Butter, pasta, massage guns… The strange world of lockdown essentials

Emma Beddington

So perhaps, if we stay alert and follow Mr Johnson’s absolutely infallible multicoloured plan, the shops will open soon. I don’t know how I feel about that. On the one hand, I have missed ferreting through the TK Maxx beauty aisle, sorting the brand-name wheat from the quixotically named chaff (so many unlikely doctors selling moisturiser!) then entering a fugue state and emerging with a yoga block, some bath salts and four bags of nearly expired cantucci biscuits. On the other, it’s been interesting to experiment with consuming differently, and less.

Of course, it’s only “interesting” when you’re not hungry, skint, sick or scared. But there’s a salutary jolt to the system in not buying things you don’t need, having to wait, and wait, for a pair of scissors, or being thrilled by a bag of penne. Since the panic buying subsided, I’ve shopped in the ways I always knew I should: making careful lists, planning meals and staying local. Some intriguing alternative networks have sprung up around food, in particular, mixing old and new. A tip from an acquaintance about a wholesaler selling online transformed my stepfather into the yeast king of his street, doling it out to all comers. A weekly email sends me to a car park where a man in a van hands over foraged greens, local eggs and rhubarb on tick. A different man leaves an Eccles cake on your doorstep at 3pm if you DM him at 9.30am sharp. I’ve even heard of an invitation-only fish-buying collective (I’m not invited).

There’s a salutary jolt to the system in having to wait and wait for a bag of penne

I love the hunt and the gleeful glow I get from my local network of virtuous, creative independents, but I know the line between ethical and smug is blurry. I rationalise everyday indulgences as supporting local businesses, when, of course, I’m mainly doing it for myself. I could claim my apricot and pistachio Danish today was an act of solidarity towards my local baker – I adore her and want her to survive – but I also really wanted that pastry. Perhaps that’s fine and consumption can be win-win…

I don’t know. Consumption is always an uncomfortable business, but never as squirmily so as it has been recently: the trolleys full of loo roll, the guilty tiptoe down the non-essentials aisle, and the weary delivery drivers handing over stuff we’ve convinced ourselves is “necessary”. Should we be keeping purchases to the strict minimum or spending to bolster an ailing economy? With no guidance from our overlords, we really need a national hotline of on-call moral ethicists, like Chidi from The Good Place, giving us their Kant-backed verdict on our greyer impulses.

We might not be roaming the Krispy Kreme-scented corridors of Westfield or Meadowhall, but most of us are still shopping, somehow. Here’s what I’ve learned about my consumption.

You can have too much mustard. Restaurant catering businesses have “pivoted” (definitely a word of the year) to selling retail, but catering volumes are vaster than you realise: I accidentally acquired several litres of Dijon mustard and a mountain of “luxury” nuts. We eventually finished the nuts, but the mustard will outlive me.

Some kinds of shopping just don’t work online. I want to poke at plants, and stationery is a tactile thing – the smell of fibre tips and the heavy grain of fancy paper. More generally, I can’t impulse-buy on a website as I do in lovely shops, seduced by clever displays and cool music into emerging with a tasteful tea towel and some £12 jam. My bank balance thanks me for it.

Restaurant food is nice because of restaurants. Over-subscribed, aspirational meal delivery kits are the new bourgeois thirst trap. Devote your week to refreshing a dodgy website and you might snaffle one of these prized parcels, but you could still be disappointed: a restaurant meal out of a plastic box in front of Pointless is less appealing than an evening in an actual restaurant. I like the gyoza from my favourite Japanese, but what I really loved, it turns out, was the K-pop soundtrack, the buzz, and the strangers. God, I miss strangers.

You’ll buy one thing over and over again. Mine is butter: I can’t walk past a pack of butter without buying it. This is what happens when a child is raised on Flora: in adulthood they’re powerless in the face of Big Dairy.

The unlikeliest purchase might be the best. Sure, if you managed to acquire hair clippers that’s fun, and your family now looks like the bastard offspring of Sideshow Bob and Arthur Shelby from Peaky Blinders. But the real sleeper hit here was an electric “massage gun”, bought in desperation for my son’s 18th birthday. Unbranded, it came in a black case like an assassin’s kit, with no instructions other than the weary plea: “Do not use on genitals.” Once assembled, however, it became our favourite distraction, passed from hand to hand, whirring and thudding with pleasurable pain. While we’re all pretzelled into unergonomic spaces, take it from me, the massage gun is the new pasta.

Follow Emma on Twitter @BelgianWaffling