Food Inglorious Food: or how our government continues to fail the poorest.

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Next week I will be visiting The Gatehouse in Bury St Edmunds, a local food bank to explore how they are planning for the influx of extra users during the Winter, a time of greater poverty due to the competing needs of heating the home versus feeding those that live in it. In the meantime, here’s a reminder that the need for food banks continues as does the need for us to support them. Please donate- links and information as to how can be found at the end of this article. 

The amount of people using food banks continues to rise despite the much heralded ‘economic recovery’, trotted out by the government in an attempt to deter us from believing what we see with our own eyes. The cost of living coupled with insecure work contracts and slashed benefits that fail to keep pace with the demands on our wallets have conspired to send even those in full time work in search of their nearest food bank, a fact the government would like to obscure because it contradicts the ugly message that to work is to reach the economic promised land. Indeed, the inability of people to feed themselves adequately has been described as a breach of international law by violating the human right to food by a coalition of anti-poverty charities, including the Trussell Trust. who have described the Government as “increasingly harsh” in its use of sanctions against people attempting to claim benefits. Half of those referred to food banks in 2013-14 were as a result of benefit delays or changes with 8 out of 10 of food banks seeing more cases relating to benefit sanctions over the past year. Tougher punishments for those on jobseeker’s allowance were introduced by the Coalition last October (2013) raising the minimum sanction from one to four weeks. Benefits can now be stopped for up to three years.

The latest figures from The Trussell Trust show that in 2014, a total of 913,138 people were given three days supply of emergency food compared to 346,992 between 2012- 2013, 423 food banks have been launched and 8318 thousand tonnes of food was donated to food banks over the previous year.

The Living Wage Campaign works hard to raise awareness of the problems faced by those in low paid employment citing a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) that claims there are more working families living in poverty in the UK than non-working families for the first time since the birth of the welfare state. The JRF attributes this to a sustained fall in the standard of living, causing average incomes to fall by 8% since the 2008 peak and around 2 million people to live on an income that would be considered below the poverty line back in 2008. Working age adults without children form the largest group in poverty with 4.7 million people falling into this category and plummeting incomes over the last few years erasing all the gains previously made.

Despite a strong safety net being deemed vital in ensuring social mobility across all age groups, government cuts via the ‘Bedroom Tax’ and other housing benefit changes, ESA sanctions and delays in processing benefit claims cause further harm to those who are already barely managing to keep their heads above water. Millions of people are living in fear of one more thing going wrong- a car repair or broken washing machine, unexpected dental bills (because they do not qualify for free assistance), sickness, outgrown shoes, not being paid over a bank holiday because they are self employed or paid for work done (and their firm shuts down) or loss of working hours because the weather is too bad and they work outdoors- any of which will tip them over the edge into a financial abyss from which they will never claw themselves back out of.

The experience of food banks is that more of their users are unable to find reliable work because of a myriad of issues and users then go on to be further handicapped by benefit delays, sanctions and even benefit refusal. In The Guardian (Nov 2014) a report by Melissa Viney says: “The most recent government figures (to June 2014) show that only 2% of longer-term ESA claimants find sustained employment. Independent research by the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion has found that disabled people are about half as likely to find employment as non-disabled people. Last week, a report suggested that officials were considering cutting ESA, which is paid to around 2 million people, by as much as £30 a week as the chancellor, George Osborne, seeks a £12bn cut in the welfare bill.” A DWP whistleblower claimed “ the majority of my ESA caseload of about 100 clients were not well enough to have been on the government’s welfare-to-work Work Programme, but should instead have been signposted to charities that could support them with their multiple problems.” Instead people were left to negotiate a system that could not effectively place them in work because it is trying to force square pegs into skimpy round holes.

In a job market that is over subscribed, the disabled (including the mentally ill) are not going to get the pickings. In addition, staff were not given copies of job seekers Work Capability Assessments (WCA) and so were unable to offer any kind of tailored support or advice. The DWP state that providers “have the freedom to design any work-related activity so it is appropriate to the person’s condition”, yet fail to address the issue of staff being unable to do this because they do not possess the right information on the person.

