One of the advantages of being without the interweb is that you can return to other, older, media for edutainment and information. I can for example find out all I wish to know about 19thC Generals or Kepler’s Laws of Motion from my almost complete Encyclopaedia Britannica. But that antient asset is no use for getting the deets about the latest celebrity passing into the great unknown; and makes no mention at all of Ardmore, County Waterford. Accordingly, I’ve been reading . . . pages . . . in books . . . like, with paper. Naturally, it having been Christmas, there are new books to read but I haven’t gotten round to them yet. I’ve rather been reading from a box of books belonging to Dau.II which I repatriated from The People’s Republic of Cork between Christmas and New Year. As she works in the catering trade, many of those books are food related, mostly gifts for which there is no longer space in her tiny apartment. There is little room for clutter or sentiment there.
That’s a long-winded introduction to say that I’m zipping through Eating for England E4E by Nigel ‘Foodie’ Slater. I’d read his Bildungsroman Toast several years ago and like his style. Both books are reflections on growing up in England in the 1960s and they give me a frisson because that’s what I did. To grow, a chap must eat, and as children, Nigel and I had very little control over what appeared on the plate. What he nails with hindsight is the post-WWII opening of the British kitchen with alien food, which extended the choice in weird and wonderful ways. In Toast there is a hilarious incident when Nigel’s father decides that they will among the first in England to eat spaghetti Bolognese. Spag-Bog has now become a loved part of the English kitchen canon but the Slater first footers were challenged. They decide, correctly, that parmesan cheese (then bought in a wretched little cardboard shaker) smells like sick and push the whole meal into the garbage. Now of course, we call it umami and scarf up as much as we can – especially when ‘free’ at Italian restaurants.
Eating for England is much less coherent that Toast, there is no story, not even an emergent one from the fact that Slater has anecdotes about both his mother and step-mother but fails to explain how that transition occurred – you have to [have] read Toast. E4E rather consists of a series of essays which read a little like a) a blog from their length b) Bill Bryson from the ironic humour and petulant exasperation with other people c) Jan Struther’s Mrs Miniver from the black & white nostalgia lens through which the past is viewed. There must be little enough in the book which relates to the day-to-day experience of a girl in her 20s living in Cork.
One of the peculiar themes in E4E is the British obsession with sweets and biscuits and Slater nails the taste, texture and engineering properties of Murray’s Mints, chocolate digestives, Spangles, Bourbons. Several of the lines which he and our generation consumed with gusto are no longer available because we realised that they were cheap, crude, luridly coloured and possibly carcinogenic. Back then there was no compulsion to have a table of contents on the back of the packet. If there is one thing by which we moderns compare badly with our previous selves it is in choice . . . and waste. We lived in simpler times back then and, notwithstanding the Slater’s parmesan fiasco, ate what was put on our plates and put on our plates all the food we bought. Now we are seduced by the variety and buy both this and that with the inevitable consequence that some of the food goes direct to compost without passing through our guts. Tsk, indeed.
Like Bill Bryson, Slater can run out a telling turn of phrase:
- On the ubiquity of ‘nut-cutlets’ as the vegetarian alternative: “ . . . if someone doesn’t want to eat meat, the chances are they don’t want their dinner to look like it either”
- On picking a care-home for his elderly and beloved aunt: “ . . .chosen not for its convenient locations, or even for its price, but because it was the only one I could find that didn’t smell of pee”.
- On the drink the same aunt has before a lunch out “. . . a sherry the colour of a mahogany commode”.
- On trifle: “Once gracing our tables like a favourite and slightly tiddly old aunt, our cherished party dessert now resembled nothing more than an old tart in a leopard-skin coat”
But I was inspired by one of these essays in the week after New Year, when The Institute is still on vacation, to finish the last of the Christmas ham, fried with half an onion chopped with the last of the Christmas Brussels sprouts, for my lunch. Excellent . . . and 1960s’ thrifty.