Sunday, 24 January 2021

Lockdown CBe food, part 4

A pause between the food in the three previous posts and whatever’s coming next.

So I asked writers published by CBe writers to send me recipes, and almost without exception the ones they sent could have come in anonymously and I’d have still known who sent them. Everyone’s cooking has their fingerprint. Food is class and sex and history and childhood and heredity and politics and everything else.

Most of what I cook tastes same-ish, because it’s me cooking it. The versions I’ve cooked of the recipes I’ve been sent have often been a bit sloppy. (See the previous posts for the results so far.) That’s fine; your versions will be even more sloppy, or neater.

In the house I grew up in, food was mostly functional: eat to live, not live to eat. When I moved out of home, aged 17, my mum taught me how to cook an omelette. Roughly around then, an exotic place opened in the local market town in Yorkshire that served spaghetti. In my early 20s, someone asked me to chop garlic and I’d never done this before.

I didn’t really learn anything about food until I had people to cook for. Nor did my mother: when she married in 1948, her own mother gave her a book titled Essentials of Modern Cookery, which includes instructions on how to roast a heart (above). Jump a generation and I have photos of my sons at work on the cakes for their second birthday. This is so important. They know how to make things and not just for themselves.

(The great thing about baking, by the way, is that it usually doesn’t have to be timed for a particular point in a meal, and you can do it at 3 in the morning if that’s what you feel like doing. I have big anxiety about when to take cakes out of the oven, and err on the side of leaving them in too long. Black crusts and apologies and everyone says it’s lovely but it’s not.)

Most of the recipes that have come in are simple fare. In literature, plain cooking (like Orwell’s ‘plain style’) has a perceived moral value – you can tell the goodies from the baddies by what they eat. Kitty and Levin in Anna Karenina make jam and pick mushrooms while Oblonsky in Moscow swills down oysters from Germany with French champagne. On the other hand there’s Isak Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast, in which an austere Puritanical community in Jutland come to experience the joy, both physical and spiritual, that cooking as a form of art can bring.

The point being made in Anna Karenina about food is not just about keeping it simple but about its production and its sharing. Since March last year a Lockdown Subscription has been offered from the home page of the website – 10 books of your choice (actually I send at least a dozen, plus extras) for £65, post-free in the UK – and because of Covid restrictions this has been a main means of getting the books to readers. New (and repeat) subscribers are very welcome. Help me along here.

The mulberry tree in the photo below is in the back garden of Wiesiek Powaga, translator of Killing Auntie by Andrzej Bursa, in a village in Hungary. Each village in that region has its own distillery, in the way many villages had (and in many places still have) communal ovens, and Wiesiek translated the mulberries gathered in that net into palinka, a Hungarian fruit brandy. The photographs I don’t want to show are those of the food parcels sent out by catering companies in the UK to families whose children qualify for free school meals, because those photos are obscene: tinned baked beans for the poor despatched in one of the richest countries in the world by a political class (it includes me) that pores over the inventive and often very wonderful recipes in cookery books and magazine supplements. We can do better.

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