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The blasé cruelty of ministers such as Lord Freud, who slurred desperate families by claiming that people were turning up just because there was ‘free food’, and not out of necessity is breathtaking. He would be perfectly aware of the surveys that show many people wouldn’t consider turning to a food bank for help when they need it: they find the stigma attached to ‘asking for food’ too humiliating.He would also be aware that families need to be referred to local food banks; you cannot just rock up with a shopping bag and fill it at will. In a seemingly desperate attempt to smear the charities who run food banks (including the Trussell Trust), DWP department directory Neil Couling, gave evidence to a Scottish Parliament committee on food banks and questioned the motivations of the UK’s biggest supplier of emergency food aid by implying that a motivation for their growth was Christian “evangelism” and that the food banks were merely an “evangelical device”. This elicited a furious reaction from the chair of the Trussell Trust who wrote: “Please provide me immediately with the evidence you have to support this assertion. You are directly challenging the integrity of a registered charity and its trustees both past and present. If you are not able to provide evidence to support this assertion please write immediately to the Scottish Parliament Welfare Reform Committee to withdraw the statement.”

We all remember Jack Monroe’s bleakly truthful blog posts about her own food poverty, and the resulting desperate attempts by the right wing press and its sympathisers to discredit her. Failing to comply with the ‘feckless, fat and lazy’ stereotype that is ignorantly trotted out by those who should be chained to a food bank and made to listen to their users and their children (who surely do not deserve to go without) made her an articulate threat and not easily dismissed. Ms Monroe faced them down, providing researched, clear and objective rebuttals, trembling with well controlled, justifiable outrage. She continues to highlight food poverty in the UK and the structural issues underpinning this alongside imaginative and accurately costed out recipes that are based on ingredients that are truly inexpensive (or should I say not as expensive?). I have cooked from them, own both her books and encourage others who need cost effective, nourishing meal ideas to do so. (Her pasta flavoured with a jar of 19p fish paste that itself has no nasties in the ingredients is genius)

In the USA, Linda Tirado recently authored her first book ‘Hand to Mouth’  after posting an essay about the American poverty trap online whilst working two low-paid jobs, which went viral. Extending it into the now book, Tirado has similarly been exposed to the same slanderous much raking attempts to discredit her, resulting in her posting her welfare records online plus a devastatingly brave and honest video in which she discussed appalling access to dental care and the way this impacts upon a persons job worthiness in the eyes of employers. Poor dental care is not only an aesthetic issue either when you consider the positive correlation dental decay has with cardiac problems and what these cost the public health service of any country. As usual, a government is relying on short term measurable actions rather than investing more on the medium and longer term measures that will save more in the long run: the latter are unfortunately not as immediately impressive to a voting public with short term moral attention deficits. Tirado lays waste to the American Dream and the much bandied ethos that if you want it and work for it, you will have it, irrespective of social class or cultural background. The fact that millions work over fifty hours a week in minimum wage zero contract positions yet still cannot afford to feed or house themselves is terrifying and subversive proof that this is no longer true. No wonder the establishment seeks to silence her.

During the course of researching this piece I have met men and women who:

  • Wear glasses with a prescription out of date by years, lenses scratched and smeared because they cannot afford to replace them (again, you only get free eye tests and prescriptions if you are on a very low income or receive a higher level of tax credits);
  • Have to struggle on with painful teeth but do not qualify for or cannot find NHS dental care. (Remember that travelling to meet repeated appointments to an NHS dentist forty miles away is out of reach for people with little money for public transport or petrol.) I have also met people with badly fitting dentures because the NHS pairs are not adequate and they cannot afford to go private;
  • Go out foraging for fruit and vegetables not because they love to go back to nature of a weekend or have read Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s or Renee Redzepi’s latest tome on foraged cheffery but because they cannot afford to buy decent quantities of fruit and veg (and this includes stealth raids on fields of sweetcorn, cabbages and local orchards). They live too far away from local markets or discount supermarkets and having to spend a tenner on transport wipes out any monies saved;
  • Are teachers, buying breakfast and ‘snacks’ for their pupils out of their own pockets because they are clearly coming to school hungry-and  not because their parents are feckless either but because there is only enough for a tiny bowl of cereal or one piece of toast. And when you eat not quite enough cumulatively over days or weeks, it is much harder to work all morning on smaller rations- this despite Michael Gove’s accusation that ‘feckless parenting’ lies behind this;
  • Have to return some food items to the food bank because they cannot afford to cook them or have run out of gas on their pre-paid credit meter, instead relying on foods that can be cheaply heated or eaten cold;
  • Shamefacedly admit to taking toilet paper from public toilets because they cannot afford to buy it. They choose to spend the money they do have on what goes into their children’s mouths rather than what comes out of their bottoms;
  • Have had to stay inside for the best part of a week because they cannot always afford decent sanitary protection and feel too ashamed to admit this. Or they ration what they do have or use cheaper, less efficacious products.

