Thursday 18 July 2019

You Are What You Eat 14

Some kind of supper with cold meat and pink or white shape and stewed prunes. (Crewe Train, Rose Macaulay, written in the 20s. “Shape” was cornflour blancmange.)

Letters to the Editor (Times)
Sir, the correspondence on baked beans reminds me of an incident one morning at the Royal Marines officers’ mess in Poole years ago. I had barely taken my seat when. White-coated and white-gloved member of mess staff arrived silently at my side to take my order. “Good morning,” I said. “May I please have baked beans on fried bread.” I turned to read my newspaper when I realized that he had not moved. Believing that he had not heard, I repeated my order. “yes, Sir, I heard you the first time,” he said. When I asked if there was a problem he replied, very much Jeeves-like: The thing is, Sir, that baked beans are not really an officer’s vegetable.” (Simon De’Ath, Upper Basildon, Berkshire)

My background is working class but I would never try to pretend I’m not middle class now... But I heartily agree with a friend from similar stock who complains that the middle-class lifestyle creates much more washing-up. At dinner parties and even family meals food is put on the table in various serving bowls with spoons from which you help yourself, not all ready-portioned on the one plate as it was in my childhood. Crockery use is doubled. And... you don’t want to look greedy so you always take less than you really want. (Carol Midgley, Times)

Mum told Greggs vegan sausage rolls are “too posh for Kirby” (Liverpool Echo headline 2019)

Food is a pretty important and significant social activity, and dating is often centered around food. (Daniel Mallory Ortberg)

Per Mary Killen (pictured above by Hugo Bernand), common food includes:
Anything on an oval plate
Stacked towers of ingredients
Anything that’s too easy to eat
Anything microwaved
Quartered tomatoes
Potato croquettes
Lemon quarters are fine, but not if you call them “lemon wedges”.
Cheesecake and apple strudel are out because they’re “mucked-about food”.
Shaped portions of fish and chicken (fingers and nuggets)
She condemns “thick” marmalade – surely some mistake?

Taboo words are “cereal”, “meal” and “nibbles”. Be specific – cornflakes, lunch and nuts.

Mary would have a fit over tomatoes carved into flower shapes, wouldn’t she? Samantha doesn't like to admit that these days she microwaves side veg like mushrooms and carrots with a knob of butter in a container with a lid. She agrees about food that’s too easy – rice-like orzi pasta instead of spaghetti that you can just spoon into the cake’ole.

Mary's list of posh food includes:
Anything difficult to come by, difficult to cook, or repulsive: sweetbreads, oxtail. (I’d add brains, steak tartare and cold soup.)
Game in season
Gulls’ eggs
Turnips, swedes, parsnips, beetroot – but boiled, not pickled
Baked pears, home-made custard
Bread-and-butter pudding

The "cheese and biscuits" circuit? (March 2019) Whatever happened to cheese and biscuits – they used to end every middle-class dinner.

A vegan pie has sparked outrage after winning a top food award, with a leading chef branding the butternut squash creation “a disgrace”. (Daily Telegraph, March 2019) “The millennials have taken over,” opines chef Richard Corrigan. There’s an outbreak of really quite nasty “vegan jokes” among conservatives – vegan food, which has existed happily for years out of sight in health food shops, has now hit the supermarkets. And manufacturers are trying to cash in by producing special bars, nut mixes, protein balls with too much artificial flavouring and a ridiculously high price. Conservatives are furious to find these cranks given their own section – next to the Poles'.

In April 2018, the inhabitants of Giffnock in Scotland were furious that their Wholefoods was being replaced by a Lidl. It will “bring down the tone of the whole area”. “Stores like this... attract the degenerates of society. I understand that they need to shop somewhere, however you didn’t see benefit cheats and single mothers and their feral brood flock to Whole Foods. Discount stores allegedly save you pounds on your shopping but you could lose a lot more at the front door when your purse is stolen... It’s only going to attract vermin that do not belong in this prestigious area. Giffnock isn’t pretentious at all, it’s a middle-class area and that is the way it should remain.”

Others suggested that the “pretentious” could always shop in Newton Means, and one riposted: “Honestly what has happened to people. I grew up in Giffnock when that space was Presto and up the road was Gateway then Kwicksave and not an eye was batted.” (And I remember when the middle classes agonised over whether it was possible for them to shop in supermarkets at all.)

