Food has always punctuated our days – three meals, a snack here, a packet of crisps there, a slice of cake (and then another)… The need to eat is central to being human, but the need to cook? For many of us, that’s felt absolutely relentless over the last year.
Anna Jones puts pandemic cooking more charmingly. She calls it the “rhythm we have been building our days around”, suggesting it’s been less punctuation, more necessary anchor.
“I know people have become jaded with it at a times. Even I, as a cook and a writer, have become slightly jaded with cooking for a family three times a day,” she admits. “But it’s something that’s definitely giving people life, and something they can control and be excited about.”
The practicalities of lockdowns – especially the great flour rush of March 2020 – have arguably shifted perspectives a little too.
“We’d become so used to convenience and being able to just put our hands on anything we want at any time, and I think [not being able to get hold of everything] was a bit of a wake-up call for people,” considers Jones, who says circumstances have forced us to improvise a lot more in the kitchen. They’ve even made her, recipe-tester that she is, “pare back” to the everyday essentials. “I used to have every flour, every lentil, every pulse, every spice in the house, and I’ve stripped back my cupboards.”
Jones reckons as a result, many of us will now cook more instinctively too – “with slightly more intuition than just following a recipe”. Recipes are Jones’ game though (via her books and Guardian column), and hers have long been designed as launchpads for home cooks, not definitive end points.
Her new cookbook One, reflects that. It features easily tweakable noodles and pasta dishes galore (like her lime and double ginger soba noodles), as well as simple traybakes (leek and potato with romesco sauce), salads (roast carrot and grain) and grown-up desserts (chocolate, olive oil and rosemary cake), while the ‘10 simple ideas’ section (e.g. for ways with peas, broccoli, peppers) rattles off swift dinner ideas.
It’s also packed with recipes inspired by other cultures and food traditions, from white miso ramen, to congee and lemongrass and tofu larb. “In each shop near me, there’s Turkish ingredients, Vietnamese ingredients, African ingredients, and I feel like the tapestry of how I cook has developed with those cultures around me, but I also realise absolutely, that those are not my culture,” Jones says, addressing issues around appropriation and cultural sensitivity in food media. “Those are not my recipes. They are not things that are a part of my heritage. And so when I use those ingredients or echo any of those recipes, I try and do it with the greatest reverence and respect.
“I get it’s a very fine line to tread, and I feel like the food industry is just working that out at the moment,” she adds. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”
The core of One though is “to knit two things together”. First, “the cooking I find myself doing now” – by which Jones means the kind of cooking you do with a small child around (her son is five), as opposed to the cooking you do pre-parenthood. “I’m a cook and a chef, I can chop things and cook things a bit quicker – so I’d make more complicated recipes and people would be like, ‘But that would take me an hour-and-a-half!’”
Now, quick and simple notches higher on the priority list.
“That’s the cooking I do for my family… It’s those weeknight dinners, the things we eat on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, that actually are the most important to make delicious and be interesting, and make sure they’re full of vegetables and things that are going to make our bodies feel good,” Jones adds.
The second factor she was keen to weave in was sustainability and climate change. “We all know that eating vegetables is really the most impactful thing you can do for the planet. The second most impactful thing is making sure that the food you buy and cook, you don’t waste,” Jones – who’s been vegetarian for around 12 years – explains matter-of-factly.
Her intention is not to overwhelm with stark facts and figures (“I’m not gonna lie, they are pretty gloomy”), but to provide some “life-friendly, achievable sustainability information” shared via a format that feeds into how we choose and buy ingredients.
“Cookbooks are where I go before I go shopping, [they’re] where lots of people go before they plan their meals,” Jones points out. So surely it’s no bad thing “flicking through a few recipes, and being reminded to take your tote bag [shopping], or to have a look at where your blueberries are from”.
It’s thought we each make around 35,000 decisions a day. “Some of those will be whether to open or close the door, turn the light on or off, but a good portion of those will be around food and shopping,” says Jones. “And those things we can control.”
She sees each day as an opportunity to make positive food decisions – using up leftover veg you’d normally bin, learning where your veg was grown, finding out what’s seasonal – that are achievable for your life and budget. It’s definitely a more positive prospect than sinking into a pit of indecision and guilt over every bit of single-use plastic you encounter.
“This year, more than anything, has proven our capacity as human beings to make rapid and radical behavioural change. Who would have thought we’d all have basically stayed in our houses for a year? If you said that to me last January, I’d have said, ‘Impossible. No way. Can’t do it’,” says Jones. “[It’s] a lesson in how adaptable we are and how much we can change. And if we can tackle climate change in that same powerful way, then all of our individual changes will add up and make massive change.”
There’s power in choosing what to have for dinner, and with that comes great responsibility.
‘One: Pot, Pan, Planet’ by Anna Jones, photography by Issy Croker, is published by Fourth Estate, priced £26. Available now.