My fifth attempt is as close to perfect as I’ve managed. The spaghetti is beautifully overcooked mush, but I’ve resisted stirring it with a fork, so that every now and then I find some strands still fused together into a thick, woody mass. The cheese is spot on too – a pleasing result of seeking out the most rubbery, least cheese-like cheese I could find. Even the seasoning is right – deliciously overpowering stale herbs and just a little too much salt.
In fact, all that’s letting this dish down is that the clumps of bacon are far too consistently cooked. For my next attempt, I’ll add them to the pan in two batches so that some are all-but cremated and the rest are dangerously close to raw. But for now I have more important things to attend to – helping myself to a third bowl.
I’ve been trying to recreate this dish for about a month now. It’s easily the fondest memory of school food I have, and possibly the reason that I still can’t make a bowl of spaghetti without over-catering by at least 300%.
Catholic school in the late eighties was not, as you can probably imagine, at the forefront of culinary progression. Fish and chips Friday promised much but was always a soggy disappointment, and although chocolate brick (a sort of dry, budget brownie, served with a grey-brown custard) always raised a smile, there was very little to write home about.
In fact, I find it hard to recall the actual taste of any other dish from school. I remember the tubes in the stewed beef, and the fact that the school nurse’s false teeth once fell into the banana custard, but the flavours themselves elude me. Not so with the aforementioned and imaginatively named “Spaghetti with Cheese and Herbs”.
Attempt number one was appalling. I was going for a more upmarket approach, hoping the combination of flavours would be enough to remind me of the original. I made a roux, melted in a mixture of good quality cheddar and parmesan, stirred in the cooked spaghetti and scattered the plate with smoked pancetta and fresh parsley. The result was creamy, comforting, delicious and bitterly disappointing. A kind of resentment carbonara.
Over the next few efforts I learn to fight the temptation to improve on the original, either through technique or the sourcing of ingredients. I resist buying decent cheese, shun quality bacon and finally, forget everything I know about cooking pasta. And so finally I arrive at this near-perfect mass of cloying salt and rubber and am left wondering why I love it so much.
As a child, I was a horrifically fussy eater. At school I would reject almost every offering, then fill up on biscuits and fruit whenever possible. At home, there was so little I could eat without retching that my mum would supplement my diet with Complan – a nutrition shake designed primarily for people unable to eat for medical reasons.
These days, my relationship with food couldn’t be more different, but is only marginally healthier. I think about food almost constantly and will eat practically anything. I spend hours every day imagining what I’m going to cook for dinner, only to demolish it in a matter of minutes and refill my plate until I’m bloated to the point of nausea. I spoil restaurant trips with my wife by looking up the menu online and deciding what I’m going to order hours – sometimes days – before arriving at the venue. I pile my children’s plates far higher than necessary so that I can gorge on their leftovers. Every time I get a take-away I have a nervous panic that I’ve not over-ordered, and a brief look at my Deliveroo history (and appending receipts) quickly reveals why I can’t afford luxuries like a third pair of trousers.
To put it another way, I’ve not just become more adventurous with age, I’ve become greedy.
Scanning a few articles about food and nostalgia, I notice most focus on particular tastes bringing back memories – usually positive but sometimes less so. Nigel Slater writes passionately about every detail of a long-forgotten woman’s face coming back to him upon biting into a particularly juicy mango, but also how the smell of egg yolks “unwillingly brings back painful images of my father's weekly force-feeding sessions.”
I find all this fascinating, but it doesn’t explain my irrational love for the bowl of over-seasoned stodge in front of me. Neither the smell nor the taste brings back any particular memory – more a feeling of relief that here was a dish I could not only enjoy, but do so to the point of feeling sick. It tastes like the beginning of my obsession with food. The origin of my gluttony. It doesn’t remind me of school dinners so much as all the experiences of food that have come since. It tastes like the near pornographic joy I now derive from gawping at food photography, and the child-like excitement with which I scan restaurant menus. It tastes like the duck hearts I barbecued in France last summer and the fried chicken sandwiches I make for my wife. It tastes like fish tacos, steak sandwiches and spring rolls. Craft beer and exotic cheese. Christmas dinner and Sunday brunch. It tastes like all the joy, guilt (another product of catholic school) and fascination that I get from food in all its forms.
Not bad for a few quid’s worth of cheap spaghetti, springy cheese and watery bacon.