I have seen the shame on the face of one father as he tells me about sneaking into schools lost property room in the hope of finding an unnamed school sweatshirt in the right size that they can use for their child. They worry themselves sick about birthdays and Christmas, about their kids being invited to parties and hiding from trick or treaters because they have nothing they can give them; about the school trips that they cannot afford and the fact that they forever window shop on life, faced pressed against the glass and not yearning for much, just the chance to afford a treat or a day out, something to relieve the monotony and exhaustion because being poor is so very tiring. Many had good jobs when they had their children, or were in good marriages that then failed. They tried to make good choices, didn’t live beyond their means and didn’t flash the plastic even though previous governments did their level best to encourage us all to live on credit and delayed consequences.

A recent poll by Kelloggs has also revealed that almost one third of teachers admit to bringing in food for pupils they think may have missed breakfast and  two fifths of school staff (38%) know of pupils who have not enough to eat on a daily basis. Teachers talk of lethargic children with 83% commenting that they had noticed that their pupils could not concentrate properly. Again, the blame was ascribed to breakdowns in benefit assessment, a living wage that is not a living wage and in some cases, parents failing to ensure children were adequately nourished at breakfast times.

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As Winter approaches, more people will be forced to choose between heating their home adequately and eating properly with a recent Which? survey for the Tonight programme revealing that 46% of respondents plan to cut back spending in other areas to pay their winter energy bills. In an ITV programme shown on Nov 6th, reporter Chris Choi put together a log of his experience in a cold chamber to simulate the conditions experienced by those living in fuel poverty, a room cooled to 12 degrees. Interviews with health and social care professionals discuss the problems this causes for the most vulnerable, exacerbating existing health conditions and rendering them vulnerable to a host of others.

The UK is supposed to be built on a bedrock of  christian principles but the fact is, if you object to your tax pounds being spent on the poor, you are not one. This government happily trots out christian ideology and mores when it suits, yet ignores its central tenets. I do not believe that the greatest goodness comes from being a religious person yet I do hold those that claim to be to higher standards, especially when it is used to justify moral and legal pronouncements on how we live and how the country is run accordingly. When those judgements are used to justify punitive measures against the poorest and whip up hatred and derision towards them we see the moral ugliness of those in charge.

The Trussel Trust– find your nearest foodbank

The Gatehouse Foodbank in Bury St Edmunds

East Suffolk food bank

Newmarket Open Door

Haverhill food bank

Suffolk info link

<Addendum>

In the Guardian on December 8 2014, the paper warns of impending Conservative party hostility to an all party report on food banks which warns that Britain is “stalked by hunger caused by low pay, a growth in inequality, harsh benefit sanctions regime and social breakdown”. The Conservative party is seeking to avert a damaging rift with the Church of England over this with the church-funded report describing voluntary groups as “courageously fighting “a social Dunkirk” without the assistance of the government”, and calls for urgent action to ensure ministers do more to combat hunger, including joining a new coordinating body and asking supermarkets to do more with surplus unsold products.

The initial Conservative reaction to leaks of the report – which is formally published today – was hostile, with one minister claiming the increased use of food banks was due to greater publicity about their existence. Read the article here.

 

 

 

 

 

Cambric tea and turkish delight- food in children’s literature.

Books we love as children can date and grow out of kilter with our modern mores and beliefs – we still enjoy them, albeit with a more knowing heart and mind. We haven’t checked the Law of Books as to what delineates a classic as of late but these are some of our candidates- both niche and mainstream, for kids which feature fulsome or whimsical descriptions of food in their pages. Some are based around food and others use it to enhance the narrative or as a theme or metaphor but they are all compelling and have stood the test of time, ready to be rediscovered by each new generation of children.

