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  • Eat, Darling, Eat

The Lodger

(by Felicity Jolly)

When I was a little girl, I would sit at a red plastic table in the kitchen wearing nothing but a pair of Wellies. I’d like to think that this is one of those family stories that has been misremembered, but sadly we have photographic evidence. My tongue poking out with concentration, I mixed paint colors while Mum mixed spices for dinner. A taller but otherwise mirror image of myself, Mum stood over her big green cookbook, her shiny bob bouncing as she moved swiftly from the chopping board to the fridge and back again. The cover was stained with tea and turmeric—a scrapbook of dinnertime memories. My brother and I used to imagine it a book of spells, adding eye of newt and leg of toad to the cumin and coriander—far removed from the small black screen I stare at during isolation, googling “How to make bread without yeast.”

My mum and dad live by the sea, and I’m in London, locked down in a vast four-story house with fellow lodgers, most of us freelancers/creatives who work multiple jobs and sometimes don't see much of each other. We get on very well, but we spin around the kitchen like an elaborate dance routine, individual planets on our orbits around a long inviting dining table that’s rarely used. The walls seem to echo with loneliness as I relay my recipes over FaceTime with my mum, me at the stove and she propped up via the screen on the toaster.

My mum is definitely what you would call a ”feeder”—lunch followed by snacks, followed by dinner, followed by “Can I get you some cheese and biscuits?” After a trip home, I board the coach, clutching my stomach in pain as I hold onto foil-wrapped sandwiches, a white label stuck to the front: “Love Mum x.” Our house by the sea is kept “ship-shape”—you can tell my mum is ex-military. We tease her that as you reach for another sip of coffee, the cup is already washed and dried. When my parents first got married, they had a cat, Meesa, who would be eating a prawn while hiding another two under each paw—perhaps she too had learned to keep her eye on her food.

I’ve always found cooking tedious, the results often hurried, half the plate ending up in the bin before rushing out to perform in a play reading. In contrast, the unending hours that stretch ahead are intimidating, trying to create a schedule for myself that satisfies “productivity guilt” while also keeping sane. By the evening, the hours stretch ahead with the prospect of eating dinner with no one but the host of “Grand Designs,” watching very wealthy people build their dream house from scratch. I used to fantasize about owning my own flat, my own postage-stamp space in the city, but now I realize that living alone, cooking alone, eating alone aren’t quite what I thought they would be. I prop the phone against a mug and FaceTime my family to share mealtimes in a strange digital world.

I never thought I would enjoy cooking, but when we are all craving human contact, I’m enjoying these moments when Mum and I meet miles apart to cook and share recipes, re-creating meals remembered from holidays on Greek beaches when I was a teen. I see now that it wasn’t cooking that held no pleasures for me; it was cooking for one. I like cooking now. I enjoy measuring the ingredients, having time to follow the recipe, sharing the food with others, albeit over Zoom.

The other day, Mum texted me a recipe for naan bread, and we made it “together.” I apologized about calling for the fourth time already that day, and for not having much to say. I told her she could hang up if she wanted, but of course she declined, and I knew it was not out of parental obligation but a deep wish within my mother hen to make sure I don’t eat alone, genuine excitement to see how my bread turns out, and to share with me that first bite. When I’m home, she often leans over the table, anxiously awaiting my verdict on the breakfast she has prepared. “What do you think?” she asks before I’ve even sat down, sometimes receiving an ungrateful “Give me a minute” as I struggle to open my eyes. Now, before I even took the naan out of the oven, I heard, “What do you think?” I smiled, wishing we were together.

It can feel life is on hold without being able to share each day with those we love. I’ve started writing down recipes, a promise to our future selves. When lockdown ends, we can gather around the table and use the time we spend cooking alone as an investment into the feast we will share.

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Felicity Jolly is an actress based in London. When not acting, she enjoys writing and running art workshops and birthday parties for kids. She can be found on Instagram.

Naan Bread

1 3/4 c. flour 2 t. sugar 1 t. salt 3/4 t. baking powder 2 t. oil

1/2 c. milk (or you can use powdered milk mixed with water, as we have done during isolation) butter mixed herbs/garlic/chili flakes Mix all of the dry ingredients in a bowl. Create a “well” in the middle of the mixture, and pour the milk and oil into it. Mix together, forming a ball that has an “elastic” texture. Let dough rest for 10 minutes. Roll the dough out very thinly, and cut into slices. Heat some butter in a pan, and fry the bread until browned on both sides.

Sprinkle with herbs, garlic, or chili flakes.