Commonplace Vol. 4 Issue 2
In which the writer thinks about his own history with food, and pokes some news items.
Hello. This issue centres mostly on some personal thinking about my own changing attitudes to food and cooking, and then veers off into a few news items that were interesting to me.
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The question I’ve been mulling over for a bit came from a climate newsletter, Gen Dread, which asked about people’s evolving attitudes to climate crisis. I’m trying applying it to other things, so it becomes, in this case: how has your attitude to food changed over time?
So let me think back as far as I can on food. I know I was interested in cooking (and baking) from a reasonably early age. My mother baked every second day; bread (soda bread), scones, and a variety of biscuits, fruit tarts, and cakes, mostly depending on the mood she was in. I helped (possibly “helped”) with that from around five years old, on days when I was not at school. Sometime around the age of seven, I was given a kids cookery book (no idea who gave it to me) and set about pestering my parents (I remember that clearly) until I could get the ingredients for a thing in it and make it - Scotch Eggs.
Scotch eggs are honestly a complex enough thing for an adult to make, and I’d rather growl about Tesco not stocking them in Ireland any more than make them myself. But for whatever reason, they seemed approachable at that age, and I made them. Exactly once.
And then I have no particular recollection of cooking anything else until I was 11 or 12, well after my mother’s death, and when it became pretty much necessary for me to do so. At that time I could (and therefore must have learned in the meantime to) steam potatoes, fry a steak or a pork chop, boil carrots or peas, and otherwise put together the basics of a meat-potatoes-and-two-veg meal. Or a fried breakfast. I don’t think I advanced that by much before the age of 18, although I did add stew and eventually a few forms of pasta to the repertoire. My middle brother (not otherwise given to positive statements about me) claims I did a good sweet-and-sour chicken, but this seems very unlikely unless it was with sauce from a jar, and I don’t remember it at all.
I did very little cooking the year I was in college in TCD; I had essentially no money, and what I did have went on bus fares and food from college catering. When you’re dependent on an already-insufficient grant, its arrival in week 7 of a 9 week term is not helpful. And then I dropped out of college, got a job, and had money for the first time in my life. It was by no means big money, and was below the minimum wage that would be introduced a couple of years later, but it was actual cash in my hands. I went - not deliberately, still - about learning to cook a few bits and pieces, being taught to do so by housemates, or by trying to replicate things I saw in restaurants. I remember trying to find cream cheese in a supermarket, and since the Philadelphia brand stuff which was - and in most cases still is - the only form of cream cheese in the country doesn’t say what it is on the package, failing.
Nina and I moved into a flat in Ranelagh (where the landlady’s sister had 3am parties on week nights on the un-sound-proofed floor above us), and I was gradually expanding a repertoire of things I could put together in a kitchen. Nina had a blog then called Rocking Grass, and she mostly wrote about food - I have a clear memory of being somewhat astonished at the idea that you could write about food as a topic on its own, which is deeply ironic at this stage. We discovered sushi. It must have been around here that I learned to use chopsticks - I certainly didn’t learn in rural Ireland, although I don’t remember when I did.
And then there is this one very clear memory of living in a house near Churchtown, cooking in a tiny kitchen with a hatch through to the living room with Nina and Dee (and Anna on the couch three nights in seven) where I had a laptop on the hatch shelf and was doing an in-real-time-account of what I was cooking on the talker we were inhabiting at the time, and I realised I was not just cooking, but enjoying cooking, and reasonably good at it, and could improve, and knew what I needed to do to improve. That was a revelation.
Some time after that, we found the SCA, and therein people who were doing cooking as a special interest in and of itself, and while we didn’t remain involved at that time, I kept rolling on the food and food history side of things. My attitudes to various aspects of food have changed since then, but the interest and the want to study it and communicate about it have remained fairly steady.
One of the things that’s still changing is my thinking on food processing. Processed food is not a bad thing by itself - something as simple as dry pasta has gone through a very great deal of processing to get from the wheatfield and the chicken to our plates, and we still don’t think of it as “processed food”. But there are some aspects of modern food that involve too much processing, or the wrong kind of processing, and it really needs a different term.
And at the same time, there is genuine value in food where the work is already done, that you don’t need to expend a lot of energy preparing. People’s lives are very frequently time-poor; the more so if you’re working two jobs on low money in high-rent economies, which seems to be all of them at the moment. In many ways it’s an absolute blessing to be able to throw something in the microwave or get something from a takeaway (or a food truck or a deli counter). And the provision of food like that has been a feature of urban - and even village - life for as long as there have been settlements (see all the eateries and takeaways in Pompeii for a good example). It may even have been the point of settlements in the first place (at the most technical level, grain storage was the reason). I still feel like there’s something wrong with the microwave-ready burger, to pick one example, but I can’t point to where the virtue is in microwaving just the meat patty and assembling the thing beside the oven instead. So my own attitudes are still under adjustment, and I suspect that’s a good thing. Never changing one’s mind is a sign of not understanding the world.
Anyway. Some bits of news coverage around food and food supplies, most of which also point back toward historical conditions.
I mentioned this in the last Gentle Decline, so apologies to those reading it twice. Food prices have hit an all-time (since 1990) high. And 1990 is when this form of price tracking began, to be clear, not the last time it was this high. This probably included the bizarre phenomenon of egg price increases in the US, which really do look from both that article and some more research like blatant gouging on the part of the egg industry. Eggs were hard to come by in the UK for a few months last year, but the price there doesn’t seem to have rocketed in the same way. So many Americans live in urban places now that acquisition of backyard chickens probably isn’t all that practical, either.
Next, a headline that looks like it was written by Russell Brand (not a recommendation): Welcome to the Shoppy Shop. These things are not unique to the US, of course; the local Centra in Maynooth has a corner with shelves that look a lot like the illustration in the article (plus two sets of shelves selling American candies and sodas, for reasons I am not yet able to fathom). One of the oddities, though, is that these shops remind me very strongly of pictures of Edwardian village shops (see this fellow, who’s redone his dining room as a 1920s food shop), and to a lesser degree, some of the shops that were still in action up to the 1980s in Ireland, where you went to a counter and requested the goods you wanted, rather than taking them from shelves yourself.
Ok, look. Do not click on the following link unless you are not easily grossed out. It has a downright repulsive photograph at the top. For context, it’s about how mealworm larvae and house crickets have been approved for sale as food in the EU. Here is the link: I WARNED YOU. So, I am not opposed to eating insects. I haven’t had the chance yet. But there are going to be some cognitive issues to get over before I am going to be able to eat some of these.
And as a palate cleanser, here’s an article about M&S introducing checkout-free shopping. Basically, you pick up your stuff, you scan it with the app, and as long as you haven’t gone past a certain price point, you just walk out of the shop. On the one hand, this seems so open to abuse it’s amazing. On the other, Tesco and other shops have been doing scan-it-yourself for a long time now, and that seems to be ok, even if I get selected for random checks about half the time.
This issue has been brought to you by excellent Portuguese pastries, a steady supply of Coke Zero, more new books, and a busy start to the working year. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.