“Don’t eat anything your great-great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” Michael Pollan
My Grannie was no cook. She preferred gin, the stock markets, and a good game of bridge.
It feels as though Shirley Donkin was my only grandparent. She lived in Birmingham, and we’d drive up from Kent to see her a couple of times a year. It was the 1980s, the drive took around 4 hours, all packed in with pillows and books and the dog and me wishing I had a Walkman like my silent brothers. Radio 3 or 4 on the car stereo. Top Trumps on the back seat. Getting lost on Spaghetti Junction and keeping silent. Hopefully me not getting car sick, for once. Four kids, two parents one dog in the Montego estate. Tea time arrival.
I can’t remember what she’d say as we crashed in but I can see her face, round and soft. Always smart but sometimes before her time, her outfits tended to Prada-esque bold prints in brown, lemon and lime or hot pink and yellow. Always court shoes. Perm. She didn’t understand sweatshirts and tee shirts “are you dressed, my dear, or have you come in your pyjamas?”.
But it was tea time, so apple squash for us, lapsang souchong tea or sherry for the adults. The tea trolley beside grannie, and she would pore. And hand out the crisps. At least two, full to the brim, busting out bowls of crisps. Golden crisps, pale Skips and deep brown peanuts staring at me from the delicate silver bowls. And every time, but hoping against hope, that the crisps, just this once just this one time – that they would not be chewy, not be stale.
They were always stale.
Supper was worse.
In comes Grannie to the small, formal dining room. Oil paintings of grandparents. Breakfast set. Complete set of royal wedding mugs. On the plate is a wobbling pink thing. For main meal not for pudding. It stank. Of fish. She said “salmon mousse” which confounded 8 or 10 year old me. Pink mousse was strawberry mousse that mum made or in little tubs from Sainsbury’s. How did you turn fish – something solid, that you have with chips or mash, and peas and sweetcorn – how do you make that into something squidgy? That feels like pudding should be pudding? Why would you?
The whole dish was off. Rancid. It’s the first time I can remember being allowed to refuse something, and that Grannie would consent to it being chucked (my dad has a clear memory of trying to carve a half-raw, past its best, pheasant. They had to eat that).
Grannie was born around the onset of the First World War, to a naval family. For reasons lost to history, her teenage years were spent in a hotel. She was raised to manage staff, not cook. She married my grandad around the onset of the Second World War, and learned to cook and feed her new, young family from rations. So, hardly learning the love of good food from, well, from anyone. And that’s, I think, the reality that so many people have. Food isn’t romantic; it’s survival, it may be a chore. I know when I’m alone I can barely be arsed to scramble some eggs.
I miss Grannie. I can still hear her voice, “Right you are” at the end of a phone call. We weren’t close, but I know she loved us and that she would be proud that I am building a career. When one of my brothers started working at Loaded in the early 2000s, she would go into Smiths and ask for “Loader” magazine. She rebuffed well intentioned shop assistants who tried, desperately, to stop her from buying the lad-mag bible . “My grandson works there” she’d assert, and would hand over her money with such pride, and a little glee. Line by foul-mouthed line, she would read his pieces out at the breakfast table to my (Catholic) parents. They thought she was clueless. I think she was happily wicked.
My mum did ask her about the crisps, once “Your children don’t notice” she said. Mum corrected her, and from then on, we had in date crisps. I like to think she saved the stale ones for her golf club friends.
No artisanal bread or farmer’s market could have induced Grannie to care more about food. Not everyone has to plan tomorrow’s breakfast as they eat their lunch, nurture a scobi or perfect home smoked trout . Food is love for a lot of people. For a lot of other people, it’s just sustenance. Hopefully not stale sustenance, but for lots of people, that’s good enough.
Cooking is love and cooking is helpful and to me those two acts are intertwined. I cook for my family, I cook for my friends. God help you if you turn up to my house and you’re not hungry.
The Sundays of my childhood were church, dog walk, Sunday roast, homework. Quiet days, family days. Driving my parents nuts walking in and out and in and out of the sitting room, jarring the ill-fitting ceramic door handle each and every time. Their sitting still and dozing quite un-nerving.
My mum’s few cookbooks lived, and still live, in a wall mounted shelf, high above and to the right hand of the cooker. My mum uses the Cordon Bleu cookery book, a couple of pudding recipe books. That’s about it. She doesn’t need your trends; she can make caramel glazed profiteroles without a recipe, delicate apple tarts, angel cakes rich with raspberries and vanilla spiked whipped cream.
From about 8 years old, I started baking on a Sunday afternoon. Just because, really. Our one simple cookbook was St Michael’s ‘Giving a Children’s Party’. St Michael was the lifestyle section name of Marks and Spencer’s: your clothes were St Michael, the food M&S. The slim cookbook would be hard to find against the 3 inch spine of the Cordon Bleu. I’d have to look at least 4 times before I’d find it, climbing up onto the work surface, rummaging over and over again searching for it. I felt at home rummaging through the baking things, little packets of nuts and dried fruits gently desiccating from one Christmas to the next. Flour and sugar regularly replaced. Butter in the fridge. Never margarine, even in the 80s. I learnt to add my own baking powder to plain flour, that storing plain and self-raising was a waste of time. I saw how happy my brothers were when they saw a cooling rack heavy with cakes or scones.
Years later, when A levels approached, my friends clustered around my dining room table. My parent’s dining room table is a big, thick mahogany beast, with space for my parents, 3 brothers, and me. Sometimes space for more. The room is formal: old family paintings and silver candlesticks. A fireplace with old postcards and a carriage clock. Huge antique dark wood dresser.
