It came along with Personal Trainers. It came along with annual health checks, D.R.E and sending poo samples to government laboratories every other year. It came along with nutritional traffic light labelling and a diet filled with fear: the fear of fat, the fear of sugar, the fear of salt, the fear of caffeine, the fear of not eating and drinking all the right things, the fear of eating and drinking all the wrong ones. We must have all Natural Ingredients, like lard, like lead, like dog shit… E-coli could not be more natural if it tried. Let’s bring back the natural joy of a tapeworm. What could be more natural than never washing your hands? Where did this notion even come from: natural is per se good? A huge, barely cooked slab of dead cow might be completely natural, but probably not entirely welcomed in a vegan household. Try pork scratchings at a Bar Mitzvah, or cockles at Eid-al-Fitr…
I love to cook – and in that way I do at least monitor what goes into my food, but I find it increasingly difficult to follow recipes. All that ‘weighing and measuring’ nonsense; all those ‘healthier alternative’ options… I am what I believe is called an instinctive cook – which means that although I really cannot cook, I firmly believe that I can. My cooking ‘journey’ invariably follows the same path and always takes place whilst my wife is out of the house, because I have been married for a very long time and I have learned that it is always best to avoid confrontation whenever I can:
- Rifle through the fridge and extricate anything that is wilting, but not yet dead. Anything that does not actually smell offensive. Anything that does not ooze when I pick it up.
- Lay it on the kitchen table.
- Chop it all up and throw it in a saucepan with a tin of tomatoes.
- Decide what shape of pasta to pour it on.
My one firm rule of cookery: never say what you are cooking until it is finished. It might not be at all what you intended.
Like all men I have a signature dish and like all men it is called Spaghetti Bolognese. Like every other non-cook, I believe that I make the very best Bolognese, and I start from scratch: no jars of ready-made sauce for me. I mutilate all of the onions, tomatoes, basil, olives myself. It never turns out the same twice, but it is always the best – although my wife, who is clearly completely devoid of taste, would disagree. I make a decent curry and a great dhal, I scramble a mean egg and I can cobble together any type of cake as long as it is a sponge. I can poach, and roast, and bake, and – with a following wind – coddle, but what I cannot do is follow instructions. I try, but improvisation takes a hold of me. Bits get added, bits get omitted, quantities may vary and when it does not turn out quite as expected, well, I’ll always eat it even if no-one else will. As long as there is no meat, okra or beetroot I will eat just about anything – particularly if I have cooked it. A 1960’s upbringing means that I very seldom turn my nose up at food.
My mum seldom cooked anything that would not fit in the chip pan. My arteries were calcified long before I could walk. My dad, who did most of the cooking, was an army chef, so he knew precisely how to fill a hungry soldier and exactly how to deal with the subsequent abuse. Whatever we ate was accompanied by huge mounds of mashed potato and gravy – particularly disconcerting when it was a treacle sponge. We ate the innards of so many animals that I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the rest of the animal. Presumably it went to the gentry. I assumed that they didn’t live on hodge and chitterlings. Flesh did creep into our diets from time to time: an occasional rasher of streaky bacon (90% fat), a boiled ham hock (ditto) and a joint of beef for Sunday lunch that had been rejected by the cobbler as being both too tough and too small to successfully resole a working boot, but mostly what we ate were the kind of internal bits and pieces that wind up in the bucket after an autopsy.
I don’t recall ever turning down food. I have seen photographs of toddler me: when the sun is behind me it shines right through. Like every other boy I knew, my life was one of perpetual motion. I was running, scooting, cycling, karting or one-footed skating¹, but seldom sitting. Exercise was not something you paid for, but just something you did if you wanted to get somewhere. Mostly you didn’t do it in lycra; you did it in a duffel coat and muffler. Food was merely fuel and I used loads of it. Whatever went in through my mouth went straight down to my knees. These were times when whatever meat there was went to the men whilst the women and children had a slice of bread soaked in gravy instead. There was a little logic to it. Most households were funded solely by the working male. My dad worked his forty-eight hours a week on building sites in all weathers and he earned his couple of slices of sinewy old flesh whilst the rest of us fuelled up on soggy Wonderloaf. Not my dad’s choice, I should say, always my mum’s – although the influence of her own mother was strong. As for the veg, well that could not have been more natural, as most of it was grown in our own back garden, although how much goodness it retained after having been boiled for several hours I am not certain. Back then, veg was not considered cooked unless it had been boiled into dissolution. Close your eyes and all vegetables were the same: soft and slimy. Thank goodness that the cooking water was used for the gravy: whatever flavours and nutrients remained were surely floating around in there somewhere.
Now, don’t get me wrong here, I am not claiming that we were all healthier then: my class had children with polio; some had rickets; we all had measles, rubella, chickenpox, mumps and a thousand various rashes and parasites that, I would hope, are now vaccinated and, if I’m honest, just washed out of existence, but I think that is probably my point. (Oh yes, there is one.) Pretty much everything I ate was 100% natural back then, but it didn’t mean that it was actually any good for me (although it did save me from starving, which from my standpoint at least, is no bad thing). And, if you’re at all interested, that’s also why I’ve never had a personal trainer…
¹Nobody ever had exclusive use of a pair of roller skates. They were shared between two. You strapped them to the sole of your shoe and ‘scooted’ around on them until the wheel fell off and you discovered how much blood you could get on your socks from a grazed knee and how much you needed to avoid your mum when you had taken the knees out of your trousers and the toe out of your shoe.