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Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban

The moral of this story is “Be careful what you wish for.” Frances loves bread and jam so much she wants to eat it every day. Frances is a fussy eater too. She won’t touch her squishy soft-boiled egg. She trades away her chicken salad sandwich at lunch. She turns up her nose at boring veal cutlets. Unless Mother can come up with a plan, Frances just might go on eating bread and jam forever! Mum Badger in her infinite parental wisdom knows the best way to deal with this is to let Frances learn that some things are made less special by over familiarity. Adventures with food and fussy eating is addressed with a light non moralising hand as Frances learns to try new things to eat and more importantly, works this out for herself. Richly descriptive in word and illustration, Hoban creates a prose masterpiece about a childhood life experience.

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Green Eggs and Ham by Doctor Seuss

“Not in a box. 
Not with a fox. 
Not in a house. 
Not with a mouse. 
I would not eat them here or there. 
I would not eat them anywhere. 
I would not eat green eggs and ham. 
I do not like them, Sam-I-am”

(From Green Eggs and Ham by Doctor Seuss)

Do you like green eggs and ham?” asks Sam-I-am  and Sam keeps asking persistently (like very young child we have ever met). With distinctive characters and unmistakable rhymes, Dr. Seuss’s beloved books have earned a place in the cannon of children’s classics. Growing cumulatively longer and longer, the list of places to enjoy green eggs and ham, and friends to enjoy them with, grows. Follow Sam-I-am as he insists that this unusual treat is indeed a delectable snack to be savored everywhere and in every way then cook Nigella’s famous riff on the meal- Green Eggs and Ham.

“The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on to the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very centre and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious. He was quite warm now, and very comfortable.”

 This description of Turkish Delight by CS Lewis in the ‘Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ is the one that tantalised, confused and ultimately disappointed me the most when I finally got to try it for myself. Bouncy, jellified and perfumed, the texture and taste of Turkish Delight was so far removed from the candy of my imagination that to this day I wonder if CS Lewis actually muddled it with some other, lovelier candy. The magical description allied itself with a magical world during my childhood- a time when I so very desperately needed to be taken out of my own unloving and bleak home and my disappointment after trying Turkish Delight for the first time was bitter indeed.

How to make Turkish Delight

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Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi & Ron Barratt

Once upon a time there was a town called Chewandswallow, devoid of grocery stores. Food is provided by the weather and comes three times a day. It snows mashed potatoes, has split pea soup fog, and rains orange juice. It begins to storm and flood making the food become giant. This forces residents to build boats made out of bread and sail away in search of a safer place. Imagine super sized donuts rolling down the streets and wondering if a pancake could really be bigger than a house? It’s a great story that opens up questions about the weather and how fun the imagination can be, facilitating mind bending feats of creative thought. Read this with your children, get them drawing their own imaginary foods then click here for some surreal Cloudy inspired recipes to make with them.

Matron: “You are suffering from Midnight Feast Illness! Aha! You needn’t pretend to me! If you will feast on pork-pies and sardines, chocolate and ginger-beer in the middle of the night, you can expect a dose of medicine from me the next day.” (From the Malory Towers series of books)

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One of my very favourite things to read as a child was any of the Enid Blyton boarding school tales from the cliff top Malory Towers to the less striking St Claires, attended by the O’Sullivan twins. Despite being set around the time that war would have resulted in serious privation, we are kept insulated from the vagaries of this and other historical event- indeed Clive of India was one of the only historical figures I recall being mentioned (as the groan-worthy subject of revision). Despite the broadest of plot and character brushstrokes, I still read them as an adult. As Jane Brocket writes in ‘Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer’, a Proustian revisiting of the world of food in children’s literature with its recreations of famous meals and recipes, Blyton is especially gifted at depicting amazing scenes of food. Consider that these books were written during a time of rationing, surely Blyton must have been gripped by the throes of wish fulfilment as she wrote? Either that or she had great contacts in the world of black-market foodstuffs.

