Angela Hartnett went on Desert Island Discs and said that the British don’t have food culture: there are just some people who have money and can afford to pay for good food.
I hate to disagree with Hartnett, a star in the food pantheon and sensible person of such no-nonsense credentials that she laughed in the pock-marked face of Gordon Ramsey and lived to tell the tale.
But what is this beige buffet of Britishness, this porridge of Reddy-Brexit, class-ist, philistine, pale and bland as white bread? It feels a million miles away from the gastronomic paradise, the vibrant and class-fluid food culture of the country where I was born and raised.
I speak of Ilford.
Ilford is a London suburb on the Essex/East End border, which, like a reverse Mecca or a shit Jerusalem, unites travellers from across the world in the fervent desire to get the hell out, go mad, or kill everyone. And, like Jerusalem, it has its Jewish, Muslim, and Christian quarters, with further fractions etched out by Hindu, Sikh and Chinese diasporas, waves and tides of 20th and 21st century immigration ebbing and lapping on the shores of the North Circular. It is an Ithaca: journey’s end, but a bit of a let-down. A rest rather than a new beginning. A bad motherland, to which we are all ambivalently attached.
Say what you like about Ilford, but it is a place where you’ve been able to find tahini, turmeric and jackfruit since before decimalisation. Most of these items, you could buy at any hour of the day or night, and be served by a tiny child who had been left to mind the shop whilst the adults were at second jobs or night school, at the mosque or synagogue, or in prison. Purchase and consumption of these items signified nothing, except the taste of home.
And it really didn't matter whose home. On festivals we would exchange samosas or jalebi or pierogi or hammantashen with our neighbours and drink masala chai three doors down. There is a whole world of dumplings, and a season for each one. We consumed a lot of chicken: fried pieces in boxes, or in a soup lovingly simmered for the precise amount of time to extract the maximum amount of guilt.
On a Sunday mornings you can wander along Barkingside High Street, which is by any metric an utter shithole, and join a queue for Sri Lankan curries or Italian gelato. There’s an egg-free cake shop. British, Halal, Kosher and African butchers. Four Jewish delis ranging from the glatt to the glitzy. There is no shortage of grilled meat, kebabs, chicken shops, noodle bars. Vast banqueting suites and local cooks cater for weddings of some thousand guests.
You could accuse us of having no culture in Ilford – the cinema long ago became a bingo hall which became a mega-mosque which became flats – but you cannot say we have no food culture.
I can go to the house of any of my Indian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Israeli, Nigerian, West Indian, or Scandinavian friends, safe in the knowledge and mutual understanding that I am going to be fed like a foie gras goose or that spaghetti guy in Se7en.
Just as there’s a multicultural London way of speaking, there is a multicultural London way of eating. An immigrant, diasporic soup of gravies and liquors and hot sauce. A sense of the importance and significance of food and meals and flavours. An appreciation of our own and your neighbours’ diverse food heritage. A love of the marketplace and the dinner table. An ear for languages where "foreign" is the same word as "guest" and "friend". Throw the windows of your semi in Ilford open on a spring morning and you’ll get waves of bacon, chai, cholla bread. And the sounds of TVs in a dozen languages, and music in a dozen different keys, and Sikh builders shouting at Polish builders, and the soft shoe shuffle of the Lubovitchers and the revving engines of the rudeboys before we all go home for Sunday lunch.
Food is my culture. I feel a twitch on the end of each strand of my DNA, like the taste of madeleines on a thousand foreign tongues. I feel it in my bones and the bones of my ancestors as they dissolve into distant soil in foreign fields. Come, gather, sit, eat. Leave room for pudding.
[This piece was shortlisted for the inaugural Sunday Times AA Gill Award for Emerging Food Critics]
Name of restaurant omitted for reasons that may become obvious.
There is, probably, a German word for the sensation of curiosity and nausea that accompanies an invitation to eat at the place from which one has been sacked six months earlier. Like the overwhelming and misguided desire to pick a scab, even when it’s all that stands between you and bleeding to death on the kitchen floor, I couldn’t help but wonder what it might feel like from the Other Side.
Last October, I took my Food Hygiene Certificate (Real), my NVQ in Catering (Fake), knife skills (YouTube), raw talent (School of Life) and lingo (Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential) to cook barbecue at a streetfood market. Four weeks later I was promoted to manager, whereupon the entire staff quit.
“I only left you in charge for 5 mins, how did you fuck up so much?” said the owner, by text. I could tell he was impressed.
