Commonplace, Vol 2, Issue 2

In which the writer collects up links, responds to questions AND comments, and thinks about recipe books.

Hello! The collective outrage about the conservatives-trying-hard-to-starve-poor-kids I covered extensively in the last issue has had a good resolution. But then the UK government tried to say “ok, but we’re not feeding them over half-term”. It is extremely likely that they will have turned around on that one by the time you read this. And this does not reduce the need to remove these excuses for people from office one bit, mind, but it does demonstrate that telling them exactly what’s wrong with them works in the short term. At the same time, I would love to know what’s going through their heads when they seem to be so dedicated to their cause of making sure children starve.

Anyway. This issue collects up a whole bunch of odds and ends of commentary and linkage, and answers a few questions I’ve had in (some of which, as is traditional, were more comments than questions).

[ Commonplace is an occasional newsletter about food and food history. Drew, who needs to eat as well as ramble and swear, has a Patreon page at, about which people have said some nice things of late. Show your support, enable Drew’s book-buying habit (still constrained by unemployment), and get a look at the behind-the-scenes thinking on both this newsletter and Gentle Decline. Sign up today! ]

First up, this special offer burger from McDonalds in China was reminding me of something. For those who didn’t follow the link, it’s a “burger” which contains Spam (the actual canned stuff) and crushed Oreos. It got some good reviews, and I am fairly sure that the slightly artificial sound of “unexpectedly harmonious and tasty” is due to translation, rather than being written by an extraterrestrial. But then I realised that what it reminded me of was recipe titles from a neural network AI, and now I don’t know if any of it is real.

That does tie in to some thinking I’ve been doing about aspirational food, the collecting of recipe books, and the difference between that and what we actually cook and eat. I mean, I don’t buy recipe books anymore. Well, I don’t buy recipe books much anymore. I buy books about food, about food history, about specific aspects of food, about things peripheral to food like agriculture and trade, and occasionally books about cooks. But not recipe books. Not one recipe book last year. Except the Kanz, but that doesn’t count because it’s historical. And the ebook of hedge wine recipes. And the ebook of forgotten preserves (which I now can’t find). And a book by Jack Monroe, because Jack Monroe. And… feck, I bought recipe books.

Anyway, I have a moderate collection of recipe books, which grows sneakily every year (we did cull it pretty ferociously a few years ago, too). I rarely if ever cook anything new from them. I look through them when I’m planning food, and most times I make dishes I’ve done before anyway. Poking through my notes, past issues of this newsletter, and so on indicate that in 2020, a year when I did a lot of cooking, and it felt like a lot of it was new, I actually made less than a dozen things that I had not made before. Three of those were in one week. And at least five of those new dishes were from recipes I found online, not in the books. Point being, though, I could have recipes in there for things absolutely as mad as that spam-and-oreos burger, and unless it had an illustration or was named as such, I might pass right by it for years. Indeed, if it was in the older books by Elizabeth David or the like, where the recipes are plain paragraphs and the titles are just bold text on a line, I might never notice.

I’m pretty sure most people are similar in habits to me - some possibly more so. I do know of one person who has a collection of literally hundreds of recipe books, most of which she has never more than glanced at. And of course some people are better at this than others; my friend Turi is doing “New Food January”, in which she tries to cook only things she hasn’t before. This follows a successful New Food September last year, so it seems likely she’ll do it again.

Out of interest, I trawled back through Turi’s Dreamwidth account and dug up the things she and her husband ate in September. These included, in more or less reverse order, ”pork chop with wine sauce thing out of [Food & Wine]” “made up […] caramelised onion and roasted squash tart with bleu cheese galette”, ”red mullet with a lovely tomato-based sauce”, “a pear tart from F&W”, ”roasted partridge and squash with hazelnuts from a game cookbook”, “tomato tart using the last of the bounty from the garden”, “roast beef with sage and horseradish from TC&TG”, “onion/squash tart, this time with herbed goat cheese on the bottom”, “a vat of chorizo/white bean/chard soup”, “venison burgers on fried lion's mane mushrooms, topped with emmental and roma tomatoes (from the garden), with roasted acorn squash on the side”, ”pork with a nice red-wine sauce, and a caramelized onion and roasted squash tart that I'm basically just making up”, “a sea bass situation that was a sauce of onions, chopped green olives, cherry tomatoes from the garden, and I don't know what all else”, “wood pigeon boobies and exotic mushrooms from the market into a red wine sauce, served with roasted squash of some sort […] and chard from the garden”, “rabbit ragu and potato/ricotta dumplings, “scallop/braised chard thing”, ”pork in lemon/rosemary sauce”, and ”tomato risotto”.

There are three stand-out things I am learning here: Turi and her husband are better gardeners than I am, and they have an excellent fishmonger and poulterer within COVID-limited range. Also, they have way more energy for new food than I do. However, I do note that a lot of what they’re cooking is improvised in much the same way I do, so maybe I’m being a bit harsh on myself by only counting new recipes from books, rather than food slung together on the fly for which is no written record. I mean, I can’t call that a recipe; there isn’t one. But at the same time, I very often cook dishes that, strictly, I’ve never cooked before and might never cook again.

At the same time, most of my cookbooks are sitting there, as are most of anyone’s. I don’t know that this is true of any other craft or hobby; every other kind of reference book I have sees regular use (well, in its own context; I don’t hit the gardening books often, but I do look things up in them). I’m beginning to wonder if having recipe books on the shelves makes us feel like we have plenty of food stored up.

