Not arts politics, not mental health, not the usual remit of this blog, but I’m angry so here goes…
What I hate most about recent Budgets isn’t the crushing inevitability of yet more dehumanising measures being taken against the most vulnerable people in British society. It’s the chattering that follows online. It’s the equally inevitable collective shooting off of mouths, protesting that these measures are necessary and that poor people could solve their problems by just not being poor.
The discussion that happened to annoy me today was about food. I saw someone calling for punitive taxes on junk food, because apparently “poor people” make themselves ill by eating junk food and then can’t work and have to be put on benefits, and then they eat more junk food so they stay ill and never return to being productive members of society. Why don’t they quickly whip up a healthy tuna salad or a vegetable frittata, people ask. It’s cheaper and better for you than a frozen pizza or a pot noodle! These suggestions might be well-intentioned, but they’re also ignorant and got me very annoyed. Diet and attitudes towards food are so much more complex than the people making these suggestions seem to realise, and since I have some experience in this area I thought I’d share.
I wasn’t brought up in poverty, let’s be clear about that. I was born to working class parents who joined the middle class during my teens. But both my parents grew up poor, and the effects of their upbringing can be seen in mine. I grew up on a diet that was partly junk and partly the next step up from junk. I ate a lot of tinned soup, spaghetti hoops, oven chips and the like. It’s all very well to say that my parents should have been feeding me fresh veg, lean meat, brown rice… but how the hell would they have known? Their diets were absolutely atrocious growing up – tinned food stuffed full of artificial colours and preservatives, loads of fried foods, lots of sugary things.
Now you could say that their parents ought to have known better, but I don’t really see how they could. My dad’s family was huge, and I’m pretty sure that when you’re trying to feed a stereotypically Catholic family on a binman’s wages, the priority is to stretch cheap food as far as possible. Feeling full was the important thing. On my mum’s side there was one disinterested parent letting her children eat what they pleased – mostly from tins or boiled in the bag.
You could argue that since both families were poor, my parents shouldn’t have been given sweets as children. But honestly, I think people who grudge the occasional sweet treat to families living in poverty are most likely people who have never been very close to it themselves. You can spend a very small amount of money on sweets and make the treat stretch for days. The picture my parents painted of their upbringing was pretty bleak, and I think you’d have be very hard-hearted to say that they should never have brightened their days with the occasional quarter of soor plooms.
So where, in all of this, were my parents supposed to learn about nutrition? My dad made an excellent vegetable soup, but you can’t live on that alone. My mum might have been taught to cook at school, since girls were still taught Home Economics back then – but since she was mostly kept out of school to look after her siblings, that didn’t happen. She learned enough that she could cook to survival standard, but that was it.
As I was growing up, my parents passed on what skills they had. I learned how to bake using the recipes in the Bero book that you could send off for if you collected enough tokens from packs of self-raising flour. The first proper recipe I learned was spaghetti bolognese, which involved boiling the pasta, browning some meat with onions, then emptying in a jar of Dolmio.
However, what they couldn’t teach me was how cooking actually works. Anyone can empty a ready-made sauce over a pot of pasta, but how do you make the sauce yourself? If you want it to thicken, how do you make that happen? How do you get tomatoes to stop tasting so acidic? When do you add garlic or herbs? What herbs, anyway? Does it make a difference what order you do things in?
I was interested. I wanted to know how to cook, not just how to open jars and tins. When I was 14 I found a copy of an old Good Housekeeping recipe book in a charity shop. I handed over my 50p, took it home and opened it, all set to make all sorts of interesting things… then promptly slammed it shut and shelved it when I saw the lists of ingredients. They were long. They were things I knew we didn’t have in the house and guessed would be expensive to buy. They were often things I hadn’t heard of, and I didn’t know how to do any of the things in the instructions. Julienne? Deglaze? Caramelise? Seriously? These were not in my vocabulary, let alone my repertoire.
This was in the 90s, before I had access to the internet. If I wanted to look up any of these terms, I did it in the library… or I hoped it came up on a TV show. Television was the great advantage I had over my parents, and it’s what taught me to cook. My mum had watched the occasional Delia Smith programme as I grew up, but I found Delia and her pristine kitchen full of little bowls containing precisely-chopped ingredients very intimidating. I couldn’t cook that way, I knew, not without an army of BBC hirelings to do my prep for me. But then Jamie Oliver hit the screens, and that’s where I began to learn. His ingredients came in rough handfuls and approximate measures, with advice about what to do if you put in a little too much of something. His way of cooking looked fun and joyful. I thought I could probably do some of that.
So, with a certain amount of trepidation, I dug out that Good Housekeeping book and looked up the recipe for Hungarian Goulash. I had never tried it but had always been fascinated by the name. Mum had worked with a lady from Hungary for a while when I was a kid, and she had left me with a romanticised notion that anything Hungarian was automatically crammed with mystery and coolness. Carefully, I trawled through the recipe and worked out which ingredients seemed to be essential. I persuaded Mum to include them next time we went grocery shopping. Then I experimented.
The results were good. My first goulash was very tasty. It was the first time I’d ever eaten paprika. We ate it with crusty bread because I had no idea what veg it could be paired with. My only experience of vegetables was having them boiled to death, so as far as I knew I wasn’t keen on them. Anything that wasn’t boiled was probably iceberg lettuce, grated carrot or an anaemic slice of watery tomato. Vegetables, I was convinced, only belonged in soup.
