The Hunger Games

There’s a significant danger I won’t come out of this article with my credibility enhanced.

Not to worry. I was a geek before I was old enough to know what the word meant, so I shouldn’t really fret too much about flaunting my continued geekery on the web. So here goes.

It’s my strong belief that cooking should fit around the rest of your life, not the other way round. And if you agree with that mantra, it follows that what and how you cook will change depending on what else you’re up to.

This is hardly a ground-breaking observation, of course. Plenty of writers and TV chefs have offered cooking advice to suit particular situations: for instance, dinner party dishes that can be prepared in advance and require the minimum of last-minute activity from the host.

But what about all those times when you’re not hosting a dinner party? Shouldn’t cooking always be situation-specific, even when the occasion isn’t all that special?

Of course it should. But when it comes to everyday meals, there’s only so much assistance a cookbook can provide.

The dinner party example is a familiar one to most of us. Even if we don’t play host all that often, it’s useful to get some advice and reassurance when we do. But our daily cooking routines are less well suited to “catch-all” advice. We cook different things, at different times, on different budgets, for different numbers of people. So we’re never likely to find a “how-to” book that quite matches our particular situation.

If such bespoke cookbooks did exist, mine would be quite an unusual read.

Why? Because I’m a gamer.

I’ve been playing computer games since long before I knew how to cook. And my gaming preferences, established on a BBC Micro and green-screen Amstrad CPC, are the product of a different era. Not for us your snatched 2-minute game of Angry Birds. The computer games I played as a kid could take ten minutes or more to load from tape, if they decided to load at all. Having stared at the screen for most of that time, desperately willing the title screen to appear rather than yet another error message, I’d need to play it for at least an hour, and probably several, in order to justify the time and nervous energy I’d expended getting the bloody thing started in the first place.

Fortunately, this wasn’t a problem. Back then, if I could have played games all day, every day, I would have. Even now that I’m a grown-up – legally, at least – the urge hasn’t entirely left me. And while the demands of adult life aren’t really conducive to near-constant gaming, I still like to devote the occasional evening (or, exceptionally, an entire weekend) to the indulgent pleasures of my computer or console.

When I do, my cooking requirements are very specific. I still need to eat; and while it’s sometimes tempting to exercise the time-honoured gamer’s opt-out (phoning for a pizza), I’ve neither the money nor the inclination to do this every time I decide to have a Playstation session. But equally, I’ve no intention of putting a thrilling Mexican World Cup campaign on hold to peel a pound of spuds. And if my meticulously planned Polynesian invasion of Denmark reaches a pivotal stage just as the oven timer tells me that dinner’s ready, it’s the meal that will have to wait, not the march of the troops.

So my circumstances – or rather, my wishes – effectively lead me towards a certain way of cooking.

I want a meal that can be assembled in short bursts away from the screen, not in a single extended stint in the kitchen. It needs to be something I can safely put on hold – for an hour or more, potentially – when “urgent” matters intervene. And as I’ve no intention whatsoever of leaving the flat, it’s going to have to correspond with whatever I happen to have in the fridge and cupboards.

On the face of it, this is quite a restrictive set of requirements. But that suits me perfectly; because it prompts me to cook in a way that doesn’t just accommodate my gaming, but that I can approach as I would a video game.

Many of the games that have become enduring classics – the Grand Theft Auto series, say, or any number of strategy and exploration games from Elite to Skyrim – owe their longevity to a carefully judged balance of linear and non-linear activity. In other words, the ultimate goal of the game never changes, but the player can employ any number of routes to get there, and much of the stimulation and fun can be found in the journey, not the outcome.

Take away that overall aim, though, and a lazy but frequently heard criticism of computer games – that they’re fundamentally pointless – takes on a ring of truth, even to an unashamed gamer like me.

When you cook, the aim of the game should be self-evident: you’d really quite like to have something to eat. But how you go about achieving that – which individual missions you take on, and in what order – is up to you.

The other night, I had some chicken thighs that needed using up, and a range of other ingredients including pancetta and tinned tomatoes. In other circumstances, I might have taken time to remove the skin and bone from the chicken pieces, dice up the meat, brown it along with the pancetta, soften some onions and garlic, then allow the whole thing to simmer away while I cooked the accompanying pasta.

