Wednesday, 22 December 2010

So what's the new peasant cuisine?

First – I’m sorry that this wasn’t the “tomorrow” that was promised on Sunday, but a nasty cold is to blame for laying me too low to do much of anything – let alone think!

But this is an appropriate day for this second article, since there’s a Panorama investigation into supermarkets on BBC1 at 9pm this evening.

Anyway …

I don’t have any concrete memory of the word ‘peasant’ until the time, in my late teens, when we lived in Lancaster and my mother would use it derisively of an elderly Polish couple who lived next door.

Which is all the more ironic because, as my knowledge of such matters increases, it’s easy to see that her own choice of husband comes from something little removed from the peasantry: a family that had a little bungalow in rural, rural Cornwall (there was a village squire – I kid you not), with no electricity, no hot running water (I actually remember sitting in an old tin bath in front of the fire) and in the rambling garden, chickens and rabbits for food.

My paternal grandfather was also a road mender (his wife an occasional barmaid) who was so short-sighted that the limits of his service in WWII was the Home Guard: he was a very quiet man, but always laughed at Dad’s Army relishing how true it apparently was.

I have no memories of my maternal grandmother’s cooking, but I assume it was basic.

But if we’re using Elisabeth Luard’s definition of peasant cuisine, therefore including working class dishes where there has been no peasantry for centuries, then what is the ‘peasant cuisine’ of today?

For working people, the choice of food is primarily governed by time.

A couple of years ago, I interviewed a trained cook – and she’d continued to undertake further training and get qualifications throughout her working life, not resting on her laurels – who was made redundant from the old people’s home in which she worked when the council decided to sell it to a private developer.

She was in her 50s. She struggled to get any sort of a job – and ended up doing three cleaning jobs just to make ends meet. Her husband – who had retired from the fire service after a serious accident – was struggling on as a school caretaker, in the fairly certain knowledge that he will end up in a wheelchair.

She actually enjoys cooking, but is frequently so exhausted when she gets home at night that a take-away is all she’s capable of organising before dozing off on the sofa. And besides, it’s often so late in the evening that her husband has already had his own meal.

Where is the quality of life in this? Is this really the apotheosis of a supposedly civilised society in the 21st century?

Perversely, we now seem to be moving into an era where those people who could be described as the ‘working poor’ are vilified and blamed for their own condition.

The ‘logic’ appears to work something like this:

‘If you’re on a low income, get the training/education to get a better-paid job’.

Obviously this means that:

• there are no shortage of such jobs (as my interviewee, mentioned above, who had continued to get improve her CV, discovered);

• anyone in a job with low wages deserves to be there and to be on low pay (and, concomitantly, with a crap standard of living/quality of life).

The latter rather ignores the point that the overwhelming majority of jobs are not acts of charity: they exist because there is work that needs to be done. So someone will always have to do it. In which case, they are saying that someone will always deserve to have a shitty standard of living/quality of life.

Again – and this demands to be repeated: do we live to work? Or do we work to live? Which should it be?

And if it is the former, then why? Who or what is the work that dominates our lives for?

To clarify a point slightly (and I feel I shouldn’t have to make this, but it’s best to do so for fear of any misunderstanding): I do not mean that every worker gets the same pay, right across the spectrum of jobs.

But let’s put it another way: in the UK at present, the median wage is around £21K. Sound a lot?

Okay. The average cost of a house is £246,387. Now, in the days before the chronic housing shortage and the boom in prices that inevitably followed (and the banks deciding to offer increasingly dangerous mortgages to people who were desperate to get a home), it was considered sensible to have a mortgage that was no more than three times your annual household income.

So, to buy a property at the current average price, you’d need a joint (or single) income of over £82K. Or to put it another way, that median wage, applied to a sensible mortgage, would get you a property of £63K.

Most women – certainly in the UK – have little choice these days about whether they want to work or stay at home after having a child. The sort of financial realities sketched out above make it Hobson’s Choice.

So it could be argued that we need fast food and convenience food to help sustain the economy as it currently exists.

This is actually something that Stewart Lee Allen touches on in In the Devil’s Garden. Personally, I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories, preferring instead to apply Occam’s Razor whenever possible. And the idea that, in effect, government has ‘encouraged’ a culinary culture of supermarkets, ready meals, take-aways etc, as a way of those time-short workers feeding themselves and their families, is not one I like or feel comfortable with.

But the reality in the UK is that, for many, many people, their food ‘choices’ are now limited what they can pile into the trolley, and then into the car and then into the freezer at the weekend.

It is, in this ‘post-industrial’ landscape, quite handy when people will apparently happily spend money on mass-produced rubbish, from Lancashire hot pots that require pectin to ‘beers’ that are full of chemicals; just as it’s handy that many people have come to believe that quality of life is measured in terms of how much they can buy.

It would be more than a little awkward if that were not the case.

Yet we have increasing obesity – particularly in childhood – with the concomitant diseases that go with it. And there’s no connection to the diet that people are increasingly consuming?

Decreasing numbers of families sit and eat together, but spread out around a home, in front of the telly or the computer etc, with their own food. And there are plenty of commentators who apparently think we have increasing family breakdown and an inability amongst young people in particular to learn social skills and relate to people outside their own peer group.

We have town centres that have become no-go areas for families and older people at nights and weekends, when young people in particular (with a lack of social skills – so they find it difficult to comprehend why there is anything wrong with their being as noisy as they want, regardless of where they are and anyone else) arrive for a night’s drinking in industrialised drinking establishments.

When you think of it like this, it’s easy to see why no real changes are attempted.

And it’s easier to build more and more supermarkets, and encourage people to believe that ready-meals and junk food are cheaper than real food, than it is to deal with the equation of low pay and a high cost of living that forces many people to take two or three jobs at the same time.

Or of dealing with the whole question of quality of life and work-life balance.

Do we really live to work? Or do we work to live? Which should it be? When you look at the political decisions made in the UK over the last 30 or so years, primarily that of moving us to a ‘post-industrial’ economy, you can see, for such a post-industrial economy to work, what the answer has to be (for ‘them’, at least).

Against this background, how odd that Lancashire hot pot is something that you might (if lucky) find in a gastro pub now – although such an approach is considerably later than the French taking their peasant cuisine and moving it into the restaurant … think duck confit, for instance.

The new ‘peasant cuisine’ in the UK is either fast and take-away food or over-packaged, pre-made, ‘ready’ meals – supposedly cheap but not really, but which offer people ‘convenience’ and big business ever increasing profits, at the same time as destroying town centres and communities, and aspects of our culture.

One is left with a question: we’ve been on this path for some years – but where does it lead?

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