The Dominion Post

Seize it and stuff it – life as well as mushrooms

- Joe Bennett

DO YOU have breadcrumb­s in the house? And garlic and olive oil and parmesan cheese? If so, you are four-fifths of the way to happiness, but let me begin at the beginning. And the beginning is Shirley Conran.

In the 1970s and ‘80s Conran wrote two bestseller­s, Lace and Superwoman.

I’m afraid I didn’t read either of these at the time and I have continued not reading them since.

I have also not read any of Conran’s journalism because she writes for the sort of magazines I can open only under sedation.

But there is one part of Conran’s oeuvre with which I am familiar – her solitary entry in the dictionary of quotations. It’s eight words long and the first of those words is ‘‘Life’’.

In a dictionary of quotations, that’s not an unusual start. Thinkers have been saying profound things about life since Eve took to snacking, and a fat lot of good they’ve done.

The thinkers fall into three camps: the negative, the ironic and the positive.

The negative have it easy. Boo hoo, they say, we’re all going to die. It’s true, I believe, but it doesn’t get us very far.

The ironic say much the same thing but with a rueful chuckle. ‘‘Life is a gamble, at terrible odds,’’ says a character in Stoppard. ‘‘If it were a bet you wouldn’t take it.’’

Similar was the bloke who declared that ‘‘life is just one damn thing after another’’. One of the damn things that happened to this particular bloke, who went by the name of Elbert Hubbard, was to be on board the Lusitania when a torpedo hit it. How he must have chuckled as he drowned.

But the positive have the hardest task. They have to find a way around the problem of death. There are two ways to do this. One is simply to deny it. This is called religion. It remains popular. The other method is more subtle. It acknowledg­es that the U-boat of Destiny does indeed carry a torpedo with our name on it. But that only makes every hour on board HMS Existence the more precious. Thus George Santayana: ‘‘There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.’’

And it is to this party that Conran belongs. ‘‘Life is too short,’’ she said, and the phrase seems destined to be her legacy to the world, ‘‘to stuff a mushroom.’’

Conran was, and presumably still is, a feminist.

Forty years ago she was engaged in the struggle to unshackle women from the stove and the cradle and the cruel hoover of gender stereotypi­ng.

So for her a stuffed mushroom was more than a stuffed mushroom.

It was a metaphor that ramified to represent the domestic oppression of womankind.

A stuffed mushroom was the very image of vacuous social nonsense, the giving of dinner parties, the making of chit chat. For all of these things, life was too short. Each of us, man or woman, had only a certain number of days allotted to us and regardless of sex we should have the chance to seize every one of them. Carpe, as the Romans so succinctly put it, diem.

All of which is well, good, uplifting and hard to disagree with.

But what neither the Romans nor Conran have ever managed to explain to my satisfacti­on is exactly how to go about seizing a day.

Once you’ve risen above the hoover and the mushroom-stuffing, what do you do instead?

Presumably it means going on safari to hunt the big game of life. But as a privileged male of a sort I have never known what that big game is or where to go looking for it.

The prairie of Life has always seemed to me to be populated only by small things. Including yesterday, for the first time, stuffing a mushroom.

I’d been given a bag of big brown mushrooms.

On the first evening I fried some in butter and enjoyed them.

On the second evening I fried some more in butter and enjoyed them a little less. So last night I stuffed some.

The recipe is my own and the ingredient­s are listed above. Mix them in quantities of your choosing. Then rip the stalks from half a dozen mushrooms, spoon a dollop on to each, bake for 20 minutes, grill for five and discover that Conran was wrong. Literally wrong. But also metaphoric­ally wrong.

Those baked mushrooms, crunchy above, smokily succulent below, were the biggest thing of my yesterday.

They made me happy. Bugger the grand notions.

They carped my diem.

A stuffed mushroom was the very image of vacuous social nonsense, the giving of dinner parties, the making of chit chat.

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