Before Christmas I completed a survey on Scottish food. I enjoyed answering the foody questions. When I noticed there was an opportunity to post some photos of my food on the survey I had great fun flicking through my photo archives. I hadn’t realised until then – I take lots of food photos, not just cooked food but food I grow in my garden.
This got me thinking. If food is so important in my life then maybe it creeps into my fiction. I didn’t have to ponder this for long. Yes, food features in just about everything I write.
With that in mind I’ve decided I will write a series of blogs about the food that appears in my novels. But before I do that I want to explore why and when food became important to me.
It begins with food poverty. Food poverty is big news at the moment and it featured in my life for a while.
I am the youngest of five so my mum had seven to feed and being the youngest I was at the bottom of the pecking order, yet still well fed. When I was small my family were not well off but there was plenty of food. Mum always made a pudding and big pots of soup and I now see that as her strategy for feeding us up. Breakfast was porridge with sugar and the cream off the top of the milk. She baked – not bread, which was shop bought and white, but cakes and biscuits and she made jam.
We had a food few traditions. On a Friday we always had fish and chips, rice pudding with carnation milk and pineapple chunks and a Blue Riband biscuit. After my brothers left home, Mum began to experiment with food, she joined the Women’s Rural and baked competitively.
I married when I was eighteen. My new husband and I moved into a tiny farm cottage with a second-hand cooker with only two working rings and an oven with a dodgy thermostat. I couldn’t cook but Mum was nearby to pass on her recipes.
My husband was a miner and although his wage was good, in those days and in that culture, the wife was handed ‘housekeeping’ and the rest of the pay was kept by the hardworking man. My minimal amount had to buy all the food and pay the bills. When it was gone there was no more.
My father-in-law was from Liverpool and was the unlikely source of some good food advice. When I was pregnant and anaemic, he suggested I drink the cooking water from cabbage, well peppered, to give me goodness. I don’t know if it worked but it tasted quite nice. He told me how to make ‘scouse’, a type of Irish stew but with less meat and more potatoes. I used lots of potatoes in those days.
My next-door neighbour in the cottages gave me a Simple Cookbook which I used most days because the recipes were easy and cheap.
When my first son was born, we were appointed a local authority house. I had a full working cooker but higher rent to pay. Also the electric meter was card operated therefore more expensive and likely to run out if not enough credit was left in the meter. That meant food needed to be cooked efficiently. I remember we ate lots of processed meals like crispy pancakes and beef burgers. But like my mum I always made healthy soups and tried to bake; I would make the boys steamed puddings from my Be-Ro cookery book as a Friday treat.
My new house had a tiny garden and by the time my second son was born I’d cultivated a small vegetable patch and planted a herb garden at the back door.
All this economy in my early married life stood me in good stead for the miners’ strike of 1984/85. The council gave me a weekly food voucher and I would wander the supermarket aisle with my calculator making every penny’s worth of food count. A bag of potatoes, a cheap bag of frozen carrots and Bistro gravy could stretch a long away. A 15p swiss roll and Bird’s custard would give the boys their pudding for a couple of days. The boys were offered free school lunches but didn’t want the stigma that brought with it. They preferred to come home for lunch and I didn’t blame them for that.
Years later after I divorced and took control of my life, my boys and I ate well and I at last had some spare cash. I replaced the electric card metre with a normal one and found the motivation to experiment. I have never stopped experimenting with food.
I’ve never forgotten those lean years. Food waste is almost extinct in my house and I never throw away a chicken carcass without first boiling it with a couple of bay leaves for stock.
In 2008 after the credit crunch, I devised a series of money saving modules and delivered them to groups of mothers in deprived areas of Glasgow. One of the modules was on smart shopping and another was on microwave cooking. Many of the mothers had never had the opportunity to cook from scratch and spent much of their benefits on takeaways. They did not have my advantage of a mother who cooked. This was through no fault of theirs, it was a cultural fact. When they completed the module they were thrilled with the results and loved the dishes they could conjure up in under half an hour.
Food poverty is big news again. Footballer Marcus Rashford and broadcaster Jack Munroe are leading the fight but despite their efforts some people still criticise low-income families, stating that it’s easy to survive on X amount of food. It is not. Being poor takes huge amounts of energy, just trying to figure out the priorities of balancing your meagre income with rising expenditure. And trying to feed a family on a pittance takes inventiveness, knowledge, and more energy. There are generations of parents who have never learned to cook. I was lucky, my mum laid down the basics and I picked it up from there. But even with that base line, I still found it hard, most weeks we only had chips and egg to eat on the day before payday.
My food poverty days happened forty years ago in the 1980s. Surely in 2021 we have the means to give families adequate amounts of good food to eat, and the right education to allow them to feed themselves.
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My nephew is French. When he went to Liverpool University, he was sharing lodgings with two other first-year students, Liverpool lads. First night, he went out, bought groceries, came back and started to cook himself a meal. The two other lads watched him, puzzled but intrigued. Then one of them said: ‘I remember me Nan doing that. ‘ Cooking ! ,
Well done to your nephew. It is such a shame his flat mates never knew the joy of cooking.