The secret to loving lunch

This is a story I wrote about the different types of lunch – those you loathe and love, those you endure and those you relish. it’s partially a story about the corporate grind and part a story of my love of food and cooking.

The story

The rumbling began dull and low, then spun back on itself to a gurgle, before finally resting after a final deep sound that must be what a full stop would sound like if it had a sound. Frank was determined not to look up from his laptop to acknowledge the unsettlingly loud noise that signalled to his entire pod in the open plan office that he had waited far too long to go for his lunch break. Some of his colleagues noticed it, but others were plugged into their headphones and probably wouldn’t have heard the fire alarm if it went off. One that did was Frank’s office confidant, Ashley, who came over to his desk and said, “spare us all your pleas of ignorance Frank and go get something to eat – it’s way past lunchtime and I know that email can wait.”

“You’re right, you’re right. Do you want to pop out with me?”

“I’ve already eaten, but sure, I can keep you company.”

Frank looked at his phone and saw the time was already 15:00. He hesitated for a second as he knew Ashley would want to get her day done so she could get back home on time. He looked back at her and said, “Actually, don’t worry about it. Who knows how long it will take me to pick something out. I’ll use the time to clear my head.”

“Suit yourself Frankie,” she said, using his hated nickname with great satisfaction.

He smiled and walked by the stairwell, opting instead to take the lazy route of the lift, even though he was only on the second floor.

The weather was pleasant enough outside. Cloud cover. A few rays of sunshine poked through from time to time. The air was crisp and didn’t attempt to cling in the way that Frank hated ever so much. A perfect day for a lunch on a piazza or at a small bistro table by the side of a road.

Instead of those lovely ideas, none of which were anywhere in the vicinity of Frank’s office, he walked straight down cookie cutter alley. Everywhere you looked there was another chain. There was choice, sure, to an extent. Sushi, but not the best sushi. Burritos, but not ones any Mexican or American would consider up to scratch. Sandwiches. So many sandwiches. All trying their hardest to be unique, but somehow all containing mayonnaise. To bout, all of the supermarkets had their miniature outlets here, hawking triangle sandwiches and a mixture of brand name and own label crisps. All priced at meal deals that really didn’t seem like that much of a deal.

The choice sent Frank into a spin, as it usually did when he was hungry, hunting alone and lacking any particular craving such as a hangover induced need for fatty foods.

He walked down this cookie cutter alley, stopping in front of most of his regular choices considering the one or two things in each that he normally bought. For a moment he considered the vegetarian options out there and quickly remembered that it was nearly impossible to find something in these stores that had taste and didn’t include chicken or some type of ham. At each place he dawdled outside like an old man, contemplating his very existence and how the choices within might alter this.

When he had made a full round of the alley, he stood peering down at his feet and thought, This decision is taking too long, but at least I’m getting a break of sorts. In the end he got a not so good, not too exciting burrito which he had to wait in a queue for and when he was back at his desk, 20 mins had flown by.

There was no real rule about lunch break time or length given he was a professional. Work had to be done though and the more that he put it off, the more likely he would have to stay late or complete whatever he was doing at home. To sacrifice a whole hour for lunch was simply not feasible most days. So, as he sat down at his desk and neatly laid out a few napkins to catch the likely end of burrito spills, he opened up his email and started scrolling through what had come through since he had been gone. Twenty-five emails in total, mostly substantive, but some just updates. On top of the others he hadn’t read, that was probably up to forty odd emails to address between now and bed. He munched on his burrito and contemplated this fate.

*

When he arrived home, his kids were already asleep and Sulla, his wife, looked battered and exhausted. In Frank’s eyes she was beautiful as ever, the same beautiful dark and somewhat mysterious woman that he had fallen in love with so many years ago. Parenthood had taken its toll, that much was for sure, though it had also taught them so much and brought them so much joy. Even though these were his true feelings, he knew by now that it did not make sense to pay these compliments at times like these. She was tired, stressed and overworked. In her mind she did not feel beautiful right now and a simple compliment, even though completely true and genuine in his mind, would simply not hit the mark.

Rushing home from work to relieve the nanny at short notice had not been on Sulla’s agenda for the day, but from time to time they covered for each other, Frank and her. It was part of the marriage, the partnership. Today had been one of his days to come home on time, but even in the face of her large pile of work, she managed it. For him. He did the same for her from time to time as well, though each time he wondered how long this quickly spinning merry-go-round could really function.

“I’m sorry my love,” Frank said as he placed his backpack on the floor in the hallway and rubbed the small of his back, “it was just one of those days. I only barely managed to get myself lunch and then I had that late call sprung on me.”

He wandered into the kitchen where Sulla was sitting at the island hunched over her computer with a big glass of red wine. “How are you doing?”

“Been worse my love, just too much to do.”

“I’m really sorry about not coming home on time when it was my day.”

She stopped typing and looked up with a smile, “honestly, it’s fine my love. Did you get what you needed done?”

“All sorted. Always more to do.”

“I haven’t even started to think about dinner. The kids took a bit of convincing to get to bed.”

“No worries, I really wanted to make that katsu curry but I’m not sure I can muster the strength now. Pizza?”

Sulla laughed and smiled at him, “on the way already.”

“I do love you ever so much,” he said as he poured himself a large glass of red and sat down at the stool next to her.

He lay his head on her shoulder as she continued to tip tap away on her laptop, as focussed as ever on her work. It was part of the reason he loved her, but this trait came with its downsides. Frank wanted attention. He couldn’t demand it since she had shortened her late working day to get home on time. There was little room for resentment for the same reason. It was not ideal. It was not perfect. But it was. She was, and they were together, perfect of sorts, but life got in the way. The ever grinding realities of both their own mental states and the livelihood of the family counted on them being the way there were, balancing – truly balancing both ways – home and work.