Think of the writing skill it takes to make sardines pressed into slices of ginger cake sound tempting. That is what some of the girls ate during one midnight feast, as they sat by a cliff-top swimming pool carved from Cornish cliffs wearing tennis shoes and sturdy utilitarian flannel and wool dressing gowns. Then there were the unctuous sounding match tea ‘Jammy Buns’ to celebrate their Malory Towers fifth form Lacrosse win. So much more desirable than their Greggs equivalent! We read the account of the midnight feast in a St Clare music room where Isobel and Pat fry mini-sausages on a purloined camping stove and rail against the sneakiness of Erica who subsequently ratted then out to their schoolmistress. To this day I can smell those sausages…and I don’t even like them. Even the description of Elizabeth’s peppermint creams in ‘The Naughtiest Girl in the School’ books made me long to try what are actually pretty average tasting candies.

In fact this love of celebrating the food in children’s books from an adult perspective leads me onto my next book discovery, the ‘Little House Cookbook’ by Barbara Mi Walker who discovered the “Little House” series when her daughter, Anna, was four. Eight further years of intermittent reading, writing, and testing produced The Little House Cookbook, a lovingly detailed exploration of just about every foodstuff mentioned in the entire series, including the appetites of the seemingly gluttonous Almanzo- Laura’s future husband.

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 The authors bibliography is four and a half pages long and in each chapter, she locates recipes within their historical context and explains every ingredient. Did you know that at in Laura Ingalls’s day, the tomatoes available were not sweet in the manner that they are now?  There were no chemical raising agents (egg whites would be stiffly beaten and ipes to the modern day kitchen.

Take the recipe for Stewed Jack rabbit with Dumplings, “If you can’t find a hunter to give you a skinned rabbit (he will want the pelt), look for a farm-raised rabbit at a German butcher shop. (Hasenpfeffer is a favorite German dish).” There is the Mittel European influence upon American migrant cooking right there.

Horehound candy, vinegar pie, parched corn and Johnny Cakes; fried apples ‘n onions, (the favourite birthday treat of Almanzo); green tomatoes or pumpkins were used for pie when apples were not available. They ate Vanity cakes at a Plum Creek birthday, the cakes’ puffed up emptiness serving as analogy for the hated Nellie Olsen  and savoured salt-pork melting into pans of baked beans: even the loaves made from wheat hand-ground in a little coffee grinder during the blizzard racked Long Winter are researched and written about. I was obsessed with trying Wintergreen Berries, something that Almanzo (again!) and his sister Alice went ‘pawing for’ on the snow-frozen slopes of New York State where their father had a prosperous farm. The description of crunchy berries gushing aromatic icy juices into their mouths was more than I could bear. The fact that I live in an area with chalky alkaline soil, ill suited to growing the plant that bears these berries, Gaultheria procumbens is a further torture.

I have never drunk tea and detest milk but I got my grandmother to make me a Cambric tea just like little Grace drank- basically hot water flavoured with milk and a smidgeon of tea, so comforting during the cold and a hint of just how poor the family often were. I basically spent my childhood pretending to be Laura and named my first born after her too. “At noon Ma sliced bread and filled bowls with the hot bean broth and they all ate where they were, close to the stove. They all drank cups of strong, hot tea. Ma even gave Grace a cup of cambric tea. Cambric tea was hot water and milk, with only a taste of tea in it, but little girls felt grown-up when their mothers let them drink cambric tea”. (The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder).

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Another fantasy figure from my childhood (I begged for a hay filled mattress that would smell clean and sweet), Heidi lived the kind of simple life that even as a young child, I recognised as something of an unattainable fantasy. The contrast between this unctuous piece of cheese on toast and the hard rolls with the knot on top served at the formal dinners in Clara’s frigid and cold city home was painful to me. The author, Johanna Spyri was actually a resident of Zürich and thought of the story of the simple Alpine girl while she was convalescing from an illness in the Grisons, which is in the eastern part of the country and a biographical parallel with Clara’s illness:

 “Meanwhile the old man held a large piece of cheese on a long iron fork over the fire, turning it round and round till it was toasted a nice golden yellow color on each side … the old man filled her bowl again to the brim and set it before the child, who was now hungrily beginning her bread having first spread it with the cheese, which after being toasted was soft as butter” (from ‘Heidi’ by Johanna Spyri)

Finding out what type of cheese this was turned out to be no easy task when you consider that goats cheese was actually not eaten that often in Switzerland then, even though Uncle Alp was a goat farmer who made cheese from his own animals. Cheese toasting over a fire was not restricted to people living in huts on the side of an Alpine mountain though; this method using toasting forks was also written about by Enid Blyton and by Robert Louis Stevenson in ‘Treasure Island’ but none comes close to Spyri’s description. It is THE uber cheese on toast but unlike Proust I have yet to rediscover my Heidi Temps Perdu. I Still don’t know what type of cheese it was although Raclette is the likeliest candidate, being an excellent melting cheese.

