Come Dine With Me
content note: food, sick, shit, accidental weight loss
I have been waiting for this week my whole life. Dreading it. Been shaking in the population queue for 23 years, and it’s not been a good wait. Not like an hour and a half in Alton Towers before a minute and a half-long ride; not like getting to the Manchester Arena for 8AM to secure full control of the front row ahead of My Chemical Romance. No, when I was born, they stapled a ticket to my birth certificate without even asking. I know they do it for everyone but still, they didn’t ask, did they? Those red and white numbered ones. The same tickets the butcher uses. Not that I’ve ever voluntarily gone inside a butchers. Very intimidating stuff. Don’t know how normal people do it to be honest. Just waltz into the butchers, make a roast, get a mortgage, have a wedding, learn to drive. Don’t get me wrong, I eat meat but I don’t buy it. I’m too scared I’ll give myself food poisoning. Scared of shitting to death and embarrassing myself. I’m even more scared of giving other people food poisoning incase they never speak to me again. Hallucinating my face over the toilet bowl while their body boils. No, don’t want that kind of suffering coming back to bite me so I refuse to cook for anybody but myself. Of course, none of my relationships have lasted very long, and I’ll never have kids. Just tie my tubes like cheesestrings. Get it over with. The pressure of the nuclear family is simply too much.
No, I’ll never cook for another stomach. Should have seen the state of me in university. I spent the evenings making one-portion sized pans of pesto pasta in the shared kitchen and promptly legging it back to my bedroom before anyone could see. I lost a lot of weight that first year because of all the accidental food poisoning I gave myself. I didn’t mean to. I really didn’t mean to. I just didn’t know that pesto went off that fast. And then I did know — I knew so intimately — because I was spewing neon green water into the sink in my bedroom. Funny the way halls gives you a sink in your bedroom, like they know full well what’s about to happen. The colour was insane, like I’d cracked open one of those glass nuclear pods that Homer juggles in the opening credits of the Simpsons. Yeah, I just don’t think I’m very good at being a human. Like, I remember when Mum first dropped me in London, I walked down the road to the big Tesco in the middle of Hackney with £60 in my bank account and spent pretty much all of it on food. There was nothing in the cupboards so I went ahead and filled a trolley. I felt incredible. I felt like such a grown-up, buying salt and pepper and rice and ketchup and vinegar and oranges. Now I’m doing the big shop; now I’m the big girl. Here I am. But that feeling didn’t last very long. When I checked out, the food I’d been swinging around in the trolley became a full set of dumbbells in thin plastic bags waiting to be transported by one small girl. I’d absolutely fucked it. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t rob a trolley because they have those sensors on the wheels that stop when you get to the edge of the carpark’s perimeter; couldn’t rob a trolley because I was too scared. Pre-Uber, I didn’t know how much a taxi in London might amount to and I was the first person to arrive that year so I didn’t have anyone that I could ask for help. Mum was already past the kestrels on the M6.
A cousin would later tell me to only go round shops with a basket, that way you know how much you can carry. It seemed so obvious with hindsight. And so what happened was, I had to move bags of shopping a few metres at a time all the way up Mare Street, going backwards, forwards; hands red and white like the tickets. I kept being overtaken by women in fleeces that had been stitched and dyed with images of wolves howling at the moon; they were pulling those black personal shopping trollies behind them. When I found a job in a bar round the corner, I used my first payslip to buy one of those trollies for myself.
When that food went on to poison me, lord have mercy, I phoned a friend. I say friend but it was only Mum, and it might have been the most concern she has ever shown me — we’re not the type to touch. She ordered a food delivery online, which is a thing I thought other people were allowed to do but not someone like me. When it arrived, and somebody else had been able to make choices about the kinds of food you need to eat to live, I felt as though everything was going to be okay. That was until I’d done three trips down and back up the stairs with the bags and realised… yeah, there was too much here. In her generosity, Mum had ordered more food than could actually fit into the half-sized fridge I was sharing with a quiet fashion student who made shoes, a frog-looking boy who wanted to work for a fashion magazine, and another student who did end up getting a missing person’s report filed after him. So to be fair to him, only had to share it with two other people. But I couldn’t let Mum’s concern go to waste; I had to eat as much of it as I could on the night it all arrived. And there was so much cheese, I’ll never forget. Google advised me to grate the cheese, put it into ziplock bags, and whack it flat in the freezer for future sprinkles. I spent the whole night grating cheese. But the fact she bought more food than I knew what to do with made me think the being-human thing might have something to do with our genetics. If so, that was a weight off. Not my fault, or sort of but in a way that was destined and connective. And so, I stopped eating dangerous pesto. I put the weight back on — thank god — and then I used every birthday-cake-wish to pray they’d lose my ticket. Please, I’m begging. Lose it. Let it go. Let it slip down the side of a couch somewhere and just disintegrate.
