Tag Archives: Money

Matters culinary

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.


A lengthy round-up of what people are saying about CSstooshie now

Creative Scotland is the arts blogger’s gift that keeps on giving. How appropriate, as we head into the festive season. But there are gifts and gifts, and this one feels like one of those annoying noisy battery-devouring things where once you start playing, you somehow can’t stop.

Perhaps that’s just me. I’m a bit tired and at an annoying stage of the editing process, and I’m being driven slowly (well, not very slowly) mad by the endless DIY noises from our downstairs neighbours. It’s not the greatest of moods to be in as I sit by the phone and internet waiting for news from Pitlochry, where Creative Scotland’s board has been meeting.

In case you’ve been living in a cave, let me make sure you’re up to speed – Andrew Dixon, Creative Scotland’s CEO, has resigned. He’ll be leaving at the end of January. The senior management team will be reporting to Sir Sandy Crombie, Chairman of the Board, until a new CEO is appointed.

I don’t envy anyone the task of appointing Andrew Dixon’s replacement. This decision will speak volumes about whether Creative Scotland plans to do more than pay lip service to the concerns expressed by the artistic community. If Dixon is not replaced by someone who is prepared to address the ideological issues that lie at the heart of this dilemma, there will have been no point in his head rolling in the first place. My great fear is that the resignation of the CEO could be treated as a solution to the problem rather than a symptom of it. Resignations should be about clearing the way for someone better equipped to do the job, not about making a sacrifice to appease angry artists.

Whether Creative Scotland itself is changed from within or dismantled to start again, radical change is required. That takes time and sustained effort, and it’s a lot less dramatic and entertaining than a flurry of resignations and calls for revolution. It also takes a lot of talking and figuring out what our collective priorities are and how to realise the things we want.

I’ve seen several people re-posting Joyce McMillan’s column on the subject.  There are some excellent points about how public spending is perceived as a problem and its recipients as scroungers, not just where the arts are concerned but throughout our society, and about the dangers of treating the arts as a business. However, there’s a point at the end that I strongly disagree with and believe points to an equally troublesome way of thinking:

So far as the arts is concerned, the aim of a well-run funding body should be to identify those who have shown the capacity to create great work, and to give them the support that will set them free.

I don’t deny that this should be a part of what our national funding body does, but it should not be the whole of it or even its primary aim. Focus so heavily on those who are established enough to have demonstrated their “capacity to create great work” and you will drive emerging talent away, forcing new artists to go wherever the opportunities are – and once they’ve built up their contacts and reputations there, we may not get them back. Scotland’s emerging artists shouldn’t have to leave to seek their fortune because their own country is too blinkered to pay attention to anything that hasn’t already had the seal of approval elsewhere.

That need for approval is in itself a bit of a problem. Who decides what counts as “the capacity to create great work” and by what criteria? Joyce acknowledges that there is no conclusive answer, but I worry that the path she suggest leads to taking ‘greatness’ at face value. Shakespeare was a great writer, but is every single thing he wrote therefore great? I would argue that there’s a world of a difference between, say, Othello (which I’ll defend to the death as a great play) and The Winter’s Tale (which I’ll defend to the death as an example of how even Shakespeare has off days). The National Theatre of Scotland produced Black Watch, photos from which get trotted out at the top of every article about excellence in Scottish culture – but is this a somewhat lazy use of stock photos, or should it be raising questions about whether the NTS has been producing ‘great’ work since? If it hasn’t, should that be something that’s addressed in its funding? And if it has… well, surely there must be some photos from The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart or Macbeth kicking around somewhere? If we’re going to use the term “creative brilliance” and suggest that it be the main criterion by which funding is decided, we have to be very careful about how often and when and why we use it and also how we frame it, or we degenerate swiftly into ‘this is excellent because everyone says so and everyone knows it’ and risk excluding anything that doesn’t already fit that criterion.

