Food Notes | Prep for an interview

I’m a guest on the Spectator’s Table Talk podcast. We’re recording later today. As preparation beforehand I listened to several episodes – and found myself getting more and more excited.

John-Paul Flintoff preparing to eat borscht
Eating borscht in St Petersburg.

I wrote some notes about my own food background. This was mostly for my own use, but I thought the hosts might like to see it too, to use or ignore as they wish.

I don’t know when the episode is likely to go out.

The episode is out. I embedded it at the bottom of this page.


Early memories

Envy at my younger brother’s Farley’s rusks. The deliciousness of tinned Carnation Milk. Finding peas on the floor in the school hall at gymnastics.

I was horrified by candied peel and dug it out of any food in which it appeared.

A feeling of being stuck at the table and wanting to run away, which still sometimes comes over me.

Later childhood

If asked what we were having for dinner when we got home, Mum would say, “wait and see”. This drove me nuts. I see now that she probably wasn’t teasing – she just didn’t know yet.

Walking with Mum.

If we didn’t like something, we might be told with a gesture towards the garden that we could have instead, if we preferred, “worms on toast”.

I was impressed and appalled that Mum always ate whole apples, including the pips. I do the same thing, now.

As a special treat we were allowed to watch Match of the Day so long as we went to bed for a nap beforehand – and eat home-made biryani while we watched.

Mum (a lawyer) once had a Saudi client who invited us to end of Ramadan and whenever we emptied our plates they heaped on more (to be polite) and we ate it all (to be polite).

At my comprehensive school we had to do Home Economics lessons, which I resented at the time but look back on with great pleasure. (Same goes for textiles lessons.)

As student

Ate in hall for the first year, never missed a meal, I am no good at being hungry.

In a house with six others, I humiliated myself by putting a vast amount of dried mint into a main meal. I was never allowed to forget that it tasted like toothpaste.

I had a job as waiter at a high-end restaurant. Was quickly elevated to wine waiter. Opened a vastly expensive bottle of wine by mistake. Dropped a steak knife down a woman’s blouse. I was hungry, overworked, underpaid and became quite cynical.

As journalist

Did quite a few interviews for the “Lunch With the FT” slot, including with filmmaker Michael Moore and Harold Pinter.

Not really a fan of elaborate cuisine since being stuffed like a goose at Le Gavroche with a seemingly endless succession of dishes.

But I do like ingenious cooking when the ethos is more like a family meal, as at a current favourite restaurant, Jikoni.

Spectrum of flavours, Jikoni.

Interviewed the gardening writer/broadcaster Alys Fowler at her home and she cooked me fried eggs and cavolo nero from her own chickens and back garden, plus toast. Simple and perfect.

Wrote about the Army catering corps and learned with them to build an oven using dustbins and to bake chocolate eclairs.

Interviewed Michael Pollan and love the simplicity of his “Rules”.

Interviewed Simon Fairlie, highly unlikely author of Meat, a book proposing that carnivorous eating is really not entirely a bad idea.

I had an allotment for a few years and entirely failed at it, handing over eventually to somebody who now runs it brilliantly.

Writing about an attempt to “live like a Muslim” for a month, I experimented with fasting, including no water. The morning was awful, but as lunchtime turned to afternoon my mood shifted from pain and resentment to excitement and gratitude. Really a wonderful experience. Don’t know why I never do it.

Family life

I’m a keen cook. I’ve always taken most pleasure from rustling up a meal with what’s available, rather than following a recipe.

I think it’s fair to say that I did much of the catering during my daughter’s early years.

Feeding time.

I live with fussy eaters, which has tended to limit my range, until recent years when it’s become quite normal to cook three different meals.

For years, I baked my own sourdough. I loved the process as much as the finished product – it’s very therapeutic. As is vegetable prep, which I do for pleasure.

Have attended more than 20 Passover seders and (not so many) Iranian New Year celebrations.

I rarely bake sweet things. My wife is good at cakes. I love to eat them.

Crockery designer

In 2016 I designed a plate, a pair of mugs, and a tea towel. The design was loosely based on blue and white willow pattern, but tweaked to encourage users to think.

The “What’s On Your Plate” invited thoughts about the eater’s current state of mind and how life was going. The “Conversation Mugs” offered prompts to avoid small talk.

Eat Out To Help Out.

Breakdown, 2018

After coming out of hospital I couldn’t afford coffee in cafes, so I went into churches instead.

I wrote for The Times about getting in shape, and my trainer Dalton Wong put me on a no-carb diet, which was quite fun – forced me to be creative.

Since then, as well as writing I’ve become the artist I always wanted to be, and as I type this I realise that I desperately want to illustrate a book about food, and eating together.

Willow Pattern. All drawings by me.

One last thing

I’m appalled that we live in a country where it’s now taken for granted that so many people depend on food banks. How could this happen?

Listen To The Podcast