Until the pizza arrived, he hovered in her presence, sipping at his wine and dreaming, but not of anything in particular at that point. The moment the doorbell rang and the pizza arrived, there was nothing that could stop his mind dreaming of the elements that had brought the pizza to him. Sure, it’s considered fast food, but it’s only really the cooking itself that is fast. Frank dreamt on this as he opened the box and took his first slice, his attention fully distanced from Sulla now.

The base of this pizza that he was eating now had been cold fermented for at least 24 hours – probably 48 hours. Sauce was easier from a purist standpoint, being sacrilege for some to cook the sauce before putting it on the base, it was only a matter of choosing the right San Marzano plum tomatoes and blending them carefully with garlic, basil, oregano, olive oil, salt and pepper. Magic happened to the sauce as it spread over the hand stretched dough and covered with fior di latte, spicy pepperoni, mouth watering nduja sausage and then cooked at 350 plus degrees celsius.

As Frank devoured the slices one by one, he felt a pang of disappointment. Practically this was the only way he was going to have pizza tonight or on most nights when he was working. He only wished he could have been the one to cook it. Another day, he thought to himself, another day.

*

Frank’s client was fond of food and drink. It didn’t need to be the most expensive, it just had to taste good. The bottle of red he chose – a Barolo – was certainly in line with this thinking, but the pricing was in line with someone who knows everything will be expensed.

Wine glasses around the table were filled up after Frank’s client, Andy, had tasted and approved the bottle. Frank promptly ordered another, knowing from experience that it would certainly be needed. It was lunch after all. The whole team had been working night and day, irritating their spouses if they had them, losing sleep if they ever really got any and expanding their waistlines with late night junk food as a substitute for dinner. They deserved this long lunch and would, in any event, pay for it again with a fat inbox when they eventually returned to their computers.

As had happened many times before at lunches such as these, it was possible he returned to the office very late or not at all. And so she would miss another night with his family, another night of cooking and still wake the next morning with his to do list unchecked and growing. Much as in one of Frank’s favourite books, The myth of Sisyphus, the work was never-ending and so it was really something he simply made peace with, in the most begrudging but calm way he knew.

“Another successful deal Frank,” Summer beamed with a raised glass, “a pleasure as always to work with you.”

“Likewise,” Frank smiled in return with a salute. What he really wanted to say was, “hopefully the next time it won’t all be so last minute and require an absurd negotiation on fees,” but he was sober and committed to his job for the time being, so he just continued smiling.

His brain was forcing him to invent topics to engage on with one of the junior team members sitting next to him and Andy. It wasn’t like Frank really followed sport much, though he could talk with some interest about it at a high level. He always read a page or two of sport news so he could throw something in and let others talk around him. Today it was cricket, a loathsome sport, the best attribute of which was being a spectator so that one could get so drunk that it was really no different than sitting or standing in a field on a nice day with friends. So, in order to burn away a good 15 – 20 minutes of this lunch, he lobbed his first sporting salvo, “The cricket is getting interesting, isn’t it Andy? Not sure how England will be able to claw it back now.”

As Frank said this, he winked over at his colleague Ashley, who knew of his true disdain all too well, and rolled her eyes as another junior team member chewed her ear off about something or other to do with the peer review system within the firm.

As the endless, meaningless conversations rolled on from sport to feigned interest in others’ personal lives, the mood became a cross between jovial and tense. No one could really completely relax, though some of the juniors let go in a way they’d surely regret.

*

There wasn’t a Latin bone or Latin blood anywhere in Frank’s family, not even by marriage. Yet there were two types of foods – at least cooking two types of food – that allowed a true sense of passion flow through his veins. Those were the beautiful scents and warmth of Italian and the bold slices and fresh zest of Mexican foods.

He had no nonna to pass down generations of refined recipes and methods. No family traditions of burying whole pigs to make mouthwatering barbacoa when the clan was around. Everything he knew was from books, exploration and experimentation. Something Sulla had always been more than pleased with, even if the kids weren’t quite at the eating level to appreciate the nuances of cuisine. Weekdays when he could work from home, weekends and holidays were his laboratory to either try new or continue to perfect the old.

It may seem bizarre to some to keep tweaking a perfectly good marinara sauce recipe simply to find out what nuance comes through in color, taste and smell. A fresh vine pruned from the burgeoning special variety tomato in his garden added in from the start created a deeper tomato flavour. Unused jalapeños were smoked for hours on the ceramic BBQ to create something that resembled, but was not quite a chipotle pepper. Discarded Parmesan rinds became essential to any sauce to bolster the stock. Each tweak was noted down in his “chef’s” notebook. Each tweak brought joy even if the result was underwhelming.

Frank was always a reluctant riser. Lie ins were part of his raison d’etre, especially at the weekends. The practicality of these had dissipated along with the advent of their young children. For two two things he would happily rise early though. First, to catch the first lift skiing. Second, to start an early prep session for cooking – whether that be a low and slow cook on the BBQ or a slow simmering of a stew or a giant turkey for thanksgiving. One thing didn’t take up endless time. It was the activity all around it to prepare. The feeling of connection with all our ancestors going back thousands of years was strongest in food. The sustenance that defines us rather than just keeping us alive. Helps us to grow.

Today he rose early and started to prepare a lunchtime feast for his friends and family. It was the first time in weeks that he had woken up with a sense of purpose in work, a type of work at least, that really made him feel a sort of special happiness deep in his soul. It was lunch. It was another lunch. Like many that had come before it and many that would come after. This was lunch made from the basics, by Frank. This was the difference. His secret to loving lunch was simple, but so often unachievable – make the food from the basic elements with love and care, for people you love and care about. Sometimes it is the simple things that are truly the best.

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