Confessions of a messy eater

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Confessions of a messy eater

Recently, in a restaurant, I saw something astonishing. It’s not an uncommon something; I see it regularly. It just always astonishes me. What I saw was a middle-aged man in a white shirt, rising from a table, having finished dinner. And there was not a single sauce stain on him. Not a drip or smear, not a dollop or splatter. It was just one crisp snowfield of pristine linen.

How, in the name of all that is holy – and quite a few things that aren’t – does this work? Because I seem completely incapable of leaving a table without everyone being able to read, from the full Jackson Pollock across my chest, exactly what I’ve just had for my tea. Ah, so you went for the bouillabaisse followed by the cheesecake in a raspberry coulis, did you? Oh, so it was curry night, was it? Well, of course, that whole linguine vongole thing is tricky, isn’t it?

You’re telling me. I have measured out my life in ruined shirts; in turmeric stains the colour of that medicinal iodine we called “yellow magic” that was swabbed onto our scabbed knees at primary school. I have lived through the era of chicken tikka masala and the chilli-oil years. Most people view a dish of handmade pasta with a long-simmered sauce of heritage tomatoes as representative of the eternal verities of Italian peasant life; I see it as one calamitous laundry bill.

I am used to my beloved looking me up and down from the other side of the table and mouthing the words “well done” because I have somehow got through the main course unscathed, like I’m six and have dressed myself unaided. However, she always mouths too soon. Because, only minutes later, the chocolate sauce will doubtless cascade down me like a mudslide after the rains.

In my more fragile moments I like to think of myself as a victim of heredity, because my late mother was also incapable of not wearing her lunch. “Oh look,” she would say, dabbing at her blouse with a moistened napkin, “I’ve schtunked”, swiftly turning the Yiddish for stinker into something much more onomatopoeically descriptive.

Then again, she had the excuse of a sizable shelf which, even in my chunkier days, I cannot claim. She wore a lot of floral prints which covered a multitude of stains.

Being more generous to myself, I reach for another explanation. I make a mess of my clothes at the table because I take the business of eating seriously. The ones who manage not to spill everything down their shirts are obviously not doing food properly. They must be half-filling every spoon’s bowl. They must lean in over their barely laden fork, top lip trembling with the effort. Me? I’m shovelling the food away, like a builder digging the foundations of a new home.

There are even some occasions when I revel in my slovenliness. If I rise from a meal in a Chinese restaurant, and the paper tablecloth around where each dish stood doesn’t look like a blast zone of scattered food, then I regard myself as having in some way failed. And if I glance across at someone else’s table and it’s pristine, then I involuntarily mouth the word “amateur”. The interplay of bowl, chopstick and Chinese cooking demands mess. And yet the shirt stains still bother me. I like to think of myself as a man of the world. I like to think of myself as elegant and mature. In truth, I am just one massive splatter of lunch waiting to happen.

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