"Come in, come in, come in!" my friend shouts as she whisks the coat and proffered bottle of wine out of my hands before running back into the kitchen. "You’ll have to excuse me, I’m just doing the flatbreads."
"Lol 'flatbreads'," I think. "Hope she’s got the good hummus" (you know the one I mean), imagining Sainsbury’s pitta breads diving deep into the tasty pool of olive oil and pine nuts.
What I see when I follow her into the kitchen, though, is a revelation; the hummus, sitting on the perfectly clean countertop in an earthenware ramekin is most definitely not store-bought, three complicated-looking salads sitting next to it, patiently waiting to be served. And that flatbread? It’s currently in the form of little dough balls resting on a chopping board, which my friend is popping one by one into the hissing (Le Creuset) frying pan. She’s cooking flatbreads from scratch, and neither of the other two guests, sipping quietly on their G&Ts with fresh cucumber, is batting an eye.
Somewhere along the line, everyone it seems learned to cook at a Michelin-star level of cheffery, whereas I just…didn’t. I peaked in my first year of university when I finally managed a passable spaghetti Bolognese, and I've been on a downward trajectory ever since.
It isn’t that I don’t like cooking, I do. The promise of a whole Sunday afternoon to make a stew or curry or chilli with Netflix on in the background is a dreamy proposition; it’s just that no matter what I cook, no matter what recipe I choose and how closely I follow it, what I end up making will look and taste like crap.
Which would be fine. Everyone in life has different skills; some people are good at cooking, others excel at running marathons (not me) or painting (also not me). But on account of restaurants being very expensive and people wanting to show off their new children (houseplants), "come round for dinner" is a frequent invitation – one that I can’t reciprocate.
The thought of cooking for other people is a terrifying proposition. For starters, unlike my flatbread-making friend, the tail end of my cooking expeditions do not leave a scene as serene as her kitchen. I get distracted very easily, which means that cooking à la Jess ends up causing damage that will take hours to repair. Soggy packaging will be strewn across the floor, discarded carrot and leek ends will dot the landscape like fallen soldiers, several burned debris-stained pans will fill the sink and the gas will be trying its darndest to set fire to the teatowel that’s been flung dangerously close to one of the three left-on, unattended hob rings. I am not exaggerating.
Secondly, my final creation will not be several mezze-style dishes of differing cuisines displayed on artfully mismatched crockery. It will be a one-pot reddish-brown sludge with big chunks of red pepper floating bravely on the top. It will conform to this aesthetic, no matter what I attempt to make; vegan chilli, sweet potato daal, beef bourguignon – even pasta bake will end up with the look and taste of a school dinner version of 'mystery Tuesday ragù'.
I’d love to cook well, I would. I envy so much the women I work with who bring in their perfectly preserved leftovers for lunch each day while I chow down on the salad bits and rice I bought from the Co-op next door. And what exactly do I think I'm going to do when I have kids? I’ve tried practising Jamie Oliver's so-called 15-minute dinners only to end up, two hours later, crying in the foetal position, tomato purée smeared across my forehead. Unless Covent Garden Soup contains an acceptable amount of nutritional value, it’s unlikely my future offspring will be getting anywhere near their five-a-day.
I guess my point is, if I still manage to be this useless at cooking in a world that shows 17 cookery programmes a day on every channel, where cookery books have replaced socks as the "unimaginative-and-vague-Christmas-present-from-that-aunty-you-don’t-really-know" and where street food markets have been packaged up by corporations and refashioned into the new drinking spots to frequent, I can’t be the only one who can't cook and is feeling shit about it. More people out there must currently be at home, looking in disdain at their Bridget Jones-esque blue soup and feeling like a failure while everyone else is busy showing off their dinner on Insta.
And so, for those of you quietly feeling rubbish about yourself for not being able to pick up what appears to be an essential millennial "adulting" (god, that word) life skill, here’s my advice: embrace your reputation as a crap cook. As soon as you start being open about your inability to make a decent parmigiana, the pressure – which I assure you is entirely in your own head – will go. You're free to make as much super-bland-or-super-spicy stew as you want, and take as long as you want doing it.
Accept your label as the one who can’t cook in the group. After all, it's better than being the one who never accepts the Uber split, or the one who always flakes at the last minute. I guarantee you there are a thousand other things people love you for; perhaps you're the funny one, or the good listener.
My point is, not everyone can do everything and there’s far worse stuff for you to be lacking in. And hey, you can totally still have your friends round for dinner – just, you know, maybe order a Deliveroo?