Speaking of storage, though, there is the thorny question of how seriously it’s possible to take a headline like “Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots issues jelly and gravy shortage warning”. On the one hand, it’s clearly point out an issue, or possible issue, with food supplies. On the other, it does sound, as Nina noted, like something from a 1950s British children’s book. It doesn’t seem to be clear yet how much trade into Ireland is affected by Brexit, in terms of trucks entering through ports, and how much there’s a reduction due to the plague. There are rumblings from the people working in these areas, though, which seem to indicate that there’s trouble brewing. Anecdotally, a lot of people are having issues ordering goods from the UK into the EU, as shipping costs have rocketed. A number of hobby shops, in particular, are going to be affected - while it can be perfectly reasonable to pay four or five euros shipping on a purchase worth thirty, it’s unlikely be as worthwhile if the shipping is twenty-seven euros, as happened in one case I saw. The last minute deal that was settled does seem to have prevented the worst-case scenarios, though.

Here’s a piece talking about “vertical urban farming”, as practiced in New York and Israel so far. Thing is, though, that this version isn’t using existing vertical services; it’s using artificial light and water supplies to grow things on the inside of shipping containers. I don’t want to mock this too much before I look at actual output and so on, but the article says that the containers offer “a growing space of 400 sq ft (37 sq m)”. A shipping container - even the smaller 20’ one, as opposed to the full size 40’ one - takes up a 15 square metre footprint, though, so that’s only just over double, for which you have to have a great whacking iron box, and all the resources used to make it (and the 37 square metres is probably the 40’ box). And then you need to supply power for the lights, and plumb in water. It is “reported to use up to 90 percent less water than a traditional farming setup”, but also doesn’t get rain. And that’s before you start thinking about what happens when the container rusts. There are probably uses for these things in extremely dense urban areas, if they can be stacked, but I think using existing vertical surfaces first is likely to be far more useful.

Alright, enough giving out. Some questions I’ve gotten:

“How did the autumn/winter potatoes go?”

They grew beautifully and quickly, and once the chickens stopped eating them, thrived, right up until the first real frost. At which point they keeled over at an almost comical speed. I dug out the resulting tubers, which were all golf-ball-sized or smaller, and they’ll be seed potatoes for next spring, in the same containers. I think that if I had done this last winter, which had few to no real frosts, they’d have been fine, but there’s no predicting that in September.

I do note that they - and anything else I plant - will have to be protected by cages of chicken-wire, because otherwise the birds will just snack away. Potatoes are tough enough to handle that to some degree; seedlings of other plants will not. Also, the process of earthing up is more important for container-grown potatoes; nearly all the tubers were more or less on the same level as the original seed potato, with very few above, and none below. So planting in relatively shallow soil, and then earthing up several times as the plants rise would appear to be optimal, although I haven’t tried that yet.

“So… the whole growing things doesn’t seem to be very successful?”

(Yes, I am artificially placing this question after the other one. It did come up in a conversation, though, after I’d been talking about the potato results.) Many of my efforts to grow food have indeed been less than completely successful. About half have resulted in no actual food. However, I’m learning how to do this, and I’m learning what works in the places I have. The discovery, for instance, that we have honey fungus in the back garden explains a great deal about why root crops have never really thrived. I’ve also learned that the “sow outdoors” instruction on seed packets doesn’t really work in our heavy clay soil. Those two in conjunction explain why I’ve never grown good carrots (and also why crops that grew well on the allotment, when we had it, don’t do so at the house). I’d much rather learn this kind of stuff before it becomes necessary. Next year’s crops will have a lower failure rate, and so it will go. It’s also useful to note that we had an absolutely stellar crop of raspberries this year, that the herbs I planted in a raised container three years ago are booming, and that the apple tree at the back of the garden has provided for a good proportion of the cider that’s maturing in bottles upstairs. But talking about the stuff that goes wrong, and how to fix it, is frequently more interesting.

“It’s not worth the time you put into it to grow food, or even to cook it yourself. Specialists can do it better for less money.”

So, if you consider my time at the €70 per hour or so I have sometimes charged (or had charged for me, in an agency) as a consultant, that’s absolutely true. But: that price per hour isn’t ever a full working week. It’s artificially high to cover the overheads involved in any business endeavour, the chasing of customers to pay bills, the accounts, the software-wrangling, the time spent looking for particular tools or ideas, and so on and on. My “real” per-hour is quite a lot lower, even at best. In contrast, consider the raspberries. Between Nina and myself, I reckon we have spent about 8 hours, over the past four or five years (possibly it’s longer), on those canes, including planting them, pruning them, and very occasionally weeding them. This year, I estimate we got 12kg of raspberries over the summer. Raspberries, if you buy them in a supermarket, cost about €18 per kilo. So we had about €216 worth of berries this year alone. I think the numbers work out in our favour, and that’s before you consider the quality and freshness of the fruit in comparison to shop-bought ones.

The other point to be made is that my longer-term thinking is not to grow food because it’s cheaper. It’s to grow food because it’s secure, and because I know what’s been done to it. Much of the food bought in shops (unless you’re buying all organic and free-range, in which case I salute you and commiserate with your wallet) has been treated with a variety of pesticides, antibiotics, and so on. Some of those may be harmful to me directly, and they’re certainly harmful to bees, in the case of pesticides, and contribute to the development of treatment resistant superbugs in the case of the antibiotics. I would love to claim that my stuff also tastes better, but except for its being fresher (which is definitely a thing), I’ve never really noticed that. On the security, when it arises - and, per Gentle Decline, I’m a pretty firm believer that it will arise - that there are food shortages, I’ll have learned to grow, and then be growing, some of my own food. The potatoes in my containers are considerably better than the ones that are not in the shops, like.

Anyway. This issue has been brought to you by random adventure generation tables, a great deal of rain, the number 13, and some very odd sleep patterns. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.

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