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?
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?
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‘I think she’s overdone the tanning oil’