The place was advertised as a Food Rave, which sounds like a fucking nightmare. And totally incongruous. I’ve been to raves, and rarely are they catered. I once met a guy in rural Cambridgeshire who had lost 5 stone in a year on the Rave Diet, which consisted mainly of Crystal Meth and the occasional trip a Harvester. The whole thing was a terrible idea.
But truth is, I love it.
The work is physical and satisfying. The customers are fun and a bit pissed. Everyone in the kitchens is hard-working and competent. And the food is good. Really good. We cook for each other and share nibbles and freebies stall-to-stall, and it’s treat after treat, night after night. Arepas, sushi, sourdough pizza with carciofi and prosciutto cotto, ruddy smoked ox cheek with hot sauce or gochujang or gravy. The steam blast of the pho pot next door keeps my complexion and sinuses clear, despite all the loaded fries and fritto misto and donuts. The place buzzes with the enthusiasm of 100 young people from around the world, making food, making rent, then making out with each other afterwards.
I am clearly an interloper. I have ten years on everyone else. I’m taught how to wrap a sandwich by a teenager who learnt the art at McDonalds. I’m scared of having to serve someone I know and them blowing my cover, or being snooty about it. The food is made with high-quality ingredients from excellent suppliers and prepared carefully and attentively. But I suspect the kind of people who order it are assholes. In my short time here, I observe a lot of assholery, and my inkling that the streetfood scene is made by and for bastards has been largely confirmed.
There’s a class and wealth gulf between owners and workers. Streetfood has offered a lot of people an entry point to the restaurant world, in that you only have to be filthy rich instead of stinking rich to start up. Sure there are good guys, but I meet a lot of trustafarian cuntrepraneurs, who dress like 11 year-old boys and hold their staff in contempt. The Venture Capitalist owner of my stall watches us on the webcam like a super-villain, sitting in his NYC loft as we weigh the brisket in and out every night, and measure mayonnaise in milligrams on his command.
There also seems to be a toxic cocktail of racial hierarchies and prejudices in the mix. The local South London kids who work here will not get served at other stalls. Asian cooks serving Asian food get treated badly, worst of all the Vietnamese, and worst of all by their old Etonian Hong Kong Chinese boss who gets furious if he is mistaken for one of the staff. African and South American stalls come and go, no matter how good the food, replaced by more £15 dirty burgers and £10 nitrogen ice cream. The owners of the market itself run the place like slum landlords or mob bosses, with heavy-handed security and handsy-handed foremen. The toilets are cleaned by Polish women, but not often and not well. The punters are white and rich and young and good looking. This is all for them.
As a grown-up looking, British-sounding white lady, it is generally assumed that I am moonlighting from a job in advertising or corporate law in preparation for going into The Business myself. My lack of experience, mild incompetence, and hint of a Masters degree mark me out as Management Material. Within a month I am promoted above my less white, less British, more qualified, more dedicated colleagues. They quit, I’m fired, the world turns.
And so it is with apprehension and a friend to hide behind that I accept an invitation and return to the Rave for dinner. The place is unpleasantly but impressively heaving for midweek in April, but we find a cosy perch to observe the rave without having to directly rave in person. We order wine by the glass and charcuterie by the board. It’s great. The server enthusiastically chats us through the biodynamic wine list and we snaffle piggy bits and olives that are so much better than they could be, and certainly far superior than they would be in any high street restaurant. The variety and quality are joyous, a toothsome mouthful of textures and fizzing hits of saltiness.
We move on to a seafood stand whose oysters come from the supplier to the Queen, so who are we to refuse? Even this ostensive fish and chip stall pairs wine, so our fresh oysters come with the iciest Pinot Grigio, and a request that we return our Falconware plate afterwards because they cost a quid each and people keep nicking them. The oysters are amongst the best I’ve ever had, either in fine restaurants or on seafronts, and so surprising and incongruous in this disused warehouse that we immediately order a dozen more. We visit another stall that mixes an Old Fashioned so unsubtle it might have been the Yankee Candle version, but which at 11.30pm is still serving little plates of tortilla and padron peppers like we’re on holiday, so I can’t stay mad.
I bid my friend goodbye and sneak back in to buy a pizza, which I smuggle home in an Uber and is just as good as remember. To my surprise and delight on opening the box at home in bed some hours later, the pizza is shaped like a heart, if a heart was smeared generously with nduja, as mine most likely is.