Britain is discovering the hot dog! Translation: Firms are making serious money selling upmarket, gentrified hot dogs to affluent gourmets. French President Emmanuel Macron told farmers to concentrate on upmarket products – and now they’re struggling. An area is “regenerated” and all the cafés and shops are too expensive for the people who live there. Where do the gentrifiers think the poor people are going to go? Perhaps they don’t care. In the US, it’s been suggested that cheap food shops should be closed – to encourage purveyors of “proper” food to move in. Because working class people eat unhealthy, processed fast food, don’t they?

Cheap food doesn’t need to be unhealthy: potatoes, cabbages, lentils, carrots are all cheap. And so are quinoa and avocado – so why are they middle-class signifiers? As a friend says, the hippies have basically won. We all eat brown rice and want to save the planet now.

Rowena has crowd-funded to turn her caff into a chain. Samantha suggested calling it “Scoff”, but Rowena went for “Lou’s Café”, in hand-painted red lettering on white, and had the fascias carefully distressed. The menu now includes: chops, greens, roast potatoes, steak pie, stew, mashed swedes, corned-beef hash, beetroot in white sauce, bubble and squeak, Spam fritters, cottage pie, pork pie, Scotch egg, jam roly poly, and local dishes like Manchester pie, gypsy tart, Bedfordshire clangers and barm cakes. She'll overboil your cabbage for you if you really like it like that. Sam disparages the menu by calling it "comfort food".

Rowena ripostes that her goals for 2019 include eating a burrito washed down with crème de menthe, and working her way through all those chocolate bars that people like us don’t buy.

Sam is rather tired of the “street food” fad. Former open spaces are cluttered up with smelly stalls selling food that all seems to be fried. And there’s nowhere to sit down and eat it. Really, what happened to farmers’ markets?

Howard Weybridge agrees. “Isn’t there any British street food? Er, fish and chips…?”

Sam checks with Henry Mayhew. “Men sold freshly baked muffins, and there were pudding shops – and isn’t there a bit in Little Dorrit where Flora and Amy chat over steak and kidney pies? Here’s more: shell-fish, pea-soup, baked potatoes, ham sandwiches, meat puddings, pigs’ and sheep’s trotters, hot eels, hot green peas, penny pies, plum duff, crumpets, Chelsea buns.”

Howard  says: “Haven’t had a good old steak and kidney pud for years. Used to come in pudding-shaped tins. Well, now we’re leaving the EU…”

“I dared to mention a superfood after it had gone out of fashion, and was put in my place by a friend who’d been all over it a couple of years before”, says Sam.

“All my friends are on some ridiculous exclusion diet – and meanwhile people are queueing up at food banks!” sighs Eileen Weybridge.

"As food becomes plentiful, not eating becomes virtuous," says Sam. "Except it has always been virtuous – look at Early Christian ascetics. Or even 60s crash diets."

“The trouble with vegan food,” says Harry Stow Crat, “Is that it takes such a darned long time to eat! And it’s all in little bits so it falls off your fork. Plus it tastes of nothing and after you've eaten it you're still hungry. Give me a bacon sandwich any day.”

But Harry earns enough to restore the orangery by selling over-priced vegan and gluten-free snacks made from oats and spinach grown on his estates. Caro gets the recipes out of Vegetables for Victory by Ambrose Heath.

"Shops at stately homes sell such ghastly wares," she explains. “Tea towels, novelty pencils and pot pourri, oven gloves in the shape of fish, and everything covered with weedy water-colours of flowers."

When I was at university in Norwich, I took a friend to a caff I often went to. It was always full of art students. She boggled slightly when I ate a cake with pink icing and shreds of desiccated coconut. Few of my fellow-students went to cafés in town (though they went to wine bars and ate a lot of ratatouille). But it was OK to go to a tearoom in a converted Tudor cloth hall.

