Dine al desko
Stephen Bush on office eating
This, in theory, is the story of my lunch: at one o’clock, I head to the office fridge, retrieve a small Tupperware box containing the remains of last night’s dinner, head over to the office microwave, pop it in for three minutes, and then head outside to enjoy it in the sunshine.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always – the word “always” here can be used interchangeably with the word “ever” – pan out this way. The first hurdle I tend to fall over is last night’s dinner.
A kind observer would say the problem is that I don’t cook large enough portions, but an accurate one would identify that the real culprit is greed. Just a little second helping of cha cha chicken. Maybe a couple of extra potatoes. By the time it comes to potting up tomorrow’s lunch, it’s been nibbled to death. Perhaps there will be a great deal of ragu, but no pasta to eat it with. I tell myself that I’ll just make a fresh lot the following morning, but, of course, this never happens.
What I do next depends on where I’m working that day. In the summer, when Parliament is in recess, and
I work from the New Statesman offices, I’m spoilt for choice, with everything from a Greggs to a Byron within spitting distance. But if I’m at Westminster, the culinary options are bleak. You have two choices: heavily subsidised and bad, or chronically overpriced and bad. To take the subsidised options first: Parliament’s many canteens are heavy on ambition and low on quality. Real dishes I have eaten recently include: the unlovely carrot pancake, an unpleasantly crunchy aubergine and spinach moussaka, and the improbable jerk haddock. Covering politics has given me a lot of things, and one of them is that I start to have near-fatal flashbacks whenever I read the word “jerk”. It can only be a matter of time before people eating in Parliament are presented with jerk ice-cream.
At least the food inside Parliament is cheap. In the area immediately around it, the food never tends to rise above what you might be served by a lacklustre wedding caterer: the starter tends to come in a fancy circular shape and there is a striking drizzle of balsamic on the plate, which obscures the fact that the flavours are boring, and the only affordable option for your main is the chicken supreme. This is because two groups of people eat around Westminster: people putting it on their expenses, and tourists. The first group is distantly aware that they are being ripped off, but as someone else is ultimately getting ripped off, they don’t care, and they are in any case prisoners of geography. What matters most is that you, and whoever you are lunching, can head back to the office in a hurry. That the meal you are hurrying back from was any good is a secondary concern – if that.
As for the tourists, well, by the time an angry visitor has realised just how much they have been charged for some indifferent chicken and a salmon mousse, they are halfway back to Newfoundland or Cornwall.
When I’m not in Parliament, things tend to be quieter, which is why I tend to expand in the summer, as I exert myself less and eat more. To make matters worse, not only is the New Statesman’s office well-served for nice places to fetch yourself lunch, but cake culture is rife.
At least cake culture is healthier than conference culture. Come the autumn, political journalists head to party conferences. The food gives you a good idea what life will be like after Donald Trump decides to press the big red button: fruit is rare, but cheap and nasty wine is easier to come by than water. Lost in a strange environment, the survivors band together in packs in search of sustenance. One’s always distantly aware that there are good, cheap restaurants nearby, but the difficulty of reaching a consensus among a party of 10 or more means you end up in a Pizza Express. Inevitably, one of your companions is so rude to the staff that you spend the whole evening certain that your meal has been spat on, and then someone else suggests you split the bill evenly and you pay for someone else’s starter.
But at least there’s a sense of adventure, I suppose, which is better than getting back to the daily grind and a series of overpriced or underwhelming lunches at my desk.
I really ought to get my act together and start making a nice sandwich the evening before.