Wednesday 9 November 2022

You Are What You Eat 16

I hate the assumption that working-class people only eat English food, and cheap staples from other cuisines are dismissed as ‘pretentious and posh’ by others. (@STEMlorde) Except that spag bol and lasagne is “caff” food, not café food.

The parents are of the expensive, cocktail-party-and-chromium kind.
 (Edmund Crispin, Love Lies Bleeding, 1948)

M&S Food's Best Ever Mac & Cheese! With cave-aged Cheddar, Pecorino, Emmenthal and mozzarella, topped with roasted garlic oil and onion ciabatta breadcrumb. Need we say more? (@CostaCoffee) There's an upmarket version of everything.

I made home-made pesto and the ingredients cost about £800 and it’s not even that great so my life hack today is go to Lidl and just buy a jar for a quid and don’t be a twat like me. (@JaneSlavin)

The antiquated snobs will tell you you're wrong to say dessert rather than pudding, yet they will not hesitate to ask for a dessert spoon. (@AodhBC)

Latest Upward/Weybridge fad is sneering at anything imported, especially flowers – one must get behind Brexit/save food miles/save the planet.

Teales and Definitelies domesticate foreign tastes by adding sugar: Balsamic vinegar and sweet chilli sauce (that isn’t very hot). They domesticate “artisanal” bread by making a soft version.

Sam Upward would offer you “mashed potatoes”, because “mashed potato” sounds like something you’d read on a menu.

Who was refusing to go to a funeral because the choice of venue for the wake was “Beefeater or Harvester”? (At least you'd get enough to eat instead of a handful of polite nibbles.)

Most layers of the middle class love turning any subject into a rant about obesity (burden on the NHS, wasting our tax dollars). Starve the chavs! (Obesity can be a result of poverty.)

Upwards can never eat anything “creamed”: creamed corn, creamed potatoes. Especially when the word means “smothered in white sauce”. 

Dark brown meat in dark brown gravy is very downmarket. It’s hard to find except frozen in Iceland.

"Good food": consists of fresh ingredients, freshly cooked – but not deep fried. It is probably dished up in a style borrowed from a country where you can afford to go on holiday. If you want real British food you’ll have to sign up to meals on wheels from Wiltshire Farm Foods

Fizzy water comes in different strengths of fizz because everything comes in a “range” and there has to be a version we drink or eat and a version we look down on people for drinking or eating. Sodastreams are back, but Upwards are not allowed to add too many bubbles. Upward withholding again!

Whatever happened to those little paper chef’s hats for the ends of lamb joints or mutton chops? They were utterly beyond the pale in the 70s – but who eats mutton any more? (Damned by John Betjeman: "The frills round the cutlets can wait...")

Until the 50s, jam and pickles were decanted into cut-glass dishes. Only the lower classes put a jar of jam or pickles on the table, whether or not in a saucer or with a special silver jam spoon that hooked over the side. Of course silver jam spoons with a latched hook were utterly naff, as were asparagus tongs. Asparagus, melted butter and all, was eaten in the fingers. Those silver jam spoons come in handy for jars of instant coffee. (The Upwards faint.)

A 30s book of “cookery and household management” describes making, with a lot of time and trouble, a savoury custard which you cut into slices. You then punched shapes out of the slices, washed them in several changes of cold water, and added them to clear soup. The shapes were replaced by small pasta shapes like stelline before disappearing from our lives.

Why are the chairs in trendy upmarket cafés too low, and the tables too high? Makes eating difficult, makes reading difficult. Makes typing on a laptop harder, not easier. Typing chairs need to be high – you need to imitate a piano player, not a begging dog.

Upwards are allowed to like motorway services if they have a gloss of artisanal rusticity – a farm shop, some distressed wood, an absence of videogames and fruit machines, proper coffee. Someone on Twitter describes having a coffee at a services “in the middle of nowhere” as the ultimate in alienation. Very Bohemian Rowena Upward drives to motorway services on purpose to soak up the alienation. Local residents would be outraged to hear that they live “nowhere”. Would paintings of motorway services, or those “strange, sterile” Amazon supermarkets, have a Hopperish feel, asks an architectural journalist? 

There’s a tendency for institutions to replace an affordable canteen or café with a very upmarket restaurant which will get reviewed in the broadsheets and attract an impressive clientèle. Meanwhile ordinary visitors have nowhere to eat, avoid the museum/concert hall as a result, and the restaurant goes bust. When firms were no longer obliged by law to provide canteens the concept vanished from our minds. Was the wonderful BHS canteen in Oxford Street the last man standing? Ordinary grub, formica tables, and not a single pepper in anything. The National Gallery, the Portrait Gallery, the V&A – they all had canteens and I remember them fondly.

Why do Upwards despise pickles? Because they need to show that they can afford fresh vegetables, and always have been able to. They also needed to show that they could afford a fridge. This taboo extends to despising anything vinegary apart from French dressing.

Ethelind Fearon in The Reluctant Hostess (50s) describes the dilemma of a woman when a friend unexpectedly drops in to lunch and all you have in the larder is six eggs. Solution: omelette, followed by zabaglione (a trendy 50s dessert of whipped up egg whites, sugar and sherry). Why didn’t she say “there’s nothing in the house, shall we go out?” Because there was nowhere they could go. Somewhere acceptable for two ladies is either too expensive or too far away, and her husband has taken the car. Upwards used to avoid cafés, even dainty tea shoppes, because “bang might go sixpence”. They were right – I’ve saved so much money not sitting in Costa’s for hours. Caffs and Macdonalds are cheaper, but this is /fast food/, and Upwards can’t be seen there. The tea shoppes were too lower middle class and the crustless sandwiches came with a sprinkle of mustard and cress and a handful of crisps.

When computers arrived in offices about 30 years ago, many Upwards recoiled from them. They all came in beige plastic. There wasn’t an organic, artisanal version. We got used to them, and now they come in sleek, stylish metal. But some Upwards still feel the same way about microwaves, now being recommended as they use less fuel. 

I fear I am not the only insufferable microwave snob. A woman I know admits she views microwaves as ‘anti-aspirational’. She reluctantly bought one years ago for £30, still doesn’t know how to use it properly, and only ever heats up porridge inside it. It is hidden from view in a cupboard. Another super-successful woman I work for won’t have one in her house. Her word for them is ‘common’. (Times, Candida Crewe, Aug 2022) And a friend didn’t like to use a microwave because “you have to use plastic dishes”.

Lady Behave
 by Drusilla Beyfus (1956) reveals a lost world of menu French and salad plates. It's like looking into Tutankhamun's tomb. Salad accompanied a main dish, but on a separate plate. The most naff were glass and crescent-shaped. When laying a table, don’t forget the ashtrays and cigarettes. Beyfus boldly suggests putting dishes of vegetables on the table so that guests can serve themselves. She describes the “cooking hostess” who has to provide a dinner on a grand scale – she no longer has servants, so she just does it all herself. Another thing she doesn’t have is a job. Beyfus frowns on finger bowls, though you are supposed to eat gulls’ eggs in your fingers, shell your own prawns and debone your own sole. The ladies would need to withdraw after that lot – to wash their hands. 

Beyfus uses the word “delicacy” frequently. Another striking aspect – the food is all European, meaning French or Italian. German and Swiss food have never been “gourmet” in the UK, apart from Scandinavian smorgasbord, and fondue in the 70s, which we will pass over in silence. There’s a complete absence of anything from the Far East or Indian subcontinent. Delicacies are snails and frogs’ legs, which are either Roman-style decadence or famine food. There’s a lot of garlic, but not a single pepper.

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