Love is turning a blind eye to squashed tea bags that don’t make it to the bin | Grace Dent

As a peace-keeping mission, I spent last Sunday deep-cleaning the kitchen. Sharing a cooking space with a loved one is an unending test of patience, and we should all be more upfront about it on the first date.

“Hello, I’m Grace,” I would say before even taking off my coat. “I always own at least six jars of stale mint sauce and I leave a trail of cumin seeds wherever I go. Oh, and just a heads-up, I don’t put the lids back on jars properly.”

Charles, meanwhile, should have been more specific, before I fell in love with him, about his frankly unhinged belief that runny things – mayo, hot sauce, marmalade – have to be kept refrigerated. This means that every cubic inch of the fridge is stuffed with ketchups, jams and mustards, with no space for any actual food. This position is both berserk and untenable. “But jam doesn’t go off!” I say 10 times a month. “It’s a preserve!”

“Well, it wouldn’t go off if you screwed the lid back on properly and stopped putting a buttery knife in it so it grows mould,” he invariably replies. His expression is weary, and of having lived through so much.

Real kitchens are full of these endless, everyday ructions. In fact, ignoring how annoying we all are to share space with is the bread and butter of real love and friendship. Love is turning a blind eye to squashed tea bags that don’t quite make it to the bin and instead sit forlornly on the breadboard. Or tolerating the mystery teenage sandwich maker who leaves the bread out to go stale at 3am and the kitchen lights ablaze. Love is bin bags that aren’t secured properly, veg peelings on the floor and smiling sweetly at those among us who put empty milk cartons back in the fridge and never refill the pepper grinder. Love is tolerating that person who rarely, if ever, fills the dishwasher, yet holds strong feelings on exactly how it should be stacked. “Forks go upright in the fork drawer,” they’ll tell you, over your shoulder, while somehow missing the fact that you load the machine 14 times a week without their instruction.

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One of the chief reasons we adore cookery shows, I believe, is that they’re not filmed in real kitchens. Well, they are, but they’re not; it’s very clever. The lights are on, but there’s no one at home. On Saturday Kitchen and Sunday Brunch, each time the cameras turn off, a small army of food technicians rush in with sprays, mops and sponges. They ferry in trays of ingredients all neatly chopped for the chefs’ next work of art, then disappear, but not before neatening and dusting the rows of spices in the racks in the background. It is not a real kitchen in which anyone leaves a pile of used underwear in a shrine in front of the washing machine, having meant to begin a wash, only to realise the machine’s still full from two days back. When Simon Rimmer makes bechamel sauce, there’s no one standing behind him with the nozzle of the squirty cream in their gob. When the guests drink wine, the glasses are never gritty because someone forgot to add salt to the dishwasher, which leads to an argument over who last unblocked the filter.

In these make-believe spaces, which we all love so much, all the spats and bad feeling are removed, and all that’s left is a place where the chef can be charismatic and play with a six-burner Bosch cooktop. I, too, am guilty of this make-believe: on a recent ITV programme, I made “homemade” fudge in my million-pound, state-of-the-art kitchen on gleaming quartz worktops and surrounded by playthings such as my avant-garde sous-vide machine, double-fronted, American-style fridge and automatic hot-water tap, all with the backdrop of a perfectly kept autumn garden.

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But this was not my life. It’s the life of a woman called Julie in Islington who rents out her home for £800 a day. It costs extra to pay the food stylists who measure out the sugar and the person who spends hours plastering on makeup to make me look as if I do this every day. We couldn’t film it in my actual kitchen – there’s no room due to my antique mint sauce collection – but I’ve watched a version of me on television, and that Grace’s kitchen – in fact, her entire life – is perfect. She wears a bra before noon. There’s not a cumin seed anywhere. She pours sugar on to scales, and returns the jar neatly to its shelf.

“Why can’t I live with that woman?” Charles asks sadly. “She replaces lids.”


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