I still got the call. Everybody in England gets the call because everyone in England has to go on an episode of Come Dine With Me after they come of age. It’s a TV show, and it’s the law. Four strangers from the same area take turns cooking a three course meal for each other. They privately score the night’s food and entertainment out of ten, and at the end of the run, whoever gets the most points wins one thousand pounds in cash. Said prize is handed to them on a silver platter, and the show takes the prime BBC1 slot every night of the week, including weekends. There are live debrief shows afterwards, there’s merchandising, and popular contestants become TV presenters, influencers, and cameo stars. The man that stuck an entire dripping whisk in his huge elastic mouth is now a product designer at Lakeland, because everyone and their Nan wants to have a go at shoving a whisk in their mouth just to see how it feels. Kinky. And it sounds harmless enough, the show. Yeah, a bit of harmless fun — that’s what everybody has told me whenever I have quietly raised my concerns. We all get to be on the television! And isn’t that nice! But what if I don’t want to go on the telly? Cooking in private is stressful enough. I managed to set spaghetti on fire once. You don’t even know.
The government frames Come Dine With Me like it does jury duty — a foundational, democratic right, and a weird responsibility that gives old people a hard-on for national pride. They talk about it like it’s a privilege, like we should be so grateful for the opportunity to introduce ourselves to the nation, potential employers, lovers, loyal fans. Sometimes, while the credits roll, there are follow-up clips about people who had a Come Dine With Me baby. Remember these two? They started a boy band. Remember this episode? They went into business together and now they own a multi-million pound corporation. People have even been reconnected, found. Madeleine McCann was discovered safe and sound when a woman wanted to do the whisk shot, as people so often do; the camera zoomed in far enough that the marking on her iris was clear to viewers, her parents, and all of the detectives who tune in every night in the hope of spotting clues that might solve dead cases. Poor lads — when they’re not watching Come Dine With Me, they go up and down the beach with metal detectors and never find a thing. And I am happy for the McCanns, and I am happy for everybody else that gets something out of it. But I don’t want them to find me, or even know me. It’s just an exercise in surveillance. The government wants to see inside our homes and keep tabs on our personalities. I bet you they keep detailed notes. And like, I don’t have anything to hide but that’s not the point! The point is, I’m bad at cooking and I should be able to keep that to myself.
When the law was passed, ministers introduced Food Tech lessons into the curriculum. You know, so contestants would at least know how to make a fruit salad when the time finally came. They knew other countries would be watching and they wanted to show off through fruit salad competency or whatever. Big fat strawberries as a mark of English civility. My school didn’t have much money, so we only ever made party food. Here’s how to stick cheese and ham into a tinfoil hedgehog. Here’s how to spread marinara sauce on a pre-made pizza base. At the end of the lesson, the teacher made us go around the room one by one to pull our creations out of the oven so everyone could clap. But when it got to me, I pulled out a floppy disc. Pepperoni rolled off and under the table, and we all discovered that I’d forgotten to turn the oven on. When I was on the bus home, my friends started eating their slices. God, they couldn’t wait to be on the telly. They used to talk about what menu they were planning, what they were going to wear. They believed whole-heartedly in mandatory food service and I believed they were mad. But the bus was the bus, and I didn’t have anybody else to sit with.
I don’t think that ever really left me, that feeling. Because ten years on, I’m still sitting with people I don’t like, and it’s happening, and it’s been happening. The producer has been next to the camera the whole time prompting us to say and repeat expositional comments. She’s so bubbly and I hate it because it makes me conscious of how flat I am in comparison. Her name is Lauren but she told us to call her Lolly, for god’s sake. I can’t be doing with any of this.
