Thursday, 27 January 2011

You Are What You Eat

Overheard in a café in Cornwall: Child: This white bread is really nice! Mother (cooingly sweet voice): But the wholemeal bread we have at home is really much nicer, isn’t it, darling?

Middle class food in the 50s had to be dry, dry, dry (cold mutton, plain boiled potatoes). And you couldn’t drink while eating, or have any sauce or butter. Upwards and Weybridges used to complain that foreign food was “greasy” or “smothered in olive oil” – the same olive oil that they now deify because it's healthy and comes from Abroad.

Upwards are against sauce (especially when “heavy and complicated” and used to “smother” food). It makes food much too pleasant and easy to eat. They used to use sauce on certain vegetables, but you couldn’t improvise – white sauce went with beetroot and leeks, cheese sauce with cauliflower. When children, if they were allowed red currant jelly or chutney or mint sauce they could only take a tiny amount. Tomato ketchup, brown sauce, Piccalilli, Pan Yan and Branston were banned (too sweet). Upwards are very anti vinegar and anything pickled (apart from raspberry or tarragon vinegar in the 80s, and home-made chutney). Sweet chilli sauce has become instant chav. It’s now as universal as HP sauce (which probably started off as something similar, brought back by returnees from the Empire). Pickle companies are coming out with experimental trendier versions of their usual brands - ketchup with a touch of chilli, chilli Branston.

Jen Teale has a plastic salad spinnner; Sam Upward dries her lettuce by putting it into a tea towel and shaking it outside the back door. Sam buys iceberg, Cos or Romaine lettuce, flat-leaf parsley and rocket, which is impossible to eat neatly. (It ought to be like sorrel, added in small amounts chopped finely, the way Jen chops everything.) Lucky Jen and Eileen, living in "the provinces", can buy curly parsley and butterhead lettuce.

Sam doesn't like microwaves because you have to use plastic bowls – or plahstic as Caro would say. Jen gives Tupperware parties.

Though Sam despises fashion in clothes, she runs after the latest food fads: superfoods one year, probiotics the next. The Upwards flap endlessly about food and health (remember apple cider vinegar and blackstrap molasses? Now it’s goji berries. Or is it beet juice?) Weybridges hate food fads - they pour scorn on anyone who dares to go vegetarian or be allergic to anything, or even have religious food preferences—it’s just putting people out and making work for them. Teales are far too kind and polite to mind, and will try and accommodate food combining, veganism or the Atkins diet.

Upwards whinge that “ordinary folk” want increasingly sweeter, blander and softer food. And that’s why People Like Us eat hard, bitter food. Lentils must be crunchy, not mushy. Bread must be painfully crusty. Curry must burn. Lettuce must be crisp (and tasteless). Cheese must stink. Upwards are very fond of saying that revolting food (steak tartare etc.) is an “acquired taste”. Their ideal meal consists of dry, hard, crisp food that takes a lot of skillful knife and fork work. If not requiring finely developed motor skills, food must demand arcane knowledge.

But food is getting more democratic – we can all like Thai curries. And endurance food soon subsides into a tamed, Weybridge version of itself, e.g. bread that looks crusty but is actually quite soft on the outside (and covered in kibbled wheat), Brie that’s firm and fragrant (and actually edible). Health food used to be unappetising, stodgy and and bland. It’s now quite tasty and much too available - even in supermarket ready-meal versions.

Upwards say “Would you like some butter?” and proffer some kind of “spread” made of olive oil. Also their "salt" will either be Lo-salt TM or sea salt mixed with herbs and quite tasteless. Their salt cellar may even be carefully fixed so that nothing comes out however hard you shake. They have worked the same evil magic on sweets, spawning “child-friendly” jellies that have so little sugar or flavour that they’re almost pure gelatine. When Caroline hands round the Newberry Fruits, her family pick the lime, lemon or orange, Howard and Eileen pick raspberry and strawberry, and the Definitelies and Teales go for cherry, kiwi or pineapple.

The DDs get birthday cakes in the shape of a football pitch, billiard table or dog. Sam gets the local health food shop to bake a gluten-free, egg-free, fruit (but not nut) filled cake because of everybody’s allergies. She and the other mothers boast about how hyperactive E numbers and sugar make their children and the kids either play up, or piously decline red jelly and smarties.

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