I’m also concerned that this way of thinking does not allow for freedom to fail. If the pressure is on to make sure that all your work is ‘great’ work, where does that leave experimental work? Again, artists drawn to experiment will have no choice but to go elsewhere, to countries where the value of their work is understood. Countries like, for example, Germany – the very country Joyce cites as an example of getting your approach to the arts right. While making cuts to other parts of their national budget, they have increased arts spending by 8%. This is a testament to the difference between British and German attitudes towards the arts, but it’s important to remember that these differences aren’t just about money – Germany has (in theatre and opera at least) a completely different attitude to artist development, allowing for nurturing of emerging and mid-level artists as well as their more established counterparts. It is reassuring to see Germany taking such a step, but Scotland has a long way to go before it’s in a position to do the same because it would require a huge change in how people relate to the arts in the first place.

Elsewhere on the net, we’ve got thoughts from Pete Wishart, formerly of Runrig, currently Westminster Spokesperson for Home Affairs and Culture, Media and Sport. This is the gist of his argument:

Our creative industries are one of the major drivers of our economy and they have to be looked after, supported and nurtured.

Never mind all that silly self-reflection as a society, profound influence on people’s lives, education and civilising influence, the important thing is CULTURE = £££££!! Let’s get those artists arting, there’s gold in them thar hills!

In order to maintain our “cultural footprint”, whatever one of those may be, we apparently need to “develop our own distinct product”. You know, I find that deeply sinister. We’re supposed to make work that reflects some kind of bureaucratically-decided agenda, work that can be exported in a pretty tartan package with a Visit Scotland sticker slapped across it? That’s not art, that’s marketing material at best and propaganda at worst. If there’s a distinctive flavour to the work produced by a particular country, let that be something that grows organically as a response to shared influences and concerns.

I had to laugh at his suggestion that Creative Scotland has a role to play in getting artists to engage with the internet. We are talking about the same Creative Scotland, right? The one I’m talking about is the one with the horribly-designed website and fairly inept use of social media. Most artists are actually pretty web-savvy these days. We have to be. Most of us don’t have hefty salaries to rely on, and making self-employment viable relies increasingly on being good at using the internet.

On to another voice – Kevin Williamson’s this time, over at Bella Caledonia. (These are in no particular order, by the way, just as I happen to come across the open tabs on my browser.) This is where I started to find things really, really interesting. Kevin, like Kenneth Roy over at The Scottish Review, makes some excellent points about the lack of engagement or understanding from government. Since Creative Scotland serves policies that are decided at government level, surely Fiona Hyslop should be getting involved with all of this? Yet following her instruction to Creative Scotland to sort itself out, she has been conspicuously quiet. I asked whether she was planning to attend either Artists’ Open Space or the Tramway World Cafe and got a response saying she couldn’t as she would be busy promoting Scottish culture in India, which felt a wee bit like the cart being put before the horse and made me wonder whether the seriousness of this issue is clearly understood. (NB: While I’ve been writing this I understand Ms Hyslop has made some comments on the report from the board meeting. They seem to be pretty generic suggestions that artists and Creative Scotland should be nice to each other. If I come across anything else I’ll edit it in.)

And finally, there’s a strange contribution from The Commonty, a creative practice collective in the South West. I’m not entirely sure what this letter is trying to say beyond “we like Creative Scotland”. It’s all a bit vague, with a lot of talk about “initiatives”, “delivery of… Creative Scotland’s remit”, “real impact” and “strategic direction” and nothing more specific (for instance, examples of the projects Creative Scotland has backed and what “impact” they have had, or what the “specific realities of life in rural Scotland” might be). The assertion that “the overall momentum of change is in the right direction” would carry more weight if we had any idea what that actually meant.

There’s some complaint about the way this letter was reported in the national press, but to be honest I don’t see how it could have been otherwise. It’s nice to hear that there are some happy artists in Dumfries & Galloway and it’s good to give credit where it’s due, but this is a discussion about how Creative Scotland treats artists, not regions. Of course it met with a slightly bemused response. It’s not really relevant to this particular discussion. It’s not about whether it fits the national press’ story, it’s about the fact that in this particular conversation, the letter is a non sequitur.

 

And now the statement from the board has been released, so I’m going to go and have a look at that. At first glance I can see that they’re planning to do away with “strategic commissioning”, which seems to me like a step in the right direction – let’s hope that the rest of it turns out to be full of change for the better. No doubt there’ll be more Creative Scotland posts to come, but I’d like to think that they’ll be hopeful ones. I much prefer being optimistic to being weary.

It looks like this is Creative Scotland admitting they got things wrong and promising change. Let’s hope!