On Monday, we ate a dinner cooked for us by a blonde mum in a zebra-print maxi dress. We were in the suburbs, L18, and our host was a Disney adult. She had a really low quiff. Blonde mum was someone who might choose Christmas for a personality, or one specific colour. In this case, it was the decision to believe in fairies. The production team was very pleased about this. They had an angle. I wasn’t. I wanted to be the kind of person who loved a one-note kind of person, but I just felt sorry for her. What’s worse is the camera could definitely see the patronising looks I gave her on the sly, because I couldn’t cook and I also couldn’t lie. Blonde mum took our coats and threw them over the side of the couch, and when we weren’t looking, she hugged the baby pink Smeg fridge in her kitchen for good luck. Never got the fascination with those, just thought of smegma every time I saw one in an advert. Embarrassing. Eventually blonde mum stopped hugging the smegma and brought the starter out. She’d sprinkled ‘fairy dust’ over top. Purple edible glitter as a garnish for leek and potato soup. It looked terrible and perfect, like the spray paint electricians annotate pavements with. She told us to dip a finger in the wet glitter and throw it over our shoulders — another good luck superstition, I guess. (The soup looked like cat sick on the carpet). She kept asking us if we believed in fairies and I kept getting distracted, because her dining table was pushed against the bay window in her front room and people were peering in. Then, halfway through the main course, a pigeon flew directly into the window. I got such a fright. Blonde mum went out to check if it was okay. We heard shuffling round the house, she was talking to herself, finding a shoe box, a blanket, said she was going to nurse it back to health. We had dessert after but our host didn’t touch it. I asked her if everything was okay. She put a hand over her mouth like Tinker Bell and laughed. Told us she didn’t actually like the way it tasted. I shook my head, took another bitter spoonful, and said that her fruit salad was to die for; I heard the camera zoom in on my face and wondered why I was eating avocado.
On Tuesday night, we moved on to dinner in an old man’s underground den in L6. I thought about how the viewers wouldn’t be able to smell what we were smelling. So for the record, blonde mum’s house had smelt like Radox sage & sea minerals bath soak and old man’s den very strongly of TCP. I much preferred it. His was the kind of serious place that might have been the home of a writer. Dark red walls, bad lighting, lots of sagging furniture; he had a white ponytail, and so on. Took a while for my eyes to adjust. Old man was busy fetching us dry school mash when I asked blonde mum how the pigeon was doing. She looked away. There was some kind of single grey meatball with each serving of mash when old man returned, and blonde mum stormed out the room. She didn’t come back. Things were pretty somber; we drank port. The main was roast beef and seasonable vegetables — and I don’t get that, or like it, or trust it, because Tesco sells the same packaged seasonable vegetables all year round. His beef took forever to chew. I worried about the others, because my teeth were the youngest around the table. Silence while we got on with the job at hand. Old man had to pull out all the stops to save the atmosphere because the chewing was going on for so long. He asked if he could hypnotise one of us and we had to tell him we simply did not consent. He looked disappointed. Could he do some stand-up comedy instead? No. Magic? I would prefer if he didn’t. I think he forgot we were being filmed because for something to do, he told us he was in £350,000 worth of debt. Just had to get it off his chest. Maybe he didn’t see anyone and he’d been dying for his number to be drawn so he could finally have a chance to socialise. Anyhow, I told him I was too scared to get a credit card incase I did something wrong and men came to my door to fight me. But old man seemed so at peace. He leaned across the table and told me he was at peace, and that’s because he was in love with Johnny Depp. I just nodded like it was the most normal thing in the world, because it was, I guess, and my mouth was full of fraying beef and it was 2017 so no one knew any better (I think, I don’t know, I don’t pay attention to celebrities). Either way, I cried in the taxi home because we’d eaten dead pigeon, and I vomited the port out of my system all over my front step.