We like to poke fun at the “mid-century menu” – everything suspended in gelatine, on a bed of lettuce. This cuisine wasn’t sold as “slimming”, but it can’t have contained many calories. The gelatine bulked out the ingredients, so you got a slice of something that only looked like food. Jellied chicken soup, anyone? From the 30s (and probably earlier) to the 70s, there was a trend for food that was mainly air or gelatine. Sorbets (water ices), soufflés, apple snow (apple puree and whipped egg white), strawberry mousse, savoury terrines. They were a debased version of Mrs Beeton-style posh food. Those Victorian banquets with endless courses probably needed dishes that didn’t have much food value. (You didn’t eat all the food, there was a menu and you could choose, and portions were small. It was more of a tasting menu, and if Giles Coren is to be believed, this idea lives on. I mean the idea that you eat food for its taste, or rarity, or exoticism, or unusual ingredients, or to admire its presentation – not because you are hungry.)

Theresa May scrapes mould off jam and eats it – this is very Stow-Crat. They may even say “It’s penicillin – it’s good for you”, or “Waste not, want not”.

Gingerbread Easter Bunnies are on sale at Costas just after Christmas. This means they have three months to sell the things. Creme Eggs on sale in the Coop, ditto. It happens every year and no amount of middle-class whingeing is going to change it. Do the Upwards really think they can persuade big firms like Costa and the Coop not to use strategies that make them money?

Some restaurants deliberately increase the noise! Microphones collect customer and kitchen noise and pipe it back into the dining area ("dial in the buzz"). (Via Twitter. It’s called “acoustic reflection”. Really great for anyone with hearing problems.)

More here, and links to the rest.

You Are What You Eat - and Drink 15

It's "rosé", not “rosé wine” – you're supposed to know it's wine.

Everything comes in a “range” now, even of degrees of fizziness in water. But to save on plastic bottles, Upwards now have soda streams. (In the 60s when these devices reached us from America, only Weybridges bought them. Make your own fizzy drinks? Out of flavoured sugar syrup? What Upward could contemplate etc etc...) Now, even though they have the devices, they like to tell you that you won’t want too much fizz in your Sani-Cola.

Eileen feels guilty when she drinks a “diet soda”, because she knows sweet things are bad for you. Samantha, who went to a convent school (where she met Caro Stow-Crat), reserves guilt for sins you might confess to a priest (unclean thoughts). Except nobody does that any more. And not going to Mass on Sunday is no longer a mortal sin. What happened to all the people who went to Hell and burned for all eternity under the old rules, she wonders?

Milk used to come in bottles. Silver-top was medium creamy, gold-top was very creamy, green-top was unpasteurized. The cream rose to the top to become “top of the milk”. Some milk was “homogenized”, however – rather sweet, and the cream never separated out. Upwards despised it and complained it made your tea taste funny. But at some point in the last 30 years, all milk became homogenized, and the snobbery has disappeared. I don’t remember a single Upward commenting on the changeover, or saying “I say this homogenized milk isn’t so bad really”. Though they did lament the disappearance of non-pasteurized milk and for a few years some farms used to sell it. You could use it to make your own cottage cheese – rejoicing in the freedom from government red tape or “health and safety” – and contract TB, brucellosis or worse. (There was something called UHT milk which was universally despised – it stands for ultra-high temperature processing. In hotels it came in little plastic pots, along with tiny wrapped butter pats and weeny pots of jam. Sterilized milk in bottles with metal tops lived on in corner shops, bought by people who didn’t have fridges, until it too vanished.)

In the Good Old Days, you couldn’t get a glass of water anywhere. Restaurants and cafés begrudged it. But you could always get some warm tap water in a chemist’s if you needed to take an aspirin. How come we didn’t dehydrate and shrivel up? We drank tea all day. And now that we all carry water bottles everywhere, tea has almost disappeared.

“May I press you to another cup of tea?”, as Teales used to say. The old instructions about leaving tea to “mash” and warming the pot made sense when the leaf fragments were larger and the brew took longer to steep. Now all tea is tea “dust” of the kind you get in teabags. And milk is all homogenized and they’ve done something to the water...

When Sam asks for a “herb tea” in a café, the Polish staff look blank. To them, English Breakfast is just another box of teabags, and “tea” means peppermint or chamomile. If she asks for “lemon tea” she gets lemon and ginger, even in Italian restaurants where you’d think they’d have heard of té con limone. The English Breakfast is weak and tepid – Rowena's caff is the only place where you can get a proper cup of stewed, black tea with sugar and cream.

