Dine al desko

Stephen Bush on of­fice eat­ing

The Guardian - Cook - - Front Page - By Stephen Bush Stephen Bush is a writer for the New States­man and a con­trib­u­tor to the Guardian; @stephenkb

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.

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