Friday 12 May 2023

You Are What You Eat: 18

In the 90s, I got told off for eating an Eccles cake (flaky pastry and raisins) – too stodgy, and available in packets from a corner shop. But isn’t this the kind of regional cookery we should be celebrating? Unfortunately it's a cliché that the English middle classes will eat peasant food from other cultures (polenta) but not from their own (Bedfordshire clangers, Staffordshire oatcakes).

At home, we never had Christmas cake, just Christmas pudding. And we never had a chocolate log with a papier-maché robin on the top (with wire legs). We ate slices in friends’ houses and it was delicious. Too nice, and might have encouraged us to develop a “sweet tooth”.

In the 80s, cookery writer and broadcaster Delia Smith was looked down on because she “used butter”. Was it by this time “bad for you”? Margarine was sold as a “spread” with positive health benefits. 

In the 70s and 80s, friends and flatmates were shocked that I shopped in corner shops rather than supermarkets. “But it’s much more expensive!” (There might have been a penny or two difference – but offset that against the cost of the bus fare to the supermarket.) Sometimes I shopped at the cheap supermarket Londis and they shuddered at the sight of the carrier bags. Didn’t I understand that People Like Us only shop at Sainsburys? You couldn’t get middle-class food in a corner shop, but you could  get common tinned sweetcorn and frozen fish fingers.

Soft, sweet white bread used to be reserved for the upper classes. Making it was complicated, and it was expensive. But then along came the Chorleywood process and the Aerated Bread Company. Postwar came the white sliced loaf: soft, rather sweet and cheap. No wonder my parents were appalled and called Mother’s Pride “Father’s Shame”. And home-made – sorry, “artisanal” – wholemeal bread became the class marker.

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

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. You needn't.)

Little paper chef’s hats for the ends of lamb joints or mutton chops were utterly beyond the pale – but who eats either any more?

Apparently Americans call McDonald’s a “restaurant”, and complain that you can’t get Mexican food in Paris. They come to Europe and moan there’s nowhere to eat because they can't find their familiar fast food chains (Olive Garden etc). They also (genuinely) complain that when you order a salad in the UK you get a few green leaves. They’re thinking of the kind of hearty salad you bring to a pot luck supper in the Southern states: a meal in itself with a basis of macaroni. Educated Americans say “It’s OK to go to Dublin now – there are Thai restaurants”. Caro Stow Crat says “What is a burrito?” 

The threat of champagne being opened with a sword, which is the kind of thing I hate. (Kate Flett, The Heart-Shaped Bullet. All restaurant theatre is naff and the worst thing is to be in a party of people who all think it’s wonderful.)


He drank a little tea, black and silent, that still survived upon an upper shelf.  He swallowed some dusty crumbs of cake... They began with a soup square, which Leonard had just dissolved in some hot water.  It was followed by the tongue – a freckled cylinder of meat, with a little jelly at the top, and a great deal of yellow fat at the bottom – ending with another square dissolved in water (jelly: pineapple), which Leonard had prepared earlier in the day... Leonard managed to convince his stomach that it was having a nourishing meal. (E.M. Forster, Howards End)

When we studied this book for A Level, this episode puzzled us. It is one of the few scenes where we escape the intellectual Schlegels for more than a moment. Presumably Leonard Bast, the clerk, drinks “black” tea, as opposed to China. Surely he made himself a pot? But “black and silent” and “still survived”? The Basts’ supper consists of instant soup, followed by tinned tongue. The literary middle classes did not eat tinned food, and to them “tinned salmon” was a joke and a class marker – see John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses. I hope the Basts had some bread and butter, at least, to go with it. They wind up with instant pineapple jelly, poor things.

In Josephine Tey’s To Love and Be Wise, the working-class Sergeant Williams urges Inspector Grant to try some home-made pickles. Grant declines, explaining “I have a palate” – which he doesn’t want to spoil. (The rest of the cast fawn on Grant, saying that he doesn’t look like a policeman, but more like a “Service type” or army man.)

Darling, You Shouldn’t Have Gone to So Much Trouble! is an ironic 80s cookbook by novelist Alice Thomas Ellis. It tells you how to fake posh food quickly, using cheap, easy ingredients. There is a lot of liquidising. The Cinderella ingredients in your store-cupboard are combined with scrambled eggs and topped with browned grated cheese if your husband brings a colleague home to dinner – no takeaways. The author turns frozen pastry, frozen French beans, eggs and cheese into a flan. Condensed milk baked in its tin in the oven for hours allegedly turns into sticky toffee pudding. We used to discuss it, but never dared try it. Perhaps it was “ein joke”, like the instructions for cooking bacon on an upturned iron.

In one of his mysteries, Verdict of Twelve, Raymond Postgate uses cakes decorated with pink icing and shreds of coconut to indicate the low grade of the teashop where we meet one of the characters. I once took a fellow student for a cup of tea at a favourite café down an alley in Norwich. I ate a cake exactly as Postgate described, and my friend was shocked to the core and even talked about it afterwards. And she probably thought I was well brought-up. Many of my fellow students were shocked that I even went to cafés at all. Postgate went on to found the Good Food Guide. His fictional Dr Holmes drinks wine that “had that revolting taste of sugar, ink, and red pepper that only bad port can achieve”.

An Amazon reader called the book “dated”, citing the way the 12 jurors are described in terms of class. Only the academic is a real “gentleman”. And this is how they describe each other – the salesman is accused of “aping gentility”. None of the jurors bases their verdict on the evidence, but point out that the accused didn’t belong in a big house, having once served in a tobacconist’s shop. "Taking someone out of their class" is disparaged – which brings us back to poor Leonard.

More here, and links to the rest.

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