And the Americans are still using "tea-drinkers" as an insult! See Alex Morgan, pictured above.

More here, and links to the rest.

Wednesday 10 July 2019

The Diary of a Nobody

I’ve just reread George and Weedon Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody (1888-89). Paul Bailey calls its hero, Charles Pooter, “majestically uninteresting”. The chapters were originally serialised in the humorous magazine Punch.

Pooter is a clerk in a City firm, and when the story starts he has just rented a house in Holloway that backs onto the railway. It’s a “suburban villa with a stucco-column portico, resembling a four-post bedstead,” as their friend Mr Huttle later describes it. Charles and his wife Carrie live there with one servant until they are joined by their son, Lupin.

The big joke is that Pooter thinks that everything happens to him is worth recording. He also considers that he’s doing pretty well, and is a cut above the tradesmen he employs. Punch’s middle-class readers were supposed to find it a perfect scream that a clerk should think himself as good as themselves. There's a solecism on every page.

The Pooters invite friends to “meat tea”, and Carrie frequently cooks party food (jam puffs) herself. Carrie’s clothes are both frumpy and vulgar: a pink Garibaldi jacket and blue-serge skirt, an olive outfit with pink bows, and a sky-blue party frock.

Most of the Pooters' friends are either bounders (Gowing), boring (Cummings) or pretentious (Mrs James) – the only exceptions are the colourless Mr Franching of Peckham, and Pooter’s kindly but old-fashioned employer, Mr Perkupp.

Pooter has some puritanical attitudes – he disapproves of amateur dramatics and spiritualism – but his household seem to drink rather a lot, even swigging champagne out of tumblers. Pooter’s inability to recognise a hangover is a running gag.

Lupin is a trial – he makes a lot of friends at a local theatrical society, and they constantly turn up at the house, take advantage of the older Pooters, and baffle them by spouting meaningless catchphrases. However, the Pooters love a good laugh, and are constantly in stitches over Charles’s puns.

Charles and Carrie do up the house themselves. He attacks everything that doesn’t move with cheap enamel paint. Carrie attaches silk bows to the corners of “our new enlarged and tinted photographs”, and arranges “some fans very prettily on the top and on each side” of a new mirror. She’s catching on to Japonaiserie, a bit late. She decorates her buffet table with “fairy lamps”: small coloured glass nightlight holders.

Pooter admires a friend’s house: “It was full of knick-knacks, and some plates hung up on the wall. There were several little wooden milk-stools with paintings on them; also a white wooden banjo, painted by one of Mr Paul Finsworth’s nieces.” Arts and Crafts style had reached the suburbs.

Mr Perkupp takes Lupin on as a clerk, but the boy drops a brick by recommending a rival firm to a valued client. Mr Perkupp is forced to let Lupin go, but the lad falls on his feet. He seems to have a knack for making money, and gets engaged to an heiress (sister of “Posh’s three-shilling hats”). So what if she bleaches her hair, smokes, is several years older than him, and has an annoying laugh?

Mr Perkupp rewards Pooter with a rise in salary, and after Charles manages to acquire an even wealthier client for the firm, buys the freehold of the Pooters’ house.

“You’re a good man, Mr Perkupp,” stammers Pooter. “No, you’re the good man,” responds Perkupp, and he’s right. Apart from his copper-bottomed dullness, Pooter’s only fault is snobbery. And so we leave them to live happily ever after.

Middlesex by John Betjeman references some of these characters.

Sunday 7 July 2019

Modern Manners 4

When trapped in a conversation from which we wish to escape, simply say "It was a pleasure talking to you, please do excuse me for a moment". (@TheRoyalButler)

When I was little, we were never supposed to refer to a woman as "she". If I did so, "She's the cat's mother" was the response I got from grown-ups. I never understood why. (EJA)

When invited to someone's home for lunch or dinner, take a small gift. Perhaps a small house plant, but please refrain from unusual gifts! (@TheRoyalButler)

A friend was once so appalled when colleagues bought her a balloon ride she considered faking pneumonia to get out of it.
(Carol Midgley, Times)

Sam and Caro are discussing modern manners again.

