By Emilia Ong
Content warning: This essay contains discussions about eating disorders.
It’s fucking Masterchef. It’s eaten into my soul. It’s rotted the teeth of my intelligence like an entire bag of penny rhubarb and custards sucked without pausing for breath. It’s finished now, but that’s no good. My bite is mush. It’s finished this time round. Soon Masterchef’ll be back, dragging its carousing colours across the screen of my phone. My gums are sore and my fillings smarting. It’s finished but what use is that. Now I spend every evening casting about for something equally as vacuous and as tightly compelling. What I want is something like a gas and something like a stone. It’s the same thing. It’s Masterchef. Inhale or swallow, those are the reflexes of disappearance. These are the hummings and the thuds of a world in which you are not there.
This is cooking; this is competition; this is BBC prime time.
I have spent years watching Masterchef. Masterchef comes back and back and back. There is season after season of Masterchef. Watching Masterchef is like eating and showering and shitting but it’s also the opposite antithesis obliteration of those things. It’s not a thing and it’s not an activity. It’s a vapour and a gloss. Masterchef is a state of mind.
I have spent years watching Masterchef. The passive activity. Masterchef has been watched. In my twenties it was watched on my nine-inch Samsung netbook. There I sat, hunched over my desk. The desk was hunched over. It was long and broad and I had to stand on tiptoes to get between its hulking occupation of the room and that of the equally oversized bed. These days I watch Masterchef on my Huawei smartphone. I prop the phone on my bookstand. The bookstand is fashioned in the style of a deckchair, and the table, rather than desk which the bookstand is sat upon, is round rather than blocky and glass rather than wood. The glass is cold and the cold bites into my wrists as I sit, wrists out, watching Masterchef. As I sit, still hunched. Still hunched, still hunched, still hunched.
Life does –
I am now thirty-seven and my best years are over. One might say that we are approaching watershed. Now it is Christmas and they are showing a Masterchef retrospective, a compilation of, as it were, its greatest hits. I observe how the once-fresh faces of the once-young judges have aged. And of course time treats us all with the same disrespect.
What is life but a mauling?
Look: this is you with you.
Ever it was.
Masterchef as milk chocolate: so easy to guzzle and digest.
Masterchef as chewing gum: untethered of substance; flavour which stays in the mouth.
What is it about Masterchef? This is you with you. There is something erotic in its nature, something erotic in what one knows one’ll never have. Attention arrested –
The unsatisfying satiation of Masterchef; the empty calories of it; the bloated void of Masterchef; the safety of it. Masterchef is the epitome of desire’s paradox – of desire, whose essence is lack.
Masterchef is want freed of threat of its conclusion; Masterchef is life without fear of death. It is banal and unending. It is immortality. It is fast fashion and bought off-the-rails. It is aspirational and impossible. It is Waitrose meals-in-for-two. It is vanilla. It is unreachable. It is irreproachable.
I’d happily eat that whole plate, Judge Monica says.
Since the latest season of Masterchef began, I find I’m no longer looking at the walls at the floors at the cracks. I’m no longer staring at the silverfish when I turn on the lights. Strage giant, this me. The silverfish scuttle so sneakily towards the grouting, and I’m no longer wondering what they think.
I am not noticing, because I am fixating. Masterchef vision is tunnelesque.
Do you remember that place on Wardour Street which displayed its cakes inside crisp cubes of bevelled glass, as though the pastries and so forth were as distinguished priceless rare as those goods sold in a Bvlgari jewellers? I would schlep along the streets in all my taut, forward-dash fury, in perfect eyeliner and neon dress, in ivory tights, jaunty brogues and fuchsia lipstick, and when I got to that place, I’d purchase the cheapest thing they sold. The cheapest thing they sold was a foot-long, inch-wide, olive-flecked foccacia breadstick. To my embarrassment it would be served to me on a side plate, and it therefore extended out several inches from either side, creating a Saturnian ensemble upon the curving beech tray. The tables in that place were of a pinkish brass and they were polished to a high sheen. Whenever I bent to eat, I could see my chin, my wobbling cheeks, the twin cavities of my nostrils, rendered upon its blushing rosé.