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As a young girl I read and re-read Susan Coolidge’s ‘What Katy Did’ series of books and was intrigued by the bottle of shrub they took to drink on one of their rainy day picnics in the loft at the very start of the book. Although Cece later admitted that the ‘Shrub’ was little more than vinegar and water, I was determined to both try it and enjoy it <shudder> and took a glass of what we had, Sarsons, mixed with tap water down to the orchard at the bottom of my grandparents garden and tentatively forced myself to drink it. Illusions firmly shattered and deciding that American vinegar was clearly superior to ours (or they had the stomach and constitution of goats) I shelved any ideas about this becoming my new go to summer refreshment.
 Until the latest post from the Bojon Gourmet landed in my in box that is. One of my favourite food writing bloggers from San Francisco, her Shrub recipe has about as much in common with my (and Cece’s) version as the saintly and slightly sanctimonious Cousin Helen from the books had with Mae West. Lavender, Kumquat, honey and apple cider vinegar all add a mellifluous depth that cancels out any tendency towards the tongue-sucking rasp of vinegar. The colour is amazing, the floral and citrus sophisticated enough for parties. Go on, try it. Even Katie would have been made good by this drink and would thus have avoided the back injury this, in part, morality tale visited upon her to show us what happens to naughty girls.

The ‘What Katy Did’ series are liberally scattered with references to food and to the occasions surrounding it. Here is the picnic in their version of Paradise where they built a rose bower to eat under;

“Katy, who sat in the middle, untied and lifted the lid of the largest basket, while all the rest peeped eagerly to see what was inside.First came a great many ginger cakes. These were carefully laid on the grass to keep till wanted; buttered biscuit came next – three a piece, with slices of cold lamb laid in between; and last of all were a dozen hard-boiled eggs, and a layer of thick bread and butter sandwiched with corned-beef. Aunt Izzie had put up lunches for Paradise before, you see, and knew pretty well what to expect in the way of appetite.Oh, how good everything tasted in that bower, with the fresh wind rustling the poplar leaves, sunshine and sweet wood-smells about them, and birds singing overhead! No grown-up dinner party ever had half so much fun. Each mouthful was a pleasure; and when the last crumb had vanished, Katy produced the second basket, and there, oh, delightful surprise! were seven little pies – molasses pies, baked in saucers – each with a brown top and crisp, candified edge, which tasted like toffy and lemon-peel, and all sorts of good things mixed up together”

And who recalls Debbie’s Jumbles sent in the boarding school Christmas hamper to end all hampers? I found the books faintly torturous; even the ‘thick pale slices of pudding with a thin sugary sauce’ served by the new headteacher on one of her weird food fad regimes for school lunch tempted me. What on earth was this pudding?

Katy’s trip to Europe with its ill fated expeditions to various locations associated with her favourite novels had her gravely disillusioned with our food, showing particular distaste for some disagreeable flannel blanket-textured muffins, which she described as ‘scorched and tough’. Little pan fried fish reminiscent of what she called ‘Scup’, commonly known now as ‘Porgy’ with its fine light flavour, and a light gooseberry preserve both met with her approval in what she called ‘Storybook England’.
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An old, little known book, ‘Girl of the Limberlost’ by Gene Stratton Porter, is a story of a girl of the mid western woods; a buoyant, loveable self-reliant American with a philosophy of love and kindness towards all things; her hope is never dimmed. The story and romance of Elnora growing up in the wetlands of northern Indiana is also a cautionary tale for ecology-lovers.

 Gene Stratton-Porter paints a picture of coming industry destroying nature and those who try to save what can be saved for future generations. My sigh of relief when Elenora’s mother turned her life around and started acting like a good mother as opposed to her original not so good one, was immense and of course that meant that food = love with glorious descriptions of the goodies placed in Elnora’s lunchbox- spice cookies, raisin turtles, candied pears, popcorn balls, haws, doughnuts, and hazelnuts to share with friends or feast on alone.

