When I want to easily remember my grandfather and hear his voice as if he was speaking to me in real life, all I have to do is wander down the street to my local branch of Waitrose. As I peruse the shelves, he rushes into my head, clear as day with his Midlands accent unchanged by the thirty years he lived in Suffolk. I pick up a pot of double cream flavoured with golden rum and spiced ‘winter fruits’: “What are you buying that for when I we’ve got an old bottle of rum in the roof somewhere- let me look for it and you can just chuck a slug of it into a pot of Elmlea.” Or as I stand in front of plastic packs of ready mashed potato and orange cubes of butternut squash: “How much time does it take to make mash? Don’t be idle Nic – look at the price!” Or linger by the pretty bottles of pink lemonade: “It’s lemonade with food colouring- they can see you coming.” And then I imagine him going home and rummaging in his shed to triumphantly pull out a traditional flip topped bottle from the back that likely once contained weedkiller: “I’ll give it a rinse out with this Milton’s that I kept from when you were a baby and you can decant some Schweppes into it.” “That’s at least thirty years old, that Milton’s, granddad” “S’alright.”
He was a man with twenty plastic tubs of miscellaneous screws, washers and nails picked up from roads, gouged from wood off cuts or bought from Jacks in Colchester and transported home in a white paper bag in his pocket. My grandmother waged a permanent war against these as they infiltrated the twin tub and then her prized automatic Zanussi, clanging their way around the drum as she peered balefully through the machine window, waiting for the wash to come to a stop.
It is his ‘Waitrose voice’ (a voice of reason some might say) that triggers the strongest sense of Imposter Syndrome within me- the idea that I either don’t belong here, or am betraying my roots or social conscience every time I set foot inside the temple to gastro-gorgeousness that is Waitrose or any other chi chi place. Whether that be the two floors of food heaven at Snape Maltings selling beautifully packaged ten quid a shot pasta, all bronzed die cut rough edged loveliness and made with the best doppia 00 flour or a small local deli is immaterial.
For him, locavore and seasonal meant Weldons Pick Your Own and whatever was sold on the Bury St Edmunds or Sudbury markets instead of extravagantly marketed local food in the regions best farm shops or an upmarket supermarket trying hard to not look like one. When I go to the market to buy my fruit and veg, browse the cheese stall and choose my bread, I am buoyed by the approval I know he’d feel that I am supporting the sellers and the memories that are there to be revisited at each stall too. I recall the smell of the super hard Cheddar he’d always go for- ‘Roy’s stinky cheese’ as christened by my Grandmother (He insisted on being called Roy) from the man in the white van with drop down counter.
I remember the bags of apples, oranges and peaches in season that he’d buy for us to cut up and eat on our laps every night at 8 pm on the dot after Coronation Street had ended. (Or ‘Silly Street’ as he referred to it.) He’d come into the sitting room as he heard the closing strains of the theme tune with his fruit in a brown paper bag, yesterdays newspaper and a paring knife. The ‘Fruit’ ceremony would ensue- newspaper spread across his lap as he carefully peeled and doled out slices of fruit, the peaches left whole to be eaten by me but my grandmother ate hers sliced because somehow this method prevented them from ‘repeating on her.’ Then peelings were tidily wrapped up in the paper to be disposed of on the compost heap before they locked up for the night.
This ceremony with its roots in inter and post war fruit shortages cemented the notion of fruit as the greatest treat for us kids although the moderation of my grandparents in all things was not inherited by me. I soon graduated to putting away an entire bag of satsumas in one sitting. The fruit was kept on an old brown wood sideboard in the back bedroom and I would try to sneak in there and help myself, but the moment I opened the door, the heavy,ripe scent would slip into the hall and give the game away. He’d be appalled at its price now and half intrigued, half repelled by the choice we have, not just between species of fruit but the different varieties too, and all out of season. In his day we grew our own Bramleys and Cox’s and he was pretty conversant with many more varieties: the Pitmaston Pineapple, Worcester Pearmain and Egremont Russet (the latter which I now grow on my allotment). There were a lot more branches in our pomological family tree then, chosen to meet a specific need: keepers to eat throughout the cold winter; apples that had superlative flavour and must be eaten immediately as they were unable to be stored, apples that could be dehydrated into chewy, fudgy rings and apples that cooked down into pies and puddings. Now the fruit in supermarkets now is there for one reason only- it suits the store and its bottom line and flavour comes second.