Eventually I would learn how to cook veg. These days I’m actually fairly good at it. In fact, these days I’m a pretty decent cook with a reasonable repertoire of dishes, and when I want to expand that repertoire I know how to do it. I read a selection of recipes for the dish I want, identify the key ingredients, then I experiment from there. The result is that I can cook healthy, nutritious food, and I can do it with cheap ingredients. I’ve got this cooking malarkey cracked.
But do you know why I didn’t experiment more in my teens, when I was first learning to cook? Because it was expensive. Our local Safeway was small and didn’t offer much of a range of ingredients. It wasn’t the greatest for freshness, either. So first of all there was the expense of getting to the nearest big supermarkets. Then there was the cost of buying the actual ingredients. The way to keep prices down is to buy in bulk, but if you’re cooking a particular ingredient for the first time and you have no idea what you would do with the leftovers, you try to buy just as much as you need. Once you’ve mastered the basics of cooking and acquired some versatility, then you start getting bold about having leftover ingredients. When you’re a beginner, not so much.
Then there was the hidden cost of actually cooking the food. You’ve got to have the right equipment. I don’t mean anything fancy, but minor things like greaseproof paper, measuring spoons, a decent vegetable knife. Things that most of us take for granted – but if you don’t cook, why would you have them? My family cooked enough to own these things, but when I took more of an interest in cooking we suddenly started getting through things like greaseproof paper much quicker. Also things like salt, cornflour and tinfoil. Minor expenses individually, but they add up.
Finally, there was the cost of failure. Most of my experiments worked, and even if they didn’t quite go to plan they would turn out edible. But every so often things would go badly wrong and the results would have to be thrown away. In those cases, dinner would be tinned soup or, if my parents felt extravagant, a takeaway. Either way, the cost of an extra meal would be incurred. Even though I wasn’t the one paying the financial cost, every failed experiment was a blow to my confidence and I’d play it safe for a while after that. My family’s fortunes may have been on the rise, but we weren’t wealthy enough to be wasteful.
The development of my cooking skills went on hold for a while after my parents died. Living alone makes cooking a hell of a lot less economical, because it’s annoyingly difficult and comparatively expensive to buy sufficient ingredients for just one person. It’s fine if you’re batch-cooking, but slowly working your way through your freezer can be soul-destroyingly monotonous, and it’s a constant reminder of the people you would have shared the meal with had they still been alive. Tinned soup, toasties and takeaways often seem like a much better option. When I lived in London I simply didn’t have time to cook.
My experiments resumed when I returned to Edinburgh. I was living with other people, which meant I had people to feed. I had mastered the basics and felt more confident. And, importantly, I had the internet on my side. By this time YouTube tutorials and allrecipes.com existed. If I wanted to learn what deglazing was, all I needed to do was type the word in and watch someone showing me and telling me why it was necessary. If I was curious about whether a particular step was necessary, I could usually scroll down to the comments and find someone who had skipped it talking about what happened. It was magic. It’s also a lot easier to find specialist ingredients, living in a slightly hipsterish area in the city centre.
However, just because I can now cook easy, cheap meals, that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten the lessons of my youth. I don’t take this for granted, and I know that there’s actually a fair amount of money invested in my “kitchen basics”. Individually each jar of spices, bottle of lemon juice, roll of foil or what have you didn’t cost much – but considered collectively, it’s over £35 worth of stuff. It’s enough that if I had to buy it all again, all in one go, the sum would give me pause. And yes, it’s all stuff that I use regularly – perhaps not daily, but often enough to justify the space it takes up in my kitchen.
I’m also fortunate enough that I don’t have to worry about how I cook my food. If I know I’m going to be busy all day and will be too tired to cook dinner, I can throw something in the slow cooker. If I were on a pre-paid electricity meter, that might well be a luxury I couldn’t afford. I roasted a big tray of vegetables a few days ago. 45 minutes in a very hot gas oven. Cheap, healthy ingredients, and they tasted delicious, but what if I couldn’t afford to use up that much gas? A couple of minutes in the microwave would save a lot of energy and do the job of cooking the veg, but the result would be very bland and boring. Imagine eating that every day. Just the things you can cook in the microwave, day in, day out. Is it really surprising that you might reach for the flavourful, MSG-laden alternative of a ready meal, just for the sake of a bit of variety? Is it so much to ask that people should be able to eat things that taste good as well as keeping them alive?
I know there are various “challenges” out there that ask people to try living on a fixed sum of money for a short while. Gwyneth Paltrow famously tried and failed to manage on the sum given to Americans on food stamps for a week. Some of these schemes, like Live Below The Line, do a lot to raise money for charity. But while they can raise awareness of the issue, they can’t teach their participants what it’s like to live without proper dietary education. It’s not just about the amount of money you have available to purchase ingredients, or even to pay for the energy used in cooking. If you’ve been taught to cook and educated about nutrition, you can’t unlearn that. You can’t forget what paprika tastes like and go back to viewing it with suspicion, not sure whether you should spend £1 on a jar of it because you might hate it, or it might be something you’ve got to use in conjunction with another thing that you don’t have and can’t afford. Once you know about balancing carbohydrates and proteins and starch, you can’t just erase it from your brain and find yourself wondering why, having eaten a salad, you don’t feel full.
Honestly, I know how ridiculous some of this will sound to people who learned about these things before they were old enough to realise they were learning. It might feel like this is innate knowledge. But cooking and nutrition are learned skills, just like reading and writing. They ought to be taught in schools, because being able to feed yourself well is essential preparation for adult life and it’s not a safe assumption that every child learns these things in the home. There’s no sense in damning people for lacking the skills that no-one taught them, especially when their means of self-teaching are restricted by cost and access to resources. Instead, try to imagine the challenges that could have faced you… and think yourself lucky if they didn’t.