Sunday, 2 May 2010

Partly politics

April is at an end, so we get a pause in the rationing. With the UK general election this week, the rationing is off for visitors who will be getting the full smorgasbord of fat, cheese and meat we've lacked for a month.

I'm coming back to the rations next week, as the challenge is fun and the diet is very healthy. But I have to say that this isn't as much fun as it was: I've got the cooking down to a fine art, seemingly able to make a great meal out of next to nothing, to turn leftovers into fresh meals two nights running without breaking a sweat and take a lack of fat and still make a dinner with all the trimmings.

There's a knack to rationing and once you've got the knack, you can deal with anything. It shows how, in the UK at least, when rationing petered out in the mid-1950s, people continued to cook rationed food, just with more fat and cheese in it. The British gained a reputation for stodgy, cautiously-flavoured food that we're only now starting to shake off, because the favourites of rationing (pies, bakes, one-pot stews) remained the norm. The portion sizes got bigger, and the trimmings reappeared, but the food stayed the same.

This is ideal for CJBS. Born in 1951, he grew up with no memory of rationing, but his food at home and at his private school (boo, hiss) was just what Patten and the other wartime cooks would recommend, almost always cooked too long and dripping with extra dripping. Rationing for him hasn't meant discovering new food: it has meant rediscovering the food of his childhood, only served hotter.

For me, the project has been different. I've become a smarter shopper, caring about where my food comes from. I've worried over the vitamins and protein content of ordinary dishes. I've looked for ways of making rich, satisfying food without fat. These are things we should be doing. So much of food is just refuelling, filling a space in the stomach until it's time to sleep or fill it again. We've substituted salt for flavour, hydrogenated fat for quality preparation, making ingredients hot for actual cooking. And we've done this whilst buying ever more recipe books and watching ever more television programmes about how to make good food - and watched the latter with a microwaved ready meal in front of us.

Partially, this is the fault of the politicians. In the 1980s, seeking to save money as usual (in order, it turns out, to spend it on themselves) the Department of Education decided that Domestic Science (once called "cookery") wasn't needed any more. It became optional, then it disappeared altogether. An entire generation - my generation - grew up without the basic skills that cookery lessons give you. Watch Come Dine With Me (if you must) and see people marvel over how skilled someone is because they can make a roux. We see people feeling guilty over using frozen pastry - because they can't make pastry. Pastry! And they do feel guilty, for not having been taught the basics.

To digress, the same thing happened at the same time with English. Politicians - and trendy teachers - decided that we didn't need to know the rules. Written English was going to die out, thanks to the wonder of the telephones and videophones and other such advances. Nobody predicted the internet and how we'd all be being asked to comment and review and give our two-penn'thworth on blogs and forums across all possible subjects. So people now happily type "i saw there sign that was telling us wear to vote and i fort that they was saying i should of vote's for tori'es when i wants to vote for labour's party". If you tell people they're doing it wrong, they often feel guilty... for not having been taught there (the salt shaker is over there) their (it was their salt shaker) and they're (they're concerned about your interest in the salt shaker), how to make plurals and possessives and how to spell (the latter was the biggest flaw in my education).

We've paid the price for deciding English didn't need to be taught in depth. And we've paid the price for deciding cookery didn't need to be taught at all, with obesity in our kids and basic - really, really basic - food hygiene thrown away (clues: wearing gloves doesn't help if you wear the same gloves when moving from vegetables to raw meat to cooked meat - can you hear me, Subway? - and if you need to be told that raw meat is generally poisonous until cooked thoroughly throughout, as did the guy who sued a supermarket for selling him burgers that he poisoned his kids with by not cooking them properly, then you're not ready to breathe without help, let alone cook food).

Three months on rationing and I'm as good a cook as I'll ever be. Of course, I had a good grounding in it - my mum is, after all, a top-class chef in her own right, so it shouldn't be a surprise; but my knowledge of the chemistry and physics of food has gone to a new level. I now know with certainty how ingredients combine and interact, how meat benefits from being cooked on a low heat for a long time but vegetables need a high heat and a short time, and why this should be so.

I might still not produce the best presented food in the world - it tends to sit in a heap on the plate rather than looking like something out of the Sunday supplements - but I think rationing has made me produce the best food I can and will produce. For that reason, the project is worth continuing next week.


peezedtee said...

Looing forward to "the full smorgasbord of fat, cheese and meat"!

Michelle said...

This is very interesting. I can't imagine how much more difficult rationing would be if I didn't already have such a sound foundation in cooking (REAL cooking). I'm at least the 4th generation in a line of solid cooks and I also had "home economics" courses in middle school to fill in any gaps. So the extra cooking and preparation that rationing requires isn't foreign to me, even if it is inconvienient. When I see some of my co-workers bring frozen, plasticized meals for lunch *every day* it makes me wonder what they're doing for dinner - do they ever really cook? How much more difficult would rationing be for them?

Tanya Jones said...

I was lucky enough to have cookery lessons and a mother who at least had some knowledge of how to put a meal together, and was the only person in our student house who cooked proper meals: and that was often only pasta.

My other half, however, had a mum who didn't like cooking, so it's taken a lot of effort to prise him from his oven-chipped palate. He still needs work!