Wednesday was much lighter, right up in the sky. L3 this time. Sad man’s turn to cook us tea. Sad man hadn’t spoken much all week. He lived in the business district — maybe that was why he was so sad — inside a flat, inside a building that was glass on all sides, including the top and the bottom I assumed. Blonde mum was back and acting like nothing had happened. The three of us walked in and were met with a framed topless picture of our host. I understood the logic of having that kind of imagery in his hallway: saddo was a radio presenter on the biggest station in the city. Good for him but people only knew him by his voice. This was him asking visitors to witness his banal slab of a body so that we all knew he was really there — his belly button and his red Diesel y-fronts and the organs that went jiggle-jiggle inside and outside of him. The three of us slipped across his glass living room and onto the terrace. Big money in radio it seems. There was planned entertainment tonight: a man dressed like Austin Powers was talking about being horny, being randy. I haven’t seen those films. Blonde mum asked Austin Powers if he was serving us dinner tonight — he said he was dinner. She hooked a leg around his waist and kissed his neck, and I thought about how I’ve avoided every single work Christmas party in every job I’ve ever had, and how this felt like severe social punishment for always pretending to be busy. Oh and sad man’s cooking was shit by the way. I respected his shamelessness — I wanted it for myself. Take dessert. I don’t know if this has a name — it shouldn’t. But he brought out four servings in dessert glassware, because everything in here was glass. And basically, he’d taken crusts off slices of bread and pressed it with thumbs and knuckles around the insides of each cup. Then, he’d poured tinned berries into the bread-cups, and placed a circle lid of bread over top. Each lid had been weighed down during a few hours in the fridge, so that the plain bread and the tinned berries had congealed into sweet wet blood cots. We all excused ourselves as soon as we could, and by this point in the week, I was really not doing well. It was my turn next.
I couldn’t sleep. I was still under the illusion tomorrow wasn’t actually happening so I hadn’t even been to the shops. There were some dead grapes in my fridge. Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. There was a 24-7 petrol station at the end of the road. Could probably get something weird in there. But no, hadn’t planned a thing. I still hadn’t cleaned the sick off my front step, and now I was having visions of doing a big circle of sick around the entire building like a protective seal. I had other visions: when they turned up to film tomorrow, I could answer the door naked and refuse to wear clothes so that they could not proceed. Or, I could lean into the potential of poisoning my guests and just do it on purpose. Do it fast. Do it dramatically. Find some old pesto, and after everyone’s eaten, get them on the VR headset in the living room so I can shake everyone like a can of coke. I’m afraid there’s only one toilet. Watch sad man shit in the bath. I would go to jail. But I don’t want to cook! I don’t have the ability to multi-task or time things so that everything is hot and ready for multiple people at the same time. I am fucking useless. The Come Dine With Me narrator is going to roast me and I’m going to agree with everything he says; I’ll end up watching the episode back obsessively until the voice of my inner monologue is no longer my own but Dave Lamb’s. No, no, no. I don’t have the imagination to make anything that takes more than two, or maybe three, ingredients. Egg, on, toast. And it’s not just the food that’s winding me up. It’s the setting and it’s myself. I should have done that thing that influencers do and rent out somebody else’s home for the day to shoot content in. I pay £650 a month to a landlord for the right to live in her third house, the beigest of them all. Is beige paint cheaper than white? It must be. I am paying off someone else’s buy-to-let mortgage; someone who blanks my messages about the viability of her own property. The bathroom is very fucking wet. I know bathrooms are where wetness happens but the window is so thin that the ceiling in that room isn’t beige, it’s black. All I can think to do is paint over the black, and then paint over it again when it sprouts back through. I’ve painted so many layers that the bathroom is now 50% ceiling, so when sad man shits himself in the bath, he is going to have to duck to get in.
I got a text. You up? It was from a number I didn’t have saved. I told them yeah, I was up, but who was this? It was someone from the TV crew apparently. They said they had been reviewing the footage from the week and they’d heard me muttering some concerning things to myself, presumably forgetting I was still mic’d up when I went for a wee and a nose around these people’s houses. Oh. Yeah. Didn’t think about that. Were they telling me off? No, nothing like that. But you seem really unhappy about having to do this. I am. So unhappy that you want to get out of tomorrow’s shoot? So unhappy that I want to get out of tomorrow’s shoot, yes. How much? Money? I don’t have any money. My landlord has all of it. No, I mean how much do you want to get out of the shoot? I paused. I told them I am not a real adult and if I go on TV, everybody will know. That is what people watch the show for, because we all feel that way deep down. Yeah, I get it, but I feel it shallow up. Okay well, if you really mean it, then there is a way out but it’s pretty dramatic. We reserve it only for the most anxious contestants. What is it? Are you willing to pack a bag and leave home, never to return again? I would love nothing more than to disappear off the face of the earth, and also leave my landlord in the lurch. What do I have to do? Pack your bags, they told me. I’ll be with you in an hour.