Turtles brand candy were developed by Johnson’s Candy Company (which became DeMet’s Candy Company in 1923) in 1918, after a salesman came into the commissary’s dipping room and showed a candy to one of the dippers, who pointed out that the candy looked like a turtle. Soon after, Johnson’s Candy Company was making the same kind of candy and selling it under the name “Turtles.” Commonly made in the American South, they are now a classic of the candymaker- as a child without the internet to do my research, my mind ran in ignorant riot over their name. You can imagine what I thought they were made from.

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Less a children’s book and more of a book that I read as a child, ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn‘ by Betty Smith beat Jamie Oliver to the post regarding the mythologizing of Cuisina Povera with its delicious description of mother figure Katie Nolan’s pitiful attempts to make a bone with scraps of meat on it, an onion and some stale bread into what she called Frikadellen.

Frying scraps of stale bread, sending the children to cajole that bone from a butcher who would give them the one with the most meat attached (in exchange for a ‘pinch on their cheeks’), making nothing stretch to something because of her marriage to a charming yet feckless Irish singing waiter, Katie is a true heroine. Jack Monroe and her campaign against food poverty with a blog offering inexpensive ways to feed a family, comes to mind when I read this book and as an adult, fully cognizant of the hardships faced by many families, it makes me weep. Read this and see what I am referring to:

“The Nolans practically lived on that stale bread and what amazing things Katie could make from it! She’d take a loaf of stale bread, pour boiling water over it, work it up into a paste, flavor it with salt, pepper, thyme, minced onion and an egg (if eggs were cheap), and bake it in the oven. When it was good and brown, she made a sauce from half a cup of ketchup, two cups of boiling water, seasoning, a dash of strong coffee, thickened it with flour and poured it over the baked stuff. It was good, hot, tasty and staying. What was left over was sliced thin the next day and fried in hot bacon fat.

 “Mama made a very fine bread pudding from slices of stale bread, sugar, cinnamon and a penny apple sliced thin. When this was baked brown, sugar was melted and poured over the top. Sometimes she made what she had named Weg Geschnissen, which laboriously translated meant something made with bread bits that usually would be thrown away. Bits of bread were dipped into a batter made from flour, water, salt and an egg and then fried in deep hot fat. While they were frying, Francie ran down to the candy store and bought a penny’s worth of brown rock candy. This was crushed with a rolling pin and sprinkled on top of the fried bits just before eating. The crystals didn’t quite melt and that made it wonderful.
 “Saturday supper was a red letter meal. The Nolans had fried meat! A loaf of stale bread was made into pulp with hot water and mixed with a dime’s worth of chopped meat into which an onion had been cleavered. Salt and a penny’s worth of minced parsley were added for flavor. This was made up into little balls, fried and served with hot ketchup. These meat balls had a name, fricadellen, which was a great joke with Francie and Neeley.

They lived mostly on these things made from stale bread, and condensed milk and coffee, onions, potatoes, and always the penny’s worth of something bought at the last minute, added for fillip”

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The most memorable banquets aren’t necessarily the most palatable or convivial: take the very adult Oscar Wildes black banquet in ‘Portrait of Dorian Gray’ with charcoal pathways, basalt-edged ponds and baskets of purple-black violets adorning the black-clothed table. Feasting on dark olives and Russian rye bread, slices of black puddings turgid with clotted blood shipped over from Frankfurt and wild game served in puddles of liquorice-dark sauces, the guests wore black and ate off black-edged flatware whilst mourning the passing of the protagonist’s sexual potency. Not one for children although the pepper laden meal that Cruella De Vil invites the dogs owners the Dearlys. to is just as forboding and sinister. Taking place in a Dalmatian-inspired room with its black marble walls and white marble table, reminiscent of a sarcophagus or grand tomb, Dodie Smith tells us:

‘The soup was dark purple. And what did it taste of?

Pepper! The fish was bright green. And what did it taste of? Pepper! The meat was pale blue. And what did that taste of? Pepper! Everything tasted of pepper, even the ice cream – which was black. (The Hundred and One Dalmatians)

The meal become entrenched in our minds eye in a far more potent manner as it takes the staff of life- food, and marries it with death in that tomb -like room.