Sam: We really need etiquette to go with modern technology.

Caro: Yes, calling a mobile isn't like calling a landline. If your callee answers, she may be in a café, or walking along a street – she’s not at her desk with pen, paper and calendar to hand. I know people have calendars on their phones nowadays, but how do you look at it while talking and walking? If there’s background noise she probably can’t hear what you’re saying, and certainly can’t have a long conversation before you come to the point as we used to do in the olden tymes. Don’t call me – text or email.

People treat phone conversations more like texts these days.

Glad to hear it! I love Facebook and seeing pix of the grand-sprogs, but I can do without all these sentimental pictures of cats.

And posts about your pets' bodily functions – please, no! And don’t send your friends links to videos and keep asking “Have you watched it yet?” Especially if it’s a lecture by Jordan Peterson. Point them to an article. Videos take up too much time – and you can’t “scan” through them. Any more do's and don'ts?

Don't answer for someone else because you think they're being a bit slow.

Don't have a public face that's different from your private face.

When having lunch in the garden on a sunny day, you may lend your guests hats. But you should never put a hat on a guest’s head. Especially not if you hope it'll make them look ridiculous.

You should respect people's boundaries and avoid invading their space.

Is that the modern way of putting it? If a friend or family member is ill, don’t try and manage their condition for them. They probably know far more about it than you do.

Yes, it's so intrusive! And hold back on the recommendations of alternative medicine. Or any kind of helpful advice I haven't asked for. And if I don’t want to moan about the cowboy builders, or NHS waiting times, I don’t really need you to do it for me. Sometimes I just want you to change the subject. But if I want to moan about someone’s awful behaviour – please don’t justify everything they did or said. Take MY side, not theirs!

You know, we could turn this into a book.

With your name on the cover!

I don't know why I should be the expert!

Are you taking notes? I had a flatmate who would ask me to help her with something. I'd sit down and wait for her to be ready, thinking she'd be about five minutes. But she'd bustle about feeding the goldfish, watering the plants, bleeding the radiators. I had no idea how long she was going to take, and meanwhile I couldn't do anything I wanted to do. I hadn't told her about my own plans because, well, why should I? I fell for it a couple of times – but then never again.

Another thing – don’t give single people little jobs to do, because you fear they’ll be under-occupied. And don't force them to do something they're bad at.
That's almost bullying. And I hate having to admire something hideous, like a collection of Toby jugs, or Gillray and Rowlandson prints.

And meanwhile your host watches you, hoping you’ll be embarrassed. People can be so vile! 

The same flatmate would ask me to come shopping, and then trail me around while she searched for some really obscure widget. If I needed to buy something, she'd rush me into the wrong kind of shop and try to railroad me into buying something inappropriate. Sometimes she'd leave me five minutes to buy a present, or a pair of shoes for a wedding. And we could never stop at the first eaterie we found – she'd find something wrong with it and insist on walking to the next one, and the next one. And then we'd get lost and have to walk miles home.

I hope you moved out!

I did. And she'd tell me to do something and then stand over me telling me I was doing it all wrong! What else?

Don’t imitate someone’s accent to their face. And avoid “You don’t sound as if you came from Barnsley”. Don’t tell them who they are! Don’t make assumptions, even if you think they're positive. My Yoga teacher thought I wouldn’t have heard of Stormzy!

It was your voice, I expect. We went to the same school, and people sometimes think I'm an Earl's daughter!

Let's swap! You can worry about replacing the roof in the west wing!

How's it all going?
Much better since we started renting out the old chateau as a wedding venue. The whole party stays overnight and they think they're living in Downton for the day! We've moved into a cosy flat in one of the turrets. What about office etiquette? You've worked in an office.

If someone is tapping a laptop in a meeting, they're not tweeting or writing a book – they're taking notes. Leave them alone. And if a colleague is sitting with a phone to their ear while their pencil moves swiftly over their notebook – don’t engage them in conversation. They are taking notes while the person on the other end of the phone speaks, and if you talk they won’t be able to hear either of you. And they certainly can’t break off and talk to you.

That's the moment to say "Can we have a brief word?" Take them aside and give them what for, as nanny used to say. I'm sure we'll think of some more – save them for next time we meet!

More here, and links to the rest.