Success on a plate

Anyone who knows me knows I love my grub. I’ve always been a “sturdy” lass with a healthy appetite and love to experiment both with cooking and eating.

I have also always been in the fortunate position of being able to afford to bny, cook and eat the food I like, firstly because I had a well-paid job and, secondly, because I know how to cook. Again anyone who was lucky enough to know my mother will know I had the best possible teacher in the kitchen while dad was also a dab hand with a spatula and a pinny.

Made in a frying pan

My siblings and I never had to cook for ourselves when we were kids but we were encouraged to watch and learn and try for ourselves and today we all fancy ourselves as cordon bleu chefs.

In today’s earlier offering, I mentioned the blog A Girl Called Jack. In it, the girl, indeed called Jack, writes on life on the breadline, on politics and particularly on surviving on welfare. Her recipes, using the cheapest of ingredients to make healthy, nutritious food for her son and herself, have been lauded in the media (no great thing admittedly) but more importantly, she’s gained a loyal group of followers who are trying out her food suggestions for themselves.

We’ve all watched as food banks have become virtually the only growth industry in the UK since austerity was imposed upon us. Meanwhile, food prices rise inexorably while processed ready meals from the freezer or cold shelf appear to be the only option or choice for many people living on a tight budget.

Both of those issues tap into a subject I became particularly keen on a few years back when I had a short-term job working in the political policy office of a Scottish council leader. What I really wanted to get off the ground were food co-ops: community run, not-for-profit organisations where groups could get together to buy fresh fruit and vegetables (and other items) at cost price and sell them to the residents of their neighbourhood. It’s such a simple idea but one that can be immensely effective.

I didn’t count on my own inexperience in dealing with the myriad layers and levels of bureaucracy that get in the way of such simple ideas. I figured the council owned all these community centres and other facilities and could easily give groups free access on certain days of the week. Not quite that easy.

I also realised that councils can’t actually be the ones to start such things, either – the co-ops themselves have to be organic and spring from the ground up, not be imposed by well-meaning but interfering bureaucrats.

So, my  year or so in the job ended in failure in that sense. Another idea I was interested in, about giving cooking lessons to teenagers and adults who wanted to learn the basics, has been underway for some time in Scotland with community food initiatives taking the lead in improving cooking skills for those on low incomes.

soup – simple and cheap to make and so delicious
soup – simple and cheap to make and so delicious

Once upon a time cooking lessons were compulsory in school (only for the girls, mind, when I was a nipper but that did change by the late 80s). We got the basics once a week: how to make soup, baking flapjacks, peeling tatties, learning about cooking times and eating every single thing we made (most of it utterly inedible, as I recall). I’ll be honest, those classes were a bit of a chore but only because they were so joyless and uniform – the idea of cooking being fun only came later on with celebrity chefs on the box. Having a good time was not for 12-year-old girls in the Ayrshire of the late 1970s.

But still, cooking can and should be fun. Yes, most of the time it’s simply a necessary part of the day but food itself is more than simply sustenance – it’s joyful and delicious and an amazing communal experience. Being able to put together a combination of ingredients and make something that not only you but others actually enjoy and savour counts as one of life’s great pleasures. Yeah, I know, I’m a feeder – blame my mother.

It’s actually so easy to teach people to recreate the great dishes they see on the box for themselves

Being able to cook, to take ingredients or find cheaper alternatives to make something delicious, is a skill many people have lost. Who now stands at their mother’s or nana’s side as I did for years to watch them peel and chop and slice and dice and bake to create wondrous aromas and lip-smacking dishes? How many parents have the time to spend hours in the kitchen anyway? Much easier to grab something from the freezer, right?

With the amount of cooking/bakery shows on the box and the number of best-selling books about cakes and curries and what-not filling the book shops, virtual or otherwise, the appetite is clearly there for good grub. And it’s actually so easy to teach more people how to recreate the great dishes they see on the box for themselves.

Almost every school in the land has a kitchen. It’s only used for part of the day. Here’s a suggestion: turn the kitchens over to community food initiatives to run cookery classes. Invite chefs from local restaurants to participate because these are the people who are evangelical about cooking. Get the supermarket chains involved by asking them to donate any fresh produce at or just by its best-by date. Unless it’s fish, it’s going to be fine.

Ideally this sort of venture should be, like the food co-ops, an organic process where demand creates the supply. And let’s face it, the way the state is now withdrawing from the public arena around England, it really will have to be done from the bottom up. So if there’s no community food initiative in the area, look around for other kinds of interested groups – maybe a local food co-op, farmers’ markets or allotments that sell off their excess produce.

Yes, it all takes time and effort but imagine the immense satisfaction if you get such a project off the ground. Imagine the first batch of newly-confident cooks leaving the kitchen to go practise their new skills at home.

Hey, what do I know? All I do know is that cooking is a life skill that will never leave you. And as A Girl Called Jack knows, once you learn how to transform supermarket own brand pasta and tinned tomatoes into a meal your kid will demand over and over again, the culinary world is your oyster. Although not until their price comes down …

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