I don’t own much to pack. I had recently watched a lifestyle video on YouTube about Swedish Death Cleaning. A dramatic enough title to get me to click on the link. It is a cultural practice of evaluating each item you own based on whether or not it is important or sentimental or good enough to be passed onto somebody else if and when you die. If it’s shit and no one wants it, even if you want it, you have to get rid. I mean, I was only half-listening but that’s what I heard and so that’s what I did. Absolutely cleared the place out. I wear a sack now. I’ve worn it every night so far this week; repeating an outfit in a way the grown-up girls in school will definitely be dissecting in the group chat. I called my Mum to ask if there was anything she would want to keep in the event of my sudden death and she took a minute to answer. In the end, she said the only thing she wanted was the black personal shopper because she wanted to carry more food home from Tesco. I understood. So, that’s all I had left. The house was empty, the kitchen especially so. No one wanted my forks, knives, spoons, little spoons, pans, tongs, egg flippers or whisks. They all had their matching sets from Lakeland. I no longer even owned a bag to pack things into, because everyone else had matching suitcases too. So I put my one sack on (I’d been sleeping naked), left the black shopper in the hallway where it always was, and went outside to stand beyond the sick front step. I watched cars go in and out of the 24/7 petrol station while I waited. Eventually, a van pulled up, the side door slid open, and I heard a woman’s voice say quick, get in.
It was Lauren. She wasn’t Lolly anymore. She was deadly serious, balaclava on, and already giving me the lowdown while the van sped off into the night. We have to get you to the drop-off point before the sun comes up. It’s around the back of the Bidston Observatory. The contact will meet you there, and then we need to get back to the studio so that we can act like nothing’s happened. But what is happening? Listen, the only way to ensure an episode of Come Dine With Me does not air is for you to “die” during filming. That way the show can’t be completed, and out of respect, the other diners — who might have waited years for their time in the spotlight — will accept that it isn’t appropriate to air the show. Mum was going to inherit the shopper after all, good for her. Her little girl has been on the country’s favourite show, Come Die With Me. I made the joke to Lauren but she didn’t laugh. She was tense. We were having to hang onto the van when it turned corners. Where was she taking me? You’re going to one of the TRAH communes. Those are real? I had heard rumours about people who’d defected from the CDWM industrial complex. I used to read about them in forums but the posts sounded like silly conjecture, or they’d get deleted pretty quickly — banned by the platform for sedition. Couldn’t believe they were real. I felt as at peace as the old man and all his debt; blonde mum and the fairies; sad man in the nude. I wasn’t alone.
TRAH was the equivalent of going AWOL, but the acronym didn’t stand for away without leave, TRAH meant there’s rice at home. As in, eat in your own home, not in restaurants or on TV shows. Fuck off trying to get us to spend money to impress strangers (there was a small budget for each contestant to purchase ingredients but most people went above and beyond, remortgaging houses and taking out loans so that they could build a conservatory, or redecorate a dining room, get a curly blow, buy a bag of scallops). TRAH was also supposed to sound like tara, as in the Welsh tara wan for bye now which had crossed the border and became a sing-song northern goodbye. Tra. It meant fuck off, leave us alone, that’s the end of that conversation. It meant we could look after ourselves. We didn’t need the state’s input, and they didn’t need to see us in our unnatural habitat. The fact I was on my way to live with people who resisted all that — I could have kissed the producer. I wondered what it was going to be like. Off grid. Spared. I asked Lauren what my new life was going to entail. I was ready for anything.
Oh, it’s great. I’ve been helping people move to the communes for years. You know, I’m one of the people who goes up on stage to collect a BAFTA when we win awards for daytime TV, so they’d never suspect someone like me. And I check in with people from time to time using the back channels, make sure they’re doing okay. See if they need any medicine. But it just sounds ideal. Because there are no rules, no work. Just farmland, learning, nursing, and real face to face community. Money doesn’t mean anything because you have everything you need and you live within your means so who cares. There’s no Internet, no phones or laptops. Just books and elders and pen and paper, and people creating the most wonderful things. Like, there are no shops but it doesn’t matter because there are dressmakers who know how to make and repair anything you could dream of. No cars, just horses. Bit of thieving every once in a while which sounds like fun. Rob Costco for all their worth. And the best part is, say there are 50 adults in one location, they all take turns cooking for the rest of group so you’re only going to need to cook once every 50 days. That’s like… 7 times a year. I wish I only had to cook 7 times a year. I’d love that kind of —
I’m sorry, what? Can you say that last part again?
Yeah, I said you only need to cook a few times a year because everybody in the commune takes turns. Apparently the desserts are amazing. They grow their own straw-
Stop the van. Stop driving, now. Please. Lauren. Let me out of this van. Now.