Supermarkets such as Waitrose like to make us feel that our choice to shop there is the more ethical one compared to those ‘other places’ but I feel conflicted because their illusion of foodie sophistication, more considerate practices and worldliness masks a more difficult to palate truth. My grandfathers voice in my head is akin to the child in the Emperors New Clothes telling me that I am kidding myself that I am not harming the food chain and local economies by shopping in the manner that I often do. It tells me that I actually do not need to cook my way around the world, that millions of people eat adventurously without consuming imported goods out of season from lands far away and that being a food lover is not commensurate with having to try every weird and unusual ingredient. It reminds me that the only value label in store that matters is what that item costs the rest of the world. He was of his time, not ahead of it, and food for him was pleasant fuel, a way by which some people earned a living; worth thinking about because of this but little more beyond it.
He was an engaged man with great curiosity in the world and somebody who should have gone to university: he would have avidly read some of the great food writers I enjoy, writers like James Villas, Edna Lewis, Sara Roahen, and Molly Wizenberg. But he’d have been satisfied with just reading them. I try to temper all this dissonance by doing the ‘High/Low thing’ (although I don’t like that rather flippant description) by shopping at the holy trinity of Waitrose, Aldi and the local market/independent shops. I make these lists of ‘essentials’ that need not have the provenance of a well bred truffle or rarity value of a Chinese Snow Leopard- flour, sugar, washing powder (no you don’t need Ariel), vinegar etc and lists of the more ‘luxe items’ that Aldi do well- maple syrup, the smoked salmon, everyday Parmesan (I sound like Marie Antoinette), basic olive oil, brioche et al, joyous in the knowledge of monies saved. I hope that economies of scale confer these lower prices- bulk orders, the centralised European storage and delivery systems, as opposed to five year old kids working in fields.
I may be a scratch cook generally, but I am not going to make my own vinegar, salt, butter and yoghurt, dig six foot deep pits in the back yard to produce authentic pit ‘cue or ferment kimchi. Neither do I plan to try to grow wasabi in my garden pond after rigging up a water flow system with some Professor Branestawm contraption. I cannot be bothered to smoke my own salmon- it is effort enough to find one that hasn’t been abused prior to its death in a fish pen; dosed with medicine, riddled with worms and swimming in its own excrement. I understand that cultivating rare or niche ingredients here allows humans to reduce air and road miles with their attendant negatives but I am also a fan of Andrew and Beth Chatto who caution against growing plants unless you have the right climate and ecology- anything that requires expensive or time consuming measures is not worth it and should be left to grow in a more conducive place.
I have several thousand books about food and cooking, gastronomy and the culture of eating. My cupboards, fridge and pantry are full of little tubes, jars, pots and packets of niche ingredients. Some of these were purchased out of genuine curiosity- is there truly any difference taste wise between generic Jasmin rice and the more expensive and rarer variety, the green stamped Hom Mali? Answer, yes. Others drew me like a moth to a flame because I adored the romance of the culture that birthed them (Zatarains Shrimp and crab boil) or loved the packaging (the blue and cream print on tubs of American baking powder by Bakewell Cream) even though they don’t perform any better. I haven’t used the tub of Crisco I bought but the name and iconography attached to it meant I wanted it. Someday I’ll fry that buttermilk soaked pullet in it before it goes rancid.
I am trying to make it simple again: not having to have a different blooming meal nearly every night and not feeling inadequate if I have yet to try the latest buzz ingredient that some bearded bloke ‘discovered’ on his food road trip to Macon, Taipei or Seoul. I am going to retrain myself to be happy just reading about food instead of always having to ‘source’ it and try to readopt and adapt the ethos behind the way my grandfather and grandmother ate, allowing for the culture gap that has opened up as the years have gone by.
I’m not saying that those folks who choose to experiment with an El Bulli cook book and molecular cuisine kit should be burned as heretics, far from it, even though I reckon ‘molecular gastronomy’ is the wankiest culinary term ever and people who use it seriously should undergo spherification and be fed to pigs. Rather I am suggesting a less avaricious attitude to the acquiring of gastro experiences, with us asking ourselves if we truly need to try every form of berry discovered in the Brazilian rainforests, much less write to supermarkets demanding for them to be stocked, year round.