But this time, my flatmate and I had an important, evening-long appointment with Civilization V. Time, then, for a spot of gamer logic.

I declared the onions to be “optional” (that’s to say, fiddly) and decided to leave them out. The chicken went – skin, bones and all – into a medium-low oven, along with salt, pepper, a healthy splash of olive oil and a couple of crushed fat garlic cloves. A tin of tomatoes was emptied into a saucepan and placed on a very low hob to reduce. Two minutes. Back to the game.

Some time later – I’d guess around forty minutes, but I’ve no real idea – a trip to get a beer from the fridge afforded the opportunity for a quick check on proceedings. The tomatoes were beginning to thicken and darken nicely, to the point that they needed a spot of lubrication as well as flavour. So the seasoned, chickeny, garlicky oil went from the oven dish into the tomatoes, which immediately took on an alluring gloss, and the diced pancetta went in with the chicken. One minute. Back to the game.

The need for another beer prompted a further progress update. The skin of the chicken had crisped up nicely, as had the pancetta. The tomato sauce had, if anything, overreduced slightly, but that was easily rectified with the addition of a little white wine (red wine or water would have done different but perfectly good jobs). A quick taste, followed by an appropriate adjustment of the seasonings (in this case, a little sugar and the tiniest dash of white wine vinegar), and the sauce was done. Two minutes (at the most).

Five minutes’ work, spread across a thoroughly leisurely evening, and dinner was a pan of pasta away. But frankly, I was having far too much fun for that. Time to turn the oven into the trusty “holding pen”.

So I turned the oven down to 70°C, put a lid on the sauce and a loose foil covering on the chicken, put them both in the oven and carried on with my game. Only when the need to eat finally overcame the urge to keep playing did I take the final step of putting some macaroni on. And even then, once that was bubbling away cheerfully, I still managed to fit in a further few minutes’ world conquest before draining the pasta, tossing it in the sauce (itself given a final boost by the addition of the cooked pancetta), and topping it with the crispy chicken, haphazardly torn from the bones.

It was delicious – made all the more so by the self-imposed wait, and by the satisfaction that comes from making a tasty meal with minimal effort. With a lowish oven temperature, plus the protection afforded by its skin and bones, there was never any realistic chance that the chicken would end up overcooked and dry. And the tasks that would have required the most time – the chopping and the browning – were largely sidestepped, because my gamer’s instinct allowed me to find a suitable way round them.

If you’re not a gamer yourself, is all this actually of any relevance?

I’d argue that it is. The precise circumstances might be gamer-specific; but the broader situation is a relatively common one. There will always be times when you need to create a meal from what you happen to have in the house, or when you’re obliged to start cooking before you know exactly when mealtime will be. And even if you’ve never played a computer game in your life, and have no intention of starting now, there’ll be occasions when you have to cook but you’d much rather be doing something else.

Take a rigid approach to your cooking, with strict adherence to prescribed ingredients, timings and processes, and you’ll struggle to do any of these things successfully. What you decide to cook will determine what else you’re able to do, and when you’re able to do it.

But think creatively and laterally – in other words, like a gamer – and you come to realise what some of us have known for years: the game itself may never change; but there are infinite ways to complete it.

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4 thoughts on “The Hunger Games

  1. I’m not a gamer at all (computer or trad. games) but I think this could apply to anyone “doing something engaging” and if I lived on my own would be the way I cooked. It just doesn’t work, however, when you have a partner saying “feed me, feed me, …”

    • Quite so – and I do realise the circumstances I describe are quite specific! But I think the wider point holds – that learning (or rather, convincing yourself) to cook to your circumstances rather than a fixed pattern can be liberating as well as practical. For years, I was so preoccupied with perceived “rules” of cooking that I was terrified of departing from them – as if making a tomato sauce in a slightly different order, with the oil/garlic added partway through, would somehow ruin the dish.

      The article is intended to show how a small shift of mindset can make a significant difference to how we cook, and how much our cooking intrudes on whatever else we want/need to do. In that respect, I hope it’s still of some relevance, even if you’re unlikely to be emulating my (occasional) evenings of strategy gaming and late-night feasting…

  2. Totally agree. I probably do need to think outside of the box more. I do enjoy browsing recipes, but as a kickoff point to just making up something to use whatever I have in the fridge, freezer or larder.

    Looking forward to more (no pressure).

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