I remember once reading a book where one character complained to another, ‘you have no food in this kitchen, just ingredients’. I don’t recall anything else about the book, not the author or the title or the storyline. But this quote stuck in my mind as it seemed to say something profoundly philosophical about modern attitudes to food and cooking.
From the first post-war ready meals, marketed in the fifties and sixties, meals became less about good food lovingly prepared and more about what would be hot and filling (and possibly, but not always, tasty) in the shortest amount of time. People were told that it was the worst form of drudgery to be stuck ‘slaving’ over a hot stove, and Findus Crispy Pancakes, or whatever the processed food of the moment was, was the answer to people’s dreams.
Of course it is very true that without the advent of convenience foods huge numbers of women would have remained stuck in the home, beholden to their husbands. Such a thought makes me shudder in horror. But one of the more negative side effects of convenience food is the increasingly pervasive idea that food and eating are irritating distractions from the real business of working or having fun.
For many millions of years, human beings and our ancestors spent the vast majority of their lives finding food, preparing it and eating. Until the later part of the 20th century, people regularly spent a full third of their income on food and people would always sit at the table and eat together. Now the amount we spend is less than 10% of our incomes, few people sit down together to eat, and fewer still regularly use a dining table.
And ready meals, with their dangerously high combinations of fat, salt and sugar, are contributing to a huge rise in diet related health problems including heart disease, diabetes and strokes.
I know the arguments for and against ready meals. So much is said about nutritional value, dietary needs, speed and simplicity, availability, lack of cooking knowledge, lack of time, etc. Etc. I know what is said about all of these. But I would argue that there is another way.
Anyone who has allergies, or who grows their own vegetables, or who has had to adopt lifestyle changes following a heart attack or similar, will already know that it is surprisingly easy to cook from scratch. Throw ingredients into a slow cooker first thing in the morning, set it to cook, and by the time you get in from work at six o’clock you have a hearty stew or casserole that’s ready to eat. Make several dishes at once in your oven on a Sunday and freeze them and you will have good food all week. All it takes is a bit of planning and food knowledge.
But perhaps that is what we are missing. Perhaps several decades of ready meals have divorced many people from the food chain, seasonal eating and so on. If you believe that carrots come in wee cubes, you aren’t going to know where to start if presented with a muddy root still with leaves attached.
We need to keep cooking skills alive whilst we can. We need to pester grannies and granddads to teach us, whilst they are still here and still remember the skills of the past. Cooking from scratch, in bulk, can be cheaper than using processed food, if you know what you are doing. Its a crime that food skills that can teach us how to be healthier both in body and in mind are vanishing. We need to keep them alive, before its too late.