitting in a traffic jam on the M1, and – one famous summer – crammed into the boot of my people-carrier, to avoid a particularly vicious wasp invasion. Not to be reserved for bank holidays, picnics are an any time, any place meal, and one of the few meals I enjoy making as much as I enjoy eating. Perhaps it’s because one doesn’t so much cook a picnic as compile it (I suspect someone, somewhere – almost certainly London – is even curating one…) which makes for the sort of haphazard result that can never, ever, be wrong.
In fact, the only thing I don’t like about a picnic, is carrying the bloody thing. Whether it’s an Instagrammable wicker basket that lets in the flies, or an insulated cool box that bangs against your legs, transporting one’s efforts from kitchen to picnic spot is quite literally a pain in the neck. Worth it, though, for the spread on arrival. Even the most nondescript sandwiches look better when arranged prettily on a tartan rug, and it’s common knowledge that all food tastes better out of doors.
Not for me the trendy recipe books with their suggestions of stuffed focaccia and beetroot hummus; I stick to the basics. Hard-boiled eggs and sausage rolls with flaky pastry; ham sandwiches with fiery mustard. Sticks of carrot and bowls of cherry tomatoes, so we don’t get scurvy. Packs of crisps and chocolate biscuits melting together in the car.
Everything I learned about picnics I learned from my mother (and Enid Blyton – lashings of ginger beer, anyone?) and now the very act of hauling out the picnic box from the garage is enough to transport me back 30 years. Only now it’s my children, asking if it’s time for lunch yet; my children, taking lids off plastic boxes like they’re digging for treasure, then handing me sandwich wrappings and empty yoghurt pots like I’m a human dustbin. It’s my children, eating too much and being sick in the car on the way home.
“What would you have for your forever meal, Daddy?” Evie asked. Roast beef, we guessed. Salmon? Steak and kidney pie? Curry? He reached across the table for my hand, and his voice softened. “I’d share Mummy’s picnic, of course.” The children made sicking noises at this public demonstration of affection, but I didn’t care. I squeezed his hand. “Okay. But you have to carry it.”
Clare’s third novel Let Me Lie, published by Sphere, is out now. Book four is on its way!