Sometimes I tie myself up in knots thinking about the different food rules out there. A basic need has become pretty confusing. With magazines, bloggers, public policy and organisations all espousing to us what we should and should not be eating it can be difficult to follow the body and eat a diet that works for you. Added to the bombardment of information is the bombardment of emotion. The messengers may claim to be educating us for health and environmental reasons, but there’s a substantial amount of judgement in there too, as though by ‘eating clean’ the soul is purified, or moral fibre is in inverse proportion to food miles or the price paid at a farmer’s market.
It’s in times like this that I need someone to guide me. Ideally that would be my inner self and intuition, but for now, let’s look to grandparents.
Obviously age and generation varies, but as a broad sweep, let’s say that grandparents tend to be old, and their experiences of starting out building a family being around the 1940s onwards, living through rationing, a war, economic depression and changing norms.
Where we have analysed and dissected every diet, chewed over food choices, seen a meal as a philosophical and emotional representation of character, and concocted recipes for wellbeing which say more about the author’s judgement than the consumer’s health, people of a certain generation simply got on with things. But, their attitude may well have been the precursor to some of our own modern food fads. In fact, granny has been doing it all along.
Vegetarianism isn’t a fad, but it was less common once. Arguments for vegetarianism vary, but it can be generally held that we are eating too much meat, both for our own physical health and the ecological balance of the world, and should cut down. With meat rations being a measly 8oz per week (around 2 chicken breasts), and prices of meat being much higher than vegetables for much of our lifetimes, whilst our grandparents generation may have eyed up fully fledged vegans and vegetarians with suspicion they would have been in agreement that meat should be saved for only a few times a week.
The ‘plate’ refers to the ‘revolutionary’ new concept of portioning your food. Basically, a balanced meal consists of a third protein, a third carbohydrate and third vegetables. Adults of a certain generation cannot fathom a meal which does not consist of meat, potatoes and vegetables (and in my father’s case, gravy). A square meal may sound quaint and boring, but it’s balanced and healthy.
Got a garden? Grow some vegetables. Of course your carrots are organic if they have been pulled from the soil with your own hands. Organic means living, which all fruit and vegetables are. Similarly even the fruit and vegetables you don’t grow. Produced by local farmers and bought at the market, there was a tacit trust and relationship which extended to knowing what was on your potato. Usually just mud.
The butter? 8 miles up the road, Blackwell farm. Turnips? 300 yards along, the neighbour’s back yard. Eggs? 15 yards, Penny the hen in the garden. If things were not grown locally you were unlikely to get them. When a banana cost £5 (in July 1943, actor Derrick de Marney auctioned off a single banana which fetched £5) and oranges were the stuff of dreams, there was little thought of importing and exporting fresh goods. Which is why eating seasonally was the only option.
Back in the day food resembled food. Not a science experiment. By of being natural, it was clean. Most stuff didn’t come in a packet, and if it did, the ingredients were recognizable and pronounceable.
The cost and time of importing goods from abroad made it prohibitive, especially when such delicious produce grows on our fair isles anyway. Spring was for rhubarb, summer for strawberries, blackberries could be found in autumn and the hardy turnips were winter vegetables. And mangos…never.
Take a roast dinner. Potatoes and vegetables are peeled. Peelings go into the compost to help new vegetables grow. The vegetables are boiled, and the water, containing any leaked nutrients, used to make the gravy. The meat is roasted, the best cuts served for this meal and the rest saved for tomorrow. The juices could be siphoned off and left to set, used as a spread for bread at tea time. Boiled bones made an excellent broth. And as food was at a premium the chances of you having too much on your plate and not being able to finish it were pretty slim. Seven million tons of food are thrown away every year. And as our grandparents would tell us, that’s unnecessary.
First published on Alt Magazine.