There are almost eight billion humans in the world, and one needs a way of working out whom to like. It can’t be as simple as whether they are right- or left-wing, dog or cat people, or even that fail-safe, Have They Suffered? No. There is only one valid litmus test for friendship, romance, or affinity, and that is the Five Desert-Island Foodstuffs.
The Five Desert-Island Foodstuffs are the dishes one can’t live without. If you could eat only these few items, forever, which would you choose? This exercise reveals everything one wants to know about a person. Are you sufficiently interested in food to give this exercise your time? Do you have the attention to imaginary detail that the subject requires? If not, please find your own desert island; mine’s full.
After enormous consideration, I believe the wisest Desert-Island Foodstuffs to be roast chicken; apples (preferably Cox’s Orange Pippins); good bread; violently mature cheddar cheese; and eighty-five-per-cent-dark chocolate. I’ve toyed with alternatives—bacon, kale, raspberries, simple greens in lieu of bread—but have realized that, in my isolated island home, these are the five simple pleasures that I could not sanely live without.
We’re not finished. There is a separate but equally important category that must be considered: Five Desert-Island Ingredients, the raw culinary materials that are more essential than all the rest. Presupposing the existence, on our island, of fish, sea salt, a convenient coconut palm, and airborne yeasts, what would you bring along, both to enhance these things and to provide simple gastronomic pastimes? (Tragically, in this scenario, you do not have the Desert-Island Foodstuffs.) Be careful; you can’t say “sugar” without a plan for how you will use it. (On the coconut? Really?) Yes, you love basil, but could you genuinely not survive without it?
Major questions must be considered: Quite how isolated is the island? If there’s the slightest possibility of saving a goat from the putative wreckage, for example, or smuggling coffee beans in one’s garment hems, or capturing a pregnant bee, then the options expand. But, if one assumes not, even more intense and serious analysis is required. Luckily, I’ve done it for you.
You’ll need chilis. Without the endorphin rush, you would die of boredom. Chili will perk up the fish, make coconut into sambal, probably render the palm leaves edible. Oats are essential: for puddings, for side dishes, for fermenting into alcohol and, best of all, for laboriously grinding into flour in order to make bread; whether biblically flat or excitingly puffy will depend on those airborne yeasts, which you will cultivate like children.
Garlic is a must; my kitchen smells wrong until a few cloves are cooking, and I assume the same will go for my desert island. At this point, things grow complicated. Ideally, one would have an infinitely useful grapevine, seasonally offering not only leaves, for pickling and a fairly desperate salad, but also tiny sour fruit, with which to make verjuice, and ripe grapes, for jam production, wine, and simple scoffing. (On the other hand, might not olives be more multipurpose?) Last, milk, for yogurt: my lifeblood, my reason for existence.
Onward and Upward in the Garden
Succulent-Smugglers Descend on California
My Food Dehydrator and Me: A Dysfunctional Love Story
The Wonderful Insanity of Collecting Abandoned Treasures on the Street
Why Are You So Good at Killing Your Houseplants?
Memories of Myrtle Allen, the Matriarch of Irish Cookery, and of Family Holiday Idylls at Ballymaloe
The Gardening Show as Cozily Addictive as “The Great British Bake Off”
I’ve solicited lists of Desert-Island Foodstuffs and Ingredients from dozens, maybe hundreds, of people, and last year I found myself face to face with the best person imaginable to ask: Nigella Lawson. We were onstage before hundreds of delighted fans—hers, not mine—all absolutely jazzed to be in the presence of the Queen of Us All. Our interview was going quite well; the audience members were wriggling like adoring puppies. Then I opened questions to the floor. Homage was offered; interesting inquiries were made. Out in the gloaming of the tiered seating, pale arms waved desperately for attention, held ever higher, like pupils eager to impress their teacher crush. “Nigella,” I said into my Bluetooth microphone, ignoring them all. “We’ve only time for one final question, and it’s this absolutely vital one: What are your Five Desert-Island Foodstuffs?”
“Well, I suppose—”
“Wait.” The crowd exhaled angrily. “Also your Desert-Island Ingredients. It’s a very important issue, and you mustn’t confuse the two.”
Nigella, I love you, but your answers were all mixed up. For foodstuffs: bread, butter, olive oil, My Mother’s Praised Chicken, Tuscan kale, chocolate, Vegemite, blue cheese, anchovies. For ingredients: chili, garlic, ginger, thyme, cumin, shallots, lemons. Hello, Nigella, five? And why bring anchovies when you could make your own sun-dried fish?
Had she thought nothing through? She may be my food hero, but this is plainly unacceptable. Let her sit sadly on her island, discovering the limitations of cumin. Maybe, if she’s lucky, I’ll lend her my pregnant bee.