By Alice Langley
It began, as all good ideas do – in the pub. Not the usual pub, with gleaming rows of beer pumps, shelves of different gins, and the steady thrum of other people’s conversation, interspersed with the occasional, raucous laugh. We were in our garden in Glasgow, in the gathering darkness, Zoom with Al and Rebecca. The screen of the iPad glowed – I worried about attracting moths – and we were on the second bottle of wine as, above us, out came the stars. Al and Rebecca were in their brightly lit flat in Brixton, four hundred miles away.
It’s been almost five years since we, well, let’s be honest, since I, packed up my books, my Le Creuset, my (wildly impractical and slightly broken) papasan chair, and moved north from Kent to Scotland. I traded a tiny basement flat, imprinted with a palimpsest of memories – the quarter life crisis tea party, where I baked light, rosewater sponges, chicken ‘sausage’ rolls, sprinkled with sesame seeds, rare roast beef sandwiches; the chilli party, where we heaped plates with spicy beef brisket chilli and sat out in the handkerchief-size garden listening to the accordion player from the flat above – I traded it for rehearsal rooms and dusty coffee, battered play texts, late nights and early mornings, chips grabbed on the way home from the theatre, squashed, unidentifiable sandwiches eaten between shows at the Edinburgh Fringe.
A year – one of the absolute best years – later, when I had almost finished training at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, my then- boyfriend-now-husband moved up, bringing with him several saucepans I had forgotten, a first edition of The Cookery Year (first published in 1973 and containing several very useful diagrams about different cuts of meat) from my now-mother-in- law, and the cat. We love our lives here. The high-ceilinged tenement flat, the good-mornings from passing dogwalkers in the park, our favourite haunts – Inn Deep for fried halloumi and beer on temperate afternoons by the rushing waters of the Kelvin, fat, juicy dumplings stuffed with salty- sweet pork and flecked with green herbs from Dumpling Monkey, crunchy fries beneath the fairy-lights at Brel – we love our lives here. But home is far away, and sometimes the hunger for it is overwhelming.
We know what home feels like. Explosively hot jerk chicken, rice and peas, eaten at wooden tables on the kerbside. My mum’s Christmas Eve exclusive (‘It’s such a faff, Ali!’) salmon coulibiac, golden flakes of pastry enveloping the pale-pink fish. Parents-in-law’s magnificent roasts, with emerald peas and glossy gravy mopped up with a thick slice of bread. It’s all still there, but unreachable. Like looking through a telescope at a far-off planet. All this is to say that missing people –that persistent tug of the heart – is par for the course for us. Then lockdown happened, and suddenly everyone missed everyone, whether four doors down, or four hundred miles south. We were all putting out feelers, sending digital probes to replicate what we had lost.
Rebecca (the one amongst the four of us who makes things happen, whether an impromptu holiday to Seville, or that we-really-shouldn’t third bottle of Pinot) suggested virtual drinks. During the unplanned-for warm weather, crunching gin-soaked cucumber from one glass and sipping chocolatey red wine from another, we talked about Masterchef, and missing cooking and eating together. The digital dinner party was planned for the following week. And, even after waking up with furry tongues, headachey and nauseous, the date stayed in the diary.
We are now on virtual dinner party three. Adjustments are sometimes necessary. When yeast that was supposed to be supplied by Amazon did not materialise, half of us had shop-bought focaccia whilst the other half had homemade, glittering with scattered salt crystals. We cook the same starter, main, and pudding, following the same recipes and messaging tips and variations. I learnt how to spatchcock a chicken, following Al’s methodical photographs and advice. Rebecca shared her recipe for Greek salad, tart with lemon, sweet with summery tomatoes, fragrant oregano and the crunch of lettuce. Hundreds of miles apart, in different kitchens, crème caramels were attempted with a range of success (their moussaka was better, but I think we won the crème caramel round).
It isn’t the same. The little portable window we have into their home doesn’t compare to being there, sitting at the same table, portioning out strands of pasta, passing the salad dressing, or the bread. When it gets late, the washing up piled in the sink, streaked with scrapings of chocolate mousse cake, or peppery cream, and we listen to cheesy music while wedges of actual cheese soften and sink and sometimes, wine glasses swaying dangerously, we dance. Or Rebecca and I perch on a window ledge, finishing the prosecco, smoking a sneaky cigarette while the guys’ voices gradually crescendo until we tell them to pipe down, and to think of the neighbours.
Those moments are irreplaceable, but they can be bookmarked by our Zoom dinner parties. The distance between us bridged by sitting, thigh to thigh around the corner of a kitchen table, talking into a screen, sharing stories and ideas and, maybe most importantly, food. That the act of experiencing a meal together has not been lost. Lockdown will end. We will eat together – in person – again. But we’ve learnt that company (and wine, of course) can still be shared, despite how far away our loved ones feel.
Want to host your own dinner party? Get the recipes that Alice used to create her socially distant dinner parties here