And so, I’m conflicted. I could - and indeed, did – eat here every day for a month and not get bored, not get food poisoning, and not go broke, which is really all one can ask in life. But these shabby-chic orgies of face-feeding are big business. Back in the early days of the Streetfood Revolution, around the same time as we were all getting excited about Team GB and the Opening Ceremony, streetfood was seen as the great democratiser of dining, both for eaters and restauranteurs. But these megamarkets are not all the spunky start-ups, mom-and-pop shops, and pipe-dream taco-vans of legend. Enterprises like this are just more layers in the Double-Down Burger of privilege and oppression: not so much the height of food culture, but its last hurrah before Brexit means we’re all living on parsnips and sugar-beet and the poor.
But, seeing as it’s not me doing the cooking or the cashing up or the cleaning down after, for now, Rave On.
It’s hard to know how to react when a friend presents you with a rare copy of what could be translated as The Theresienstadt Cookbook. I have a whole wall of books about Nazis and the Holocaust, but few, if any, had heretofore contained recipes.
My friend works for the branch of the Austrian government which returns the Nazi gold, and has the words “Victims of National Socialism” in German in her job title, so I know she will not find my joy at receiving this gift ghoulish. But still, when I return home, I don’t know know where to put it. In the Jewish Interest/Nazis corner of the library, or on the wall dedicated to books about food. With Anne Frank, or Anna Del Conte?
I eventually opt for storing it my larder, along with my stockpile of tinned confit canard, jars of morcilla, brined and salted olives of several varieties, and other European delicacies that will get me through the long, cold, hungry gap of our so-called lives in post-Brexit Britain. I also have 20 pats of Président demi sel beurre in the freezer, but that’s a frivolous and optimistic gesture towards there still being electricity and a roof over my head. Stockpiling is something my family takes very seriously. We’ve been preparing fo the worst since a particularly brutal expulsion from Strasbourg in 1349, but I’m pretty sure there are some tinned items in my grandmother’s larder that go back to the Exodus, which is generally agreed by historians to have taken place in the 13th century BCE.
My grandmother learnt how to cook in the municipal kitchens of the kibbutz where she lived and worked in the 1950s, and where she wold have regular fights with Holocaust survivors who had developed very funny ideas about food. The job of the cooks was to consolidate the kibbutzniks’ rations, turn them into communal meals. The elderly Hungarian woman who ran the kitchen had known suffering and starvation on an industrial scale, meted out as policy like watered down soup. She had worked in the concentration camp’s kitchen too, an unwilling pawn in the systematic starvation of her fellow internees. Day after day she would be force to dole out the meagre provisions - just enough, barely enough, to keep people alive. Enough to torture people with their own survival. Imagine being given the task of feeding people and always leaving them hungry. And less than a decade later, in another encampment, in another land, one can forgive this woman’s transgressions. Her well-intentioned force-feeding of any child that crossed her path. The surreptitious sneaking of meat paste sandwiches to anyone who passed through the kitchen.
My grandmother, then a twenty-two year old Eastender, learned to make do with less, and how to swear in Hungarian. She learned how to hide food and feed your loved ones whenever and whatever you could. She learned how to feed an entire camp full of your kinfolk on six tins of food a day, like a daily miracle of loaves and fishes.
Now in her 90s and back in East London, she has three chest freezers full of homemade meals and cakes. Her bedroom cupboards contains jars of jam and gravy, as though Ocado and Deliveroo to not serve the E18 postcode. As thought the supply lines could be cut at any time. As though it could turn out that your money’s no good, your papers no longer valid. As though the big shops no longer let you in, and small shop windows had been reduced to a thousand shards of broken glass.
I used to laugh at my grandmother, as I sat plump and privileged and surrounded by plenty. But the call to stockpile awakens an epigenetic twitch and I too am laying down the conserves for leaner seasons to come.
In 1947 my grandmother, Janetta, then a teenager, and her two friends Esther and Zelda, ran away from East London to join the Movement. Hubonim was a radical socialist Zionist movement, determined to live equally, communally, and to make the desert flow with milk and honey. Whether they were radicalised or radicalised themselves, who knows, but the girls had a very jolly time running around the countryside learning how to milk cows and work agricultural machinery, before jumping on a slow boat to Haifa.
Janette was British by an accident of birth. Her parents were Russian. Her brother was born in Canada and was raised in Palestine, where Janetta was supposed to be born. But the family ended up, temporarily, repeatedly, in London, and that is where my grandmother was born.
In 2015, Shamima Begum and two friends, all fifteen year-old girls, also from East London, ran away to follow their friend Sharmeena to join Islamic State. Despite the utter failure of the parents, school and local authority to safeguard these children from grooming, coercion, criminal conspiracy, not a single grown up has been charged with a crime, nor a serious case review been initiated into these failings. A few weeks ago, now aged 19, pregnant with her third child (the firs two sadly lost), turns up in a refugee camp in Sky, where she gives an interview to journalist saying how she would like to come home now please. The home office responded swiftly by withdrawing this British-born teenager’s UK Citizenship.
