Let me tell you what I had for dinner last night. No, really, it’s important. I made potato wedges with the organic purple Cara potatoes from my veg bag, rolled around in olive oil and herbs and chili flakes and roasted, with diced red pepper and crumbly curd cheese thrown in at the last minute. I ate it with leftover cauliflower cheese from the night before. I’d walked ten minutes up the road to pick up my weekly veg bag, and it contained a cauliflower bigger than my head, so I invited my friend round and steamed the cauliflower in the electric steamer, made a cheese sauce with plenty of cheddar and mustard, and then combined the two and put them in the oven to get crisp on top and gooey inside. We ate it with steamed greens and grated carrot and beetroot and slices of homemade oat bread, which I’d taken out of the breadmaker that morning. This evening, I’m planning to pick up some white wine vinegar so I can pickle the rest of the beetroots, doing the golden ones first so their bright sunshine-yellow doesn’t get drowned out by the pink of the others, and while the oven’s on to cook the beets and sterilise the jars, I’ll probably heat up the cheese, leek and onion pie I made earlier this week and have it with garlic-fried cabbage and the rest of the potato wedges.
Let me tell you some of the reasons why I do this, this endless cooking. There are lots of reasons, but here are few. I have a lot of control over my own time. I work the hours I want to, and I don’t work very many of them because fortunately, the hourly rate for the things I do is now quite high. No-one depends on me to get fed or bathed or put to bed or helped with their homework, so I can spend a whole evening cooking and preserving and talking to my friend, and no-one thinks less of me for it.
I know that there will be £45 in my bank account at the start of every month, to pay for my organic veg, not to mention the rest of my groceries. I can pick the bag up once a week from the pickup point ten minutes’ walk away, and not have to think about choosing or paying for different vegetables or where to get them from. I don’t have to get a bus, or two buses, or drive a car, or get a lift, to go to an adequate shop. On my way home I can stop and pick up extra things – bananas, red peppers, apples, avocados, nectarines – from one of the four pound-a-bowl stalls within ten minutes of my house, where they are sold much more cheaply than in the supermarkets. Often they throw in a little extra, a couple of plums or an apple or two, as a little thank-you for buying from them. Yesterday, the guy on the corner gave me an extra bowl of bananas (green ones, admittedly).
At home, I have an electric steamer and a breadmaker and a big freezer and a liquidiser and a gas hob and my rent includes the price of the utilities I use, so I’m not worried about keeping the oven on for an hour and a half. My housemate’s often away just now, so I invite my friend round because you may as well cook for two as for one, and if it were just me I’d probably eat oven chips and a fried egg.
Lastly, I just love food. I do. I think about it all the time. I’m good at cooking and I like doing it because people tend to like doing things that they’re good at, and I had a lot of free time in my twenties to learn how to do it well. I like supporting local organic agriculture, because birds and bees and soil quality are important, and most of all I like eating things from my own garden (or your garden), whose impact can be measured in food metres. The best kind of food is that which comes out of the ground and is washed and messed with for a few minutes and goes right on my plate. Every now and then – about every three weeks – I buy some food that used to be a living animal, but not very often because there is no good butcher near me and supermarket meat is pumped so full of water and hormones that it’s actually difficult to cook with, sometimes.
Do you know what makes me sadder and more annoyed than supermarket meat, though, sadder and more annoyed than individual plastic packets of cut-up fruit or pallid city eggs or beef so full of water that it leaches grey claggy liquid into my stir-fry and ruins it? It’s people who assume that everyone can do what I do, and if they don’t, then their choices about food are morally dubious, or stupid, or lazy, or just icky. Just nasty. And if they find out that their food has been contaminated with something else, then what did they expect? The problem is not the contamination or the industrial processes and lack of oversight that enabled it, it’s the fact that people don’t mind eating mechanically reclaimed meat from disgusting parts of an animal anyway. Because seriously, what’s in there is barely recognisable as cow anyway, and already disgusting. ‘Burger shown to contain ground up animal, eh? Shocking’. To which I want to say, fuck you, have you ever been poor?
I remember when a Findus Crispy Pancake was a fucking treat. It was an exotic thing, advertised on TV (which you spend a lot of time watching, if you can’t afford to do anything else, or you live somewhere where there is nothing to do) and it came in a brightly coloured box which was definitely more exciting than the potatoes in the shed or the cabbage at the bottom of the fridge. You wouldn’t want to live on them, but if you were a harried, tired mother who wasn’t actually interested in cooking but did want to give the kids an evening meal which they wouldn’t complain about, they were pretty ace – once in a while, because they were a bit expensive compared to vegetable soups or pasta with sauce. Know what else is good for that? “Beef” burgers. Potato waffles. Things you can buy in the little local shop, where the vegetables are old and manky and way overpriced, and keep in the freezer and not have to think about. Things that, at the end of a week’s careful budgeting, at the end of a day’s work, make it easy for you to choose them and store them in your tiny kitchen (where there probably isn’t room for a big fruit bowl or some extra jars for beetroot or a cauliflower the size of your head) and then cook them without spending a fortune on electricity (which might be supplied from a coin-op meter, and be in danger of running out just when you happen to have no 50ps on you and neither does anyone else) or gas (which, if you live in a tower block, you probably don’t have at all).
Oh, so it would be better, if people somehow feel they have the God-given right to eat meat, if they bought ‘cheap cuts’ which are much tastier if you know how to cook them right, and better for you and probably contain no risk of horse? Great. First, allocate everyone a good cookbook with guidance on how to safely cook meat, and how to take advantage of different cuts – or failing that, reliable internet access and a directory of useful sites. Then give them nearby shops where they can buy the rest of the ingredients to make that meal, affordably, at a time of day when they’re not working (How many people in the UK live in a ‘food desert’, with miles between them, and the nearest supermarket, and the streets or country around them denuded of shops where you can buy healthy food?). Then grant them an extra two hours to braise that lamb neck or simmer that oxtail down, and a clean, tidy kitchen to do it in. Get them to break the habit of eating what their parents gave them. Pay for the extra gas and leccy they’ll use, and then finally, convince their kids to eat it. Oh, and while you’re at it, tell them to enjoy themselves.
I think it’s this last point which gets to me. Clearly, not everyone has an electric steamer and a breadmaker and so on, like me, and not everyone lives in an urban area near lots of places to buy fresh fruit and veg very cheaply, but also, it’s very clear that not everyone likes cooking as much as I do. Not everyone cares as much about eating good food, either. However, if you’ve got money and you don’t like, or have time, to cook, there are a lot of options. You can pay for takeaway, or go out for dinner instead, or buy one of those lovely Waitrose ready meals, and even if people (by which I mean me) will judge you a little bit, this is not held up as evidence of a moral failing. Not everyone likes to cook! That is okay! Some people are fairly indifferent to food, and prioritise meals which are simple and quick, rather than complex and time-consuming. But if you’re poor and uninterested, and you actually would rather not spend your evening frying calves’ liver (very cheap) or mashing celeriac because you’re not much bothered, and you eat a frozen lasagne instead, somehow that is disgusting.
I don’t think it is the food that repels people but the wider ‘ugh!’ reaction that we have to the bodies and lives of the poor. We cannot actually deride people for poverty or lack of education, so we mock their doorknocker earrings, and sportswear and inconvenient children: we mock their prams (oh, the temerity not to have a car) and their lazy, unhealthy and frankly disgusting food choices. So who cares if unsafely slaughtered animals, loaded down with drugs ruled unsafe for consumption in humans, find their way into a burger? Let them eat horse.