Life without Uncle Ben

Rediscovering the fun of cooking food from scratch is one of the best things about being away from Oxford

Food at Oxford is great in so many ways: formal halls, roast dinners, College brunch. Despite its various problems — I am probably 50% potato at this point, for a start — it’s pretty good. That being said, there is one thing that my college life leaves to be desired: a kitchen.

Besides three communal microwaves in the JCR, we’re totally kitchen-less until third year. Rediscovering the fun of cooking beyond the realm of Uncle Ben’s is one of the best things about being away from Oxford. At home, food isn’t just sustenance anymore. It’s more than just a mouthful of hummus-coated carbs; it’s a whole process of creation and sharing.

Food at home is, in one sense, different to the whole culture of university. It represents a chance to feel totally content if your creation is not quite what you were expecting. Often, the foods we make and crave during the vacation would never win the Great British Bake Off. For me, this vacation has included soft, fluffy, (definitely not identical) scones and some scavenged homemade plum jam from the back of the fridge. When I was ill and desperate for a plate of comfort food, I indulged in something resembling macaroni cheese — some overcooked pasta bathed in a thin sauce, piled high with a mountain of cheese. Toast slathered with peanut butter, spicy lentil soup, one-pot casseroles. These things are culinary triumphs, but not because of the skills required to make them.

What also makes food in the vacation special is this much-needed chance to share something you’ve made with others, or make it together. Could I go out for breakfast and order waffles in an Oxford café? Absolutely. However, I couldn’t make waffles from scratch, cracking eggs and stirring melted butter and watching flour puff out from the bowl. Nor could I lift a hot, crispy waffle straight out of the pan, still a little doughy inside and dripping golden syrup. In fact, I’m convinced that dancing around the kitchen to Bowie with my brother was what made those squashed, sugar-drenched waffles taste so wonderful in the first place. Food during the vacation is an opportunity to remember the ways that a handful of raw ingredients can be combined to make something special; not just a meal, but a memory.

As we prepare to go back to our high-pressure academic bubble, where our thought processes might feel scrambled and our stress might teeter on the edge of boiling over, cooking food is a glorious opportunity to make something, mess it up, but have fun anyway. The joy is in the process. Last term, my friend drunkenly speculated post-Bridge that, “It’s not the Hassans, is it? It’s the queue. You queue for the queue. The chats. And also the Hassans.” This garbled prophecy rings true as, before I return to the lukewarm embrace of chips and hummus, I prepare to make something involving a vegetable or two – and a lot of fun.