Wanting to make the perfect vindaloo might seem like a strange ambition.
It originates from my lack of confidence about food. I’ve eaten almost every day of my life, but I still somehow feel like I’m getting it wrong. I don’t know how I made it through university, as I struggled to make those first few dishes and resorted to things in tins. Somehow I’ve kept myself alive, but I’ve never felt good at feeding myself – despite doing it for many years.
Some food is genuinely like sorcery. When I read about places like Fäviken or the Fat Duck, I’m in awe of what they do with food. But even some simple dishes feel like they are out of my league. I can’t bake at all – even packets of pre-prepared pizza dough fail to solidify for me. And, for many years, curry felt like it was beyond my competence. It’s become my favourite food as I’ve grown older, but it always felt like a mystery, the blending of mundane ingredients into something magical.
Food shouldn’t feel like that much of an achievement. Cooking is one of those skills – like keeping a budget, driving or having a haircut – that most adults just seem able to do. Yet I’d never felt competent. And elsewhere, my life seemed to drag in so many other ways, as I lurched between hangovers, between jobs that never seemed to go anywhere. I never seemed to focus on anything (god knows, I’ve been distracted from this blog often enough). I’d imagined my life as something that would have felt bigger by now. This inability to cook seemed emblematic of all my other failures. Food still felt like magic, and by now I should have been good at that. I’m not as bad a cook as I used to be; but I’m also not as good as I could be (or should be, considering how often I invite people to eat at my flat). The horror at the first meals I cooked remains, just like the shame I feel as all the stupid things that I have done.
There’s an old saying that the way you do anything is the way you do everything. Most people interpret this as being about maintaining focus and attention in even the smallest act, seeing that as carrying through to the more important things. There’s another way to interpret it at the same time – that if we can do one thing perfectly, what we learn will influence all of the other things that we do.
So why not get good at making a curry? Get to the point where I can make an amazing vindaloo. Sure, it won’t change my life, but it’s a journey that can take me some interesting places. It’s not as if I am trying to meet 100 people with my name, or carry a domestic appliance round a small country. The things one learns about curry connect to other things: it’s about food & people & travel & life. But it’s also just a simple dish of curry.
Aleister Crowley described magick as “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will”. Which, loosely, also defines the act of cooking. It’s a form of alchemy, taking raw ingredients and transforming them into a dish. If you can do one bit of magick, well, you can do others. It’s getting one thing right, and knowing I can do that. And even if I don’t make a vindaloo that can change my world, I’ll still be able to make a pretty impressive curry.