So round they came: Rachel, Elizabeth, Jo and Cips. If it was warm or rainy, May or June, I don’t remember. Just the weirdness of having the doors shut against my family and throwing papers into the bin and pretending that we were in ‘A Few Good Men’. The fever of panic against the reality of 3 separate 3 hour exams, of the futures we wanted, and the ending of the safe security of secondary school. The futures we were too scared to want, too. I’d been in the same form group as David Taylor for all 11 of my 13 years of education. I went to the same school my brothers went to, that my mum volunteered at, that my dad had the oversight of. That I’d visited since I was 4 years old, sitting at the head teacher’s desk with my Spot the Dog colouring in. I was leaving, so excited but utterly terrified.
I’d got in the habit of baking birthday cakes for my drama group, my friends. Utterly wound up and anxious about my A levels, I’d default to the “milk chocolate birthday cake” and “chocolate fudge icing” from ‘Giving a Children’s Party’. Everyone knew it by that point and I could make it at 10pm and not make a mistake. The pages were rigid with smears.
I promised Rae that if she studied, I’d give her a wedge of chocolate cake, studded with Milky Way Magic Stars. She loathed the Gothic literature we had to study, so we’d cajole her onwards through thinking about vampires and ghosts while she frowned and scowled. Those days are hazy in my mind’s eye, the adrenaline and, likely, the boozy nights that followed.
We got there, we did okay in our exams. We went to work or to uni, and we kept our little group little gang. We were fused together 11 years ago when our dear Cips died suddenly, during an adventure in Beijing. These friends became something more to me, to each other.
20 years on and I find myself sitting around Rae’s kitchen table, being frowned at and being told that my second ever (now lost to digital deletion) blog post just doesn’t cut it. And I know it doesn’t. “It sounds as though you’re terrified” she says. And I am. She tells me to send her a first draft before I hit send. I pick at my nails and screw up my face and stare at the table and tell them, “I want to be a writer” and “Christ, finally” they say, but know better than to hug me.
They have known me when I wore only a 4 sizes too large TopShop jumper (hey! 1994), a reversible Mickey Mouse sweatshirt (more M&S delights) and cut my fringe viciously. Rae has literally picked me up off the floor in heartbreak. We’ve seen each other post-partum blue and terrified by the shit that life slings out with fucking regularity. So when they tell me I’m letting myself down professionally, I listen. Especially when it fucking infuriates me.
Life is busier now, but we still see each other to talk, work, share ideas, and even, sometimes, just to be together. Each time I sit on Elizabeth’s back step and we take a sneaky peak into her neighbour’s windows through our 3rd (5th) glass of prosecco, eat dark chocolate on Jo’s sofa, or get drip fed red wine and steak around Rae’s dinner table, I am so grateful for my friends. I trust them with every last part of me. And when I can, I bake them cake.
Welcome to the new side of StorrCupboard. Still food waste, still me but some wider sides of the story.
On Monday 20th May, I was the very happy guest of the Sustainable Restaurant Association at the launch of their new #foodwastebadwaste campaign. Can you imagine why I was interested? The room was packed, it was hot, and, for a Monday morning, the audience were engaged and excited to talk waste reduction. I know! I talked bin collection and data. Heaven.
SRA: Who dat?
Unless you’re in hospitality or sustainability, chances are you won’t have heard of the Sustainable Restaurant Association. A non-profit, The SRA helps restaurants, cafes and bars to improve their sustainability (yes, the clue is in the name). This doesn’t just mean your local café banning plastic straws and coffee cup lids; we’re talking Pizza Hut, Wetherspoons and Nandos, along with smaller and (yes) more gorgeous places like Petersham Nurseries and Daylesford Organics. It means proving that sustainable choices can be positive economic choices. It’s change from small to large, influencing decisions and creating a more sustainable food system.
Their new initiative gives organisations a tool-kit to make cutting food waste simple and measurable. It will help businesses to reduce waste and save money. But what sort of solutions are needed? Surely canny chefs are amazing at not wasting anything, right?
Cut the cheese
I am a fully paid-up member of the ‘read bread sourdough home-cooking’ brigade, so when Pizza Hut started talking I reminded my inner food snob to quiet down. I’m so glad I did. Through thankless work including looking through bins and collecting endless data, Pizza Hut has cut cheese waste in half. Half. That’s right. In half. Milk and cheese have a high carbon footprint. Reducing that amount of waste, at that scale, makes a sizeable impact.
There were smaller players, too. Hawksmoor is a high-end steak restaurant with 8 branches across the UK. Their servers are trained to take orders carefully, maybe suggesting a cut of steak that is better quality, though lower weight and therefore the same price. So you’ll pay £27 to enjoy 200 grams of Chateaubriand rather than 300 grams of porterhouse. Your pleasure can come from better quality rather than grams in your belly. Ordering more carefully and knowing you can add dishes to the table later is a simple way to enjoy your wonderful meal out and avoid food waste. Helping other businesses to share best practice across the sector will make for quicker and more sustainable change, through help from the SRA.
Ben Elliot, the government’s food waste champion, sent us off with a mission. Each household wastes around £600-£700 a year in binned food. 10.2 million tonnes of food are wasted each year. We waste carbon enough for every 3rd car to be taken off the road. With #foodwastebadtaste rolling out to the hospitality industry, change is being made easier. Your next meal out? Don’t over-order; buy better, buy less. Make your choices count.
NOTE: I was gifted the ticket for the conference.