Lesson 1: Unpacking a meal

Timing is fundamental to a good meal. What would a roast dinner be if the potatoes were done an hour before everything else? Either one would have to burn them or set them aside to keep warm. People want freshly roasted potatoes, not kept warm potatoes. (Of course, that does represent the opportunity to serve your patron warmed potatoes in a subtle attempt to impress upon them the need for a larger oven. Repeated use of this gambit may yield surprisingly favourable results.)

There is another, much more important and controllable timing element, and that is the timing of your background context. By which I mean, what else is happening in your life outside the kitchen, and is it perfectly suitable to hosting ten of your closest friends for a sumptuous banquet? The answer should of course be in the negative, thus increasing the perceived amount of effort on the side of your guests.

Core principle: the timing of a successful meal should coincide with when it is least convenient to do so. 

The Travers Manouevre

This tactic is one of the prime examples that illustrate the principle of 'Timed Unsuitability'. Interestingly, it is named after the 'victim' (Mr and Mrs Travers) rather than the creator, who is a one Robert Stokes (of particular infamy for his surprise serving of an overly creamy Eton Mess in the other place).

This manoeuvre, in the classical manner, takes place after the chef has just moved house and is in what is called by Stokes the 'unpacking period'. This is where the house is still full of boxes, in various stages of being unpacked, and the duration of the period is as long as it can appear to be reasonably acceptable for the tenants to still be unpacking their house. The length of time for an unpacking period varies wildly from person to person, and it must be discovered by the Novitiate Cookman. As a point of fact, Stokes' own unpacking period tends to last, on average, a full eight years, at which point he decides it's time to move house again and begins to laboriously pack up his entire house by himself, declining all offers of assistance. It is hard for the novice to reach such a level of unpacking, so probably some time within the first month is optimal. Any longer than five weeks after moving house and the manoeuvre loses its effectiveness, as demonstrated in graph 1.1.

I recently had the good fortune of being able to implement this tactic myself. Three weeks into living in my new house (which yields an impressive 90% effectiveness – see graph 1.1.) I had a couple of guests visit upon the weekend. Now, I had actually unpacked my kitchen fairly early on in the process, but I was certainly within Stokes' well defined unpacking period. Due to infrequent recycling measures of the local council, empty boxes were prevalent all through the house. It was the work of a moment to ensure that they were on display in every single room in the house, except, of course, the spare room in which they spend the night, which was immaculate.

Instead of attempting the 'still unpacking' look favoured by Stokes and other practicers of his more classical style, I strived to reach the 'just unpacked' look, a much more modernist approach. This way, the empty boxes were arranged to look as though I had just cast them aside after managing to unpack them, reinforcing the herculean effort on my part of unpacking the entire house in time for the guests' arrival. I followed this up by saying, immediately upon their entry, 'I was hoping to have more time to clear away all these boxes, but of course, I'm not as punctual as you.'

They were forced into replying with variations of Crispin's well documented, 'Oh no, that's absolutely fine,' or some other phrase of graciousness. The initiative was mine from that moment henceforwardly. Offering fruit and tea and any other small comestible at this time is a good idea – I served them some biscuits with their tea, accompanied by vociferous apologies about the fact that they were shop-bought biscuits and that the tea had dared to arrive into their mouths from a bag.

Disappearing into the kitchen early on is useful, and not letting anyone else in is vital. 'I don't want you to look at the mess,' I said, 'and only I know where everything is right now – it's that messy!' You could also say, 'It's far too precarious for more than one person at present,' followed by a promise that you will give them a tour of the house as soon as it is humanly possible to do so. I would recommend reiterating that you thought that you had more time to clear up as you vanish into your kitchen, leaving your partner or associate Cookman with the conversational duties.

Fig. 1.1  A well-deployed box.

Fig. 1.1  A well-deployed box.

Of course, a three course meal will have been prepared well in advance by yourself, and require only to be put into the oven to cook. At least an hour's cooking time is essential to maintain the deception of a complex undertaking. Ensure that you stay in the kitchen for the full heating time of the main course to keep up the illusion that you are busy at work cooking from scratch. Upon leaving the kitchen to serve each dish, keep the door as closed as possible, leaving only enough room for you to squeeze through with a serving dish. This will give the impression of the kitchen being rammed full of boxes and unpacking detritus. Learning this door & body language early on will help you form the foundation of your non-vocalised Cookmanship, equally as important as the vocal variety.

With regards to what the meal should actually comprise, brief guidelines are given here, although it is important to stress that the food eaten at a meal is the element of least importance. After my modernist opening, I went back to the traditionalist's soup, as this can be initially created before you even moved house and stored in the freezer. A salad starter underlines that green leaves really are 'all that you have got in' so far, even if those green leaves are wild rocket, spinach, and watercress; and chives, basil, and mint from your herb garden. The main should be something oven-cooked of course, to give you the time to build up the manoeuvre to its full effectiveness. A dessert of a crumble or similar baked dish is useful for the same reason (and components such as the fruit can, like the soup, be prepared weeks in advance). A risky finish to the meal, but starting to gain popularity in both the traditional and modernist camps, is to have pre-bought ice cream straight from the freezer, served with apologies for not creating something from scratch. This was first depolyed, by way of a Vienetta, in the early 1990s; the current trend is for Ben & Jerry's Peanut Butter Utter Unfathomable Caramel Despair and Pear flavour.

The risky approach to the freezer, not to my personal taste, but it must be highlighted in this course.   Quote to learn: 'It really is all that I have in...'

The risky approach to the freezer, not to my personal taste, but it must be highlighted in this course.

Quote to learn: 'It really is all that I have in...'

Three courses later and you will have hosted your unpacked meal. You should, of course, decline any offers to assist with the clearing away and washing of dishes. What will live vividly in the memory of your guests is that you, at a tumultuous time of attending to your new house, managed to serve an exquisite meal, all by yourself, taking the time out of your very busy schedule to be an excellent host. Your lack of actual conversation or hosting will be forgotten when they remember that excellent cobbler that finished the meal off nicely. And if your guests are not hideous beasts, they will have provided the wine for the meal, hopefully bringing both white and red due to not being sure what dinner would be. If they don't bring such items, or bring Blue Nun or equivalent, then the manoeuvre has been utterly wasted on them and I implore you to stop taking this course and find better guests to host in the future.