Matthew Fort explores the role of cooking during difficult times...
The most ineluctable of all laws is the Law of Unintended Consequences, or perhaps the Law of Unexpected Consequences in this case.
If some trend-hound at the tail end of 2019 had forecast that we would become a nation of dedicated cooks and bakers in 2020, she or he would have laughed to silence and shown the door. And yet, here we are, shyly creeping out after months of lock down changed people - dusted in flour, with passionate relationships with our sourdough starters, and proudly posting pictures about what we ate and cooked at breakfast, lunch, supper and sometimes in-between. And all because of Covid-19.
It's true that in normal time - ie pre-Covid-19 - it was equally impossible to escape food and cooking thanks to its ubiquity on conventional and social media, but our relationship with the virtual world of food was very different from the three-dimensions we now enjoy.
Back then, we smugly congratulated ourselves that we were living in a benevolent gastronomic revolution. This was, of course, self-delusion. While knowledge and awareness of food and cooking may have expanded, thanks to the omnipresence of food programmes on the TV, print and the viral energy of the internet and social media, this didn't translate into action when it came to the normal lives of normal people. While viewing, reading and clicking figures suggested an overwhelming involvement with food as a media construct, the exponential growth of ready meals, the number of household dependant on microwaves for meal production and the dietary consequences of eating processed foods, proved that curiosity wasn't translating into action, ie cooking.
The pressures of modern life, the demands of children, the expectations of standards of living, the need for both partners in any relationship to work, all mitigated against thinking about food, planning meals, shopping and cooking dishes in a form our grandparents would have recognised. Most people didn't cook any because they simply didn't have the time or energy. How much easier it was to watch on TV or tablet, fantasise about flavour and texture, and then wait for the ping of the microwave. Even the sudden eruption of companies such as Deliverooo, Just Eat and Uber Eat supplying a takeaway delivery service, or those like Simply Cook, Mindful Chef, and Gousto providing ready prepared ingredients for ready-to-cook meals, simply represented a more sophisticated evolution of the ready meal principle.
And for the gastronomically enfranchised home gourmets who actually wanted to cook, food became a fashion accessory: the most recherche olive oil, the oldest balsamic vinegar, the most authentic sourdough, the most funky restaurant.
And then along comes Covid-19 and the 21st-Century life that we've enjoyed hitherto comes to a juddering halt. We're all locked down/up/in. We have time on our hands, but little to do. We finish all those jobs around the house that we'd put off for years. We relearned housekeeping skills. Those of us lucky enough to have gardens tend them with living care. We walk, we flick through the Netflix/Amazon/Sky recommendations. We may even read a book.
And we cook. We cook because we have to eat, and for the first time, in decades we have time to think about it. We post pictures and recipes, and share food shots, cooking shots, eating shots, drinking shots. Cooking is no longer virtual, it has taken on a social significance. A national conversation about food has sprung up. It turns out that, beneath the culinary apathy of the majority and in spite of the posturing, competitiveness and ostentation of the minority, our relationship with food and cooking has, indeed changed. This may come as a surprise to some, but it shouldn't.
It has long been axiomatic, particularly among foreigners, that we British aren't really interested in food, and, to a large extent, we've accepted this dismissive judgement. We lack the self-confidence and self-belief of the French, Italians, Spanish, Indians, Chinese, almost any nation in fact, in their own culinary culture. Indeed, we've taken a certain masochistic delight in celebrating the awfulness of our food, as almost every memoir of schooldays bears out. (This is particularly true of public school food, where the amount of money spent on incarcerating children in the name of education is matched only by the horror of the food forced on them). We perpetuate our image of gastronomic barbarism.
In reality, nothing could be further form the truth. If you consider the opportunities to eat that our own social traditions culture offer us - breakfast, elevenses, lunch, tea, high tea, supper, dinner, mid-night snack - you have to conclude that we have the most socially sophisticated, not to say greediest, gastronomic cultures in the world.
And so, at a time when our social liberties have been taken away from us (or we have willingly sacrificed them for the greater good?), what do we do? We show our true coluours. We turn back to the last great social freedom we have, the freedom to choose what we wish to eat. By choosing what to cook and how to cook we gain control over a vital part of our lives at a time when we have precious little control over the rest of it.
And our cultural omnivorousness means we're free to choose something different every day. So meals keep alive the notion of variety at a time when there is precious little, when day succeeds day with placid verisimilitude, to adapt Harold Nicholson's phrase from his biography of George V: Different dishes bring colour, diversity, vim and vigour. They give families something to plan, do, enjoy and discuss together.
People have always turned to food as a source of solace during periods of distress. Cooking is an occupation, a declaration of liberty and solidarity, a comfort, an escape. When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me. Indeed, when I am in really great trouble, as any one who knows me intimately will tell you, I refuse everything except food and drink as Algernon Moncrieff says in The Important elf Being Ernest. Or, as an Australian POW survivor of the Second World War put it more earthily Venus herself could have walked through the camp in the nudie. And we'd have all said to her, can you cook? Have you got some food?
It seems only natural, then, that food should also become the vehicle by which we can express our admiration and support of those doctors, nurses, hospital workers and carers in the forefront of the battle with Covid-19. Weekly clapping is something we have all shared in, but food is something concrete that we can give, whether it's a stew, a cake, a sourdough loaf or a rhubarb crumble. Food carries a symbolic weight, a communal message and a practical pleasure. It's the one way we can continue to celebrate life and share that celebration with others.
It's a hard way to learn a lesson, and one we would never have wished for, but due to Covid-19, we may have finally woken up to the realisation that food is important to our individual sense of well-being and our collective national identity. 'Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart,' as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it.
Words by Matthew Fort. Images by Christopher Ower-Davis.
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