In Praise of Spaghetti Bolognese

Let me tell you a story: a long long time ago, not far from this very boutique, I used to work as a chef in a chain Italian restaurant. I enjoyed it greatly, and was very snooty about the whole thing. I took the whole chef thing very seriously: I threatened colleagues with knives, I shouted till the ears of my brethren bled, and I set flaming fire to absolutely anything I could, as often as I could. It was fun.

The main thing I was particularly snooty about was the orders made by our customers. I would snort in derision when the same old orders of familiarity spat out of the EPOS: Garlic Mushrooms to start, Spaghetti Carbonara, Spaghetti Bolognese, Margherita Pizza. Always the same, safe things. We had an extensive (and expensive) menu, full of interesting and occasionally edible things. I was bemused as to why no one wanted to try them; I would mock anyone who wanted to stick with the familiar.

I thought that they were unadventurous, ill-educated and meek. I thought that they were picky eaters, afraid of exploring a diverse and interesting menu. I thought that they were scared. None of these things is a bad thing; none of these things is worthy of the mockery I inflicted upon them.

This mockery of mine did, however, transform in to something equally idiotic as time went by. In the years after I ceased working ungodly hours in sweaty kitchens, in the years where I found myself in air conditioned offices, working sociable hours, without access to knives. In the years where I found out how much fun it was to be in the other side of the pass for a change, dining in restaurants.

Because I had mocked guests who ordered the stereotypically normal, safe, “uninteresting” dishes, I found myself incapable of ordering them. No matter how much that was precisely the thing I craved. Sometimes you just have to have a particular plate of food, and only that one thing will do. It’s like an itch you just have to scratch, or your relief will be a long lost fiction. Maybe it’s just me.

I found myself in neighbourhood Italian restaurants wanting to order the Spaghetti Bolognese, but unable to do so, joining in with those around me in ordering complexly sauced meat and shellfish dishes from the specials board: Gamberi, Saltimbocca, Milanese. Great plates of food, but not quite hitting the image I’d had building in my head all day of that one dish to scratch that big fat itch.

Ordering to suit someone else’s expectations of what you are or who you should be is pathetic. It does you no justice, no service and no satisfaction. Unless you’re on a first date with the prospective love of your life no one should care what or how you’re eating anything (mine, then a pescatarian, ordered mussels with pancetta, scraped the pancetta off, shrugged, and ate the mussels. Keeper.)

Feeling that you are being judged by your dining companions, your waiter or the kitchen staff is a symptom of your insecurities, nothing else. The kitchen and waiting staff are too busy working their sorry arses off to care what you order (apart from the waiter I had in a Scottish Mexican restaurant, who was very interested that I would dare order the full rack of ribs, noting that they were really quite large indeed. They were; I did not finish them); your fellow diners are more interested in their own meals, the drink they’re still waiting for, or the conversation they’re having, to even notice what you have ordered. If they are judging you, it’s because they’re judgemental pricks. You’re doing fine.

Keep your eyes on your own business and ignore everyone else’s: life is so much happier that way.

I suppose what I’m getting at here is that some days I just really fancy a spag bol. It started when I discovered a really good Ragù recipe, which knocked my socks off, and got me hooked. It was a far cry from the mince and tomatoes I had grown up seeing masquerade as a Bolognese. That dish found it hard to cling together; it was red liquid with grey matter suspended in it. I really enjoyed it.

[I must apologise to my mother at this juncture: it wasn’t her cooking which was the issue here, it was the food of the 1980s, and 1990s which were to blame. Hell, I’ll even throw in the influence of the 1970s too. It’s how we all ate, and none of us really knew any different / better. We’re both glad that we eat much better food now. She certainly seems perfectly happy to eat my cooking, anyway.]

As a child I also used to love tinned Spaghetti Bolognese. I have an emergency tin in the cupboard at this very moment. I’m not sure what the emergency would be. I suspect it would be all of the other food in the house going off simultaneously, and me having my legs gnawed off by one of our Border Terriers. Either way, the nostalgia of such underwhelming sludge looms large in my culinary brain.

Sometimes, a bit of what you fancy does you good. As long as that which you fancy isn’t the death and slaughter of your fellow man, you’ll probably be alright, at least in my book. There are times when what I want is the most stereotypical item on the menu, and I have learned to see no shame in that. My partner (mussels and pancetta) and I were recently in Paris. When we got up to the top of Montmartre we were cold, and in need of nourishment. Without communicating what we needed we knew; it was instinctive. In Montmartre we ordered Onion Soup and Croque Monseiur. Perfect.

In the same way that some days only a dirty burger from a less than dirty chain, or some crispy fried chicken from a very dirty chain, will do, on that day, at the top of that hill, only that food would do. We understood that the waiters were laughing: they’re French waiters: it’s their raison d’etre. We didn’t care. Our itches were well and truly scratched, and we were able to go about our day.

There should be no shame in nourishment; no shame in comfort; no shame in pleasure. The idea of the guilty pleasure should be lost from our mindset: it only works to keep us ashamed and unhappy.

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