Sunday lunch was always roast beef and, in the traditional way, the Yorkshire pudding was served first with gravy, supposedly because if you were full of cooked batter you wanted less meat. Monday saw cold meat, jacket potatoes and pickles, while the beef bone went into the pot with lentils, pearl barley, carrots and onions and bubbled on the hob for days, the basis of every dinner until Friday’s fish and Saturday’s sausages and mash, before Sunday came round again. That is what everybody had and, like all housewives, my mother made the most of every morsel. Throughout and after the war, waste was a crime.
I hate cooking and am bad at it for all I learned, by watching, about roasting the potatoes in the hot fat round the meat, and I always helped beat the batter.
There is a point to all this nostalgia. My mother’s generation would not have been fazed by the few food shortages we have had recently, nor did they rely on freezers and microwaves. Ready meals were unknown, apart from fish and chips and the cheap, plentiful shellfish we bought in paper cones from the stalls on Scarborough seafront. It was no golden age — life was hard for women at home, and many children not lucky enough to live by the sea or in the country had empty bellies, stunted growth, bad teeth and rickets.
Gradually, the country became more prosperous, we ate fancier food and went to restaurants, shops became supermarkets, portions grew larger, waste became normal. Not everyone was comfortably off but from the 1960s on, we gave money to feed the starving in the Third World, and our own poverty and hunger were well hidden.
Well, they are not hidden now. Poverty is increasing fast. Before schools were closed teachers reported children pocketing bits of their free dinner, because there would not be supper. Then came the food banks.
The reasons for this are many and complicated but certainly the knack, handed down through generations of women, of providing nourishing meals for a week out of one joint, plus vegetables and pulses, flour and a bit of fat and sugar, has become rare. Women working, the ubiquitousness of fast food which is nutritionally poor but easy to become reliant on, the loss of school cookery lessons and more have contributed to food poverty.
Now, with a crash, we have landed, like Alice, at the bottom of the rabbit hole. In spite of radical government help, people are unemployed and falling through the usual cracks, schools are closed, food banks are inundated by requests from the hungry people we never expected to see again, and things can only get worse.
Some can still make the Sunday joint last a week but I wonder if those skills will become widespread again. We need to teach two if not three generations about what foods nourish them, and what are empty calories. Junk was not available to my mother’s generation and sweets did not come off ration until 1953, so we children had to make a small bag of toffees last ages, no matter how much or little money we had. I won’t say that it was all character-forming, but some valuable lessons we learned would come in handy now.
Meanwhile, any food bank will be grateful for your cash or donation of good food and household items. Also, please look up a charity supporting the poorest in our society because every last penny given to Acts 435 (acts435.org.uk) goes to those needing food, baby items, clothing, beds and bedding, floor coverings, utility bill help and much more. Read any of their case histories to understand how much extreme poverty and disadvantage there is. Modest amounts really help, and the charity makes money go far and takes no percentage for administration.
My elder daughter has contracted coronavirus, in spite of being religious to a fault about lockdown, social distancing and handwashing. She exercises alone very early in the morning, or walks with her husband and seven-year-old far from everyone. No one has visited for weeks, parcels are left untouched for 24 hours, my grand–daughter meets her friends only on Zoom, food is mainly delivered but if she does have to go to buy some, her supermarket has draconian safety rules and she is fastidious about them. Yet in spite of it all, she was infected. She is young and very fit but she had bad asthma until her teens so is vulnerable. She has felt very ill for a week, with pain in every limb, brain fog, exhaustion, headache, temperature — though not very high — and thank God, no cough. I think, though still pray, that she will recover completely, but it has been a worrying few days. My grand-daughter and I need our daily Zoom reading more than ever and even if you have no children in your life, the best books written for them are worth anybody’s time. The Railway Children, Stig of the Dump, The Otterbury Incident, Swallows and Amazons… don’t hold back.
Critics of this column, never backward at coming forward, berate me for watching bad films but let me tell you, in my student era I could talk earnestly about Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte, L’Avventura and Le Amiche with the best. So this week I revisited several to see if they still hold a deep meaning. Let me save you the bother by confirming that, although they are superbly directed with wonderful camera work, they do not — they are pretentious rubbish. But Alain Resnais’s masterpiece Last Year at Marienbad is still breathtaking. I have just watched it twice. I have now earned a return to The Devil Wears Prada. Don’t judge me.
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