Why are we so fussy about food?

When she was grow­ing up, Lucy Deedes lived off Kent road­kill and deer butchered in the gar­den. Why are we now so fussy about we eat?

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Lucy Deedes

Last year, I worked in a smart food shop in Pet­worth, West Sus­sex. The coun­ters were piled high with fresh sour­dough bread, olives and fra­grant nut oils. Glass-wrapped ar­ti­san cheese had its own tem­per­a­ture-con­trolled room. There was meat from named lo­cal farms and, on the char­cu­terie counter, there were cold game pies and a San Daniele haunch of pro­sciutto, its hoof point­ing del­i­cately sky­wards.

Over the week­end, the shop was buzzing. Lo­cals and in­com­ers scooped up smoked trout and baguettes, drank lat­tes with their girl­friends and called shrilly to their chil­dren to stop breath­ing on the choco­late brown­ies.

At peak rush hour, with all the tills manned and queues form­ing, some­one would in­evitably or­der a de­caf soya latte and an al­mond milk flat white, and ha­rangue the new Satur­day girl for not achiev­ing a per­fect dry cap­puc­cino.

Cou­ples would stand for hours, ag­o­nis­ing over their choice of bread as you hov­ered to serve them. ‘I don’t like sour­dough,’ said the hus­bands. ‘I don’t like nuts and seeds,’ said the old ladies and chil­dren. ‘It’s too big, we’ll never eat all that over the week­end,’ said other fusspots.

I longed to say, ‘Look, love, it’s a loaf of bread you’re choos­ing, not a board­ing school.’

I was chal­lenged one day about the lack of gluten-free cakes by two well­nour­ished, mid­dle-aged ladies. I of­fered mac­a­roons, lemon po­lenta cake and spe­cial gin­ger cake but they shook their heads de­spair­ingly.

Around the cor­ner, they fell upon free sam­ple plates of bread and olive oil like starv­ing pel­i­cans.

‘No, no,’ I cried. ‘That bread’s not gluten-free.’

They shrugged their shoul­ders and said, ‘We’re not al­ler­gic but we want more choice.’

My favourite was the man who dou­ble-parked and bowled into the cheese room at 4.30pm on Christ­mas Eve want­ing a ripe Brie. I showed him what we had left, and he looked at me in dis­be­lief. It seemed harsh to re­mind him that the well-pre­pared Christ­mas vir­gins had trimmed their lamps and planned their cheese­boards, like A-lev­els, weeks in ad­vance.

‘I’ll just have to go to Guild­ford,’ he said, more in anger than in sor­row.

I felt his pain: it’s unimag­in­able that any­one should have to cel­e­brate the birth of our Lord with sub­stan­dard, chalky Brie.

This foodie gen­er­a­tion would find it hard to be­lieve that, for peo­ple like my par­ents, born dur­ing the First World War, food was sim­ply fuel. My mother had a small­hold­ing and be­lieved in mod­est quan­ti­ties of fresh in­gre­di­ents. My fa­ther (the jour­nal­ist W F Deedes, im­mor­talised in Pri­vate Eye as ‘Dear Bill’) could hap­pily have lived on soup, boiled ban­tam eggs and whisky and in his nineties, as a wid­ower, he mostly did.

Sun­day lunch in Kent when we were chil­dren would have been home-killed mut­ton, what­ever vegeta­bles were grow­ing, crum­ble made with rhubarb/ ap­ples/green­gages and Jer­sey cream from our house cow. We ate lunch and got on with our day.

That’s not to say it wasn’t de­li­cious and en­joy­able, but our mother didn’t ag­o­nise over it. If it was there, we ate it; if not, we went without. She was an early sup­porter of or­ganic food and the Soil As­so­ci­a­tion, and en­tirely prag­matic about rear­ing live­stock for food and despatch­ing an­i­mals when their time was up. When a calf grew big enough to knock her over, she put a rope hal­ter on it and trot­ted it up the road to the slaugh­ter­house in the vil­lage, re­cruit­ing one of us chil­dren as a re­luc­tant wing­man.

We ate rab­bit, pi­geon and a num­ber of pheasants from am­bigu­ous sources. My own chil­dren would lift the lid on a saucepan: ‘Road­kill again, Granny?’

‘It’s per­fectly fresh,’ she would say. ‘The car in front of me hit it.’

Waste was not to be coun­te­nanced: she never took the dogs walk­ing without col­lect­ing a hand­ful of mush­rooms or some black­ber­ries.

There was a story re­cently about the neigh­bours of a Mus­lim fam­ily in Da­gen­ham re­port­ing them to the coun­cil for joint­ing a cow on a tar­pau­lin in their gar­den, in prepa­ra­tion for the fes­ti­val of Eid. I thought, is that so bad? If the cow had been legally and de­cently slaugh­tered and was in­tended solely for their fam­ily and friends, why the fuss?

In the Seven­ties, my boyfriend skinned and cut up veni­son in the gar­den be­cause there wasn’t space in the kitchen. His mother had a sen­si­ble rule that her sons dealt with their own hunted gath­er­ings. Worse things are hap­pen­ing in fac­tory farms and abat­toirs and on long-haul lor­ries de­liv­er­ing dis­tressed live an­i­mals, but they’re un­likely to stop us buy­ing de­li­cious ba­con.

We in­ter­mit­tently feast or fast. We re­move wheat and dairy from our diet, cel­e­brate sin­gle-es­tate olive oils and cof­fee but eat the breasts of chick­ens whose lives amounted to a rot­ten 35 days in a closed shed. Our food has de­vel­oped this tyran­ni­cal life of its own, so that we de­mand the best – like the cus­tomers in the Pet­worth shop – and ig­nore the worst. I find my­self chan­nelling my par­ents and won­der­ing: how did food be­come our mas­ter, not our ser­vant?

Hear the Lucy Deedes pod­cast on the Oldie App See page 7 for de­tails

‘I think she’s over­done the tan­ning oil’

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