I would eat for three hours. I nibbled, I picked, I gnawed. I ate the olives first (triumph) and eventually the bread (defeat). As I ate, I would scrawl all the while on tissues which I later pressed between the leaves of the notebook. The notebook itself was too good to be written on; I was waiting till I had the perfect thing to say. Afterwards I would go home to that old rented room with the big bed and the big table, to the room in the flat which I shared with my messy cousin and his clean-freak and therefore no-longer-friend. In I would walk, into that tension. In I would walk, with the Tesco bag I acquired on the way home. In I would walk, following my lengthy perusal of the Tesco at Goodge Street, whereupon I would shut myself in my room and the eat two packs of raw mushrooms I had purchased, sliced and drizzled with Panda oyster sauce, plus seven bananas, and eight dessert-flavoured yoghurts. Lemon cheesecake and apple pie –
And as I did so I would, yes, I would, yes, I would, yes, watch Masterchef.
That, dear readers, is what my recovery looked like.
It was what one of them looked like.
Because that time, I did not recover.
It was perfect.
At any given point, how many babies are being born, how many people are dying; how many addicts are in dark corners hustling for drugs; how many anorexics are at home watching Masterchef?
Every time I get into Masterchef, I think, I’ve got to get off Masterchef.
Every time I get into Masterchef, it’s time to ask what the hell is going on. I know that I won’t – won’t get off it, that is. Not till it ends, not till I have no choice, not till the prize is conferred and the losers rejected, not till there’s no more supply of the goods.
Masterchef does end, eventually. Things pass. Every season has its summer, is that what I mean. Butterflies and days –
But no, no: stopping is not so easy as that. To movement there is momentum; with habit, there comes a force which defies to be stopped. When the end comes, I –
I look for alternatives.
That’s where I am now: looking for alternatives. Because I still don’t know what’s going on; because the questions hang unanswered; because I don’t know how to live; because nobody has taught me how to live; because I’ve never been interested in their lessons. Because I have not learned how to live the question –
When everything about one’s life has been deferred, it is hard to shift gears.
Later: don’t tell me it’s not easy to comprehend the appeal of Later! Later is so much more solid than what is now, than what is here.
Than what is here, and now, and gone –
Later is as hard as the past, as firm as it; Later is as pronounced as the past, as thrusting as it; Later is grippable. It comes replete with statues and memorials, with placards and eulogies, with tombs of remembrance so prettily flower-fringed. Later is a relic, a tyrant, a god. Later is fashioned into reassuring solidity by the many attentions of many tools, minds and hands; Later is chiselled and planed, planned and painted; Later shines with the impossibly steady sheen of the mind’s most prized lacquer.
Whereas: the moment of now recedes infinitely and infinitesimally. To be present feels, ironically, like death.
Is it any wonder that we treat now like only so much shit, only so much waste? We flush now down the toilet, deeming it an unsightly, an unruly, a regrettable mess.
But the body is nothing without its digestive system –
warts and all, warts and all, warts and all.
Aim for perfection, says Judge Marcus and Judge Monica. At this level, there is no room for mistakes, says Presenter Gregg. I watch the contestants shed blood sweat tears. I watch them swell with pride and conceit. I watch them jus and gel and foam and puree and glaze. I watch them pinch and balance. I watch them arrange. I watch them arrange.
Some of them use tweezers.
The contestants taste, but they never, ever, really eat.
I want so much.
I want and I want and I want.
Life is as thrilling as I’ve known it; life is as thrilling as it gets.
I will not live my life, I think, until I know exactly what I am doing with it.
There is no breathe-out on Masterchef. To relax into the moment is to lose the game.
Emilia Ong is a British writer of fiction and nonfiction, whose work has appeared at Litro and Entropy, amongst others. See more of her work at emiliaong.com or follow her on Twitter or Insta.