There are laws to protect us from terrorists. The laws designed to keep us safe did not keep her safe. The laws designed to keep us safe should not endanger someone else.
One makes assumptions about the place one is born and raised. One assumes a sense of belonging, identity, rights and privileges. The Jews of Europe have long known that these privileges can be be revoked at short notice, and that it’s a mistake to make yourself too much at home. My family’s stories of sewing jewellery into the lining of a coat and accepting an invitation to the next place before being deported from the last, are so numerous and varied that they merge and blur at the edges. We think we’re sitting pretty in London (Amsterdam, Strasbourg, Vienna, Berlin, Warsaw, Odessa), we think we own property, we think our passports are good and our money is better, and our skin at least looks white. We learn to travel light.
The Windrush Generation were invited here and held our broken city and broken society together as we tried to rebuild the country after the war. They were invited. They were given citizenship. They lived and worked to a ripe old age, only to have the rug pulled out from underneath to reveal the shifting sands of the Great British Welcome. An invitation revoked as easily and informally as it was given.
A lot of us - the Windrush Generation, the children and grandchildren of immigrants, the EU citizens living and working and marrying and procreating in multicultural Remainiac London, thought we were on terra firma. We thought the Little Englanders and the Neo-nazis and the Good Old Boys were a dying breed, limping their way over the White Cliffs of Dover. But now a teenager is exiled for her dodgy politics, now a university in Essex decides that a J-Soc is beyond the pale, now the Labour party decides it doesn’t have a antisemitism problem because antisemitism isn’t a problem, now an elderly Jamaican woman is denied paliative care because not all is in order with her papers. The Hostile Environment now extends to people who thought surely, surely they don’t mean us.
My father always told me, when making friends, consider who would hide you in their attic. He’s something of a catastrophist. Last Christmas he bought me a tool, a weapon really, to keep in the glove compartment that would allow me to break my way out of the burning and upturned remains of my car, in the event of an emergency. One time were were holidaying the path of a hurricane and he built us a little panic room in a closet, filled with enough American candy to either survive the disaster or at least die happy. But I do look at my friends, my colleagues, my neighbours. I wonder who would make the space, take the risk, share the meagre stockpile of tins and biscuits and Normandy butter. I wonder how they voted, and what that means for us.
2 large cabbage heads
2 kilograms onion
2 kilograms green tomatoes
11 green peppers cut into thin strips
Mix with 40 decagrams salt.
Pour vegetables into a sack and let it hang over night and drain. Then squeeze the vegetables, put them into a bowl and pour 3 litres of boiling vinegar [over them]. After 6 hours strain the vinegar and squeeze vegetables. Mix them with 6 tablespoons mustard seeds and 1 tablespoon pounded allspice. In the meantime the vinegar has been boiled with 1/2 litre water and 1/2 kilogram sugar, and [when] cooled [is] mixed with vegetables. Put into jars. Cover and tie them and let them stand. Can be used after 1 month. Salad will keep for 3 years.
As a small child, I was both a picky eater and a greedy one. Photos show me with a mop of dark curls and giant green eyes, pudgy, happy, brash, bossy, with barbecue sauce or chocolate cake smeared all over my Cabbage Patch Doll face. Me pleased as punch with a spare rib like a little caveman. A pizza the size of a table in an American food court.Eyes lit up with a sundae decorated with sparklers. A watermelon smile bigger than my face.
But there were plenty of things I wouldn't touch. Childhood illness and ENT surgery at the age of five left me assaulted by strong smells. Previous everyday facts of life - the fishmonger, the kosher deli, the butcher - were now a horrorshow of viscera, scales and slime, of foreign and alien weird food my family ate which my school friends clearly didn’t: roll mops and onion, cod roe, gefilte fish, taramasalta. And then there was the boak at all things dairy: the thick cream on to the top of the daily kid-sized milk bottles foisted upon us as nursery until Thatcher snatched ‘em, for which I was immensely grateful. The suitcase-size tupperware in the kitchen fridge full of cheeses which my father would work his way through on weekend breakfasts. The yogurts and up-chuck which dribbled down the chins of my baby sisters. De-skuzz-ting.
And then, imagine my indignation, on recovering from whatever tonsillectomy, adenoidectomy, fun-ectomy I had endured, to be carted off - every. single. day. - to school, where lunch was served in in chipped china bowls half-full of slop. Brown stew with boiled potato, white casserole with flicks of carrot. Perfectly good desserts (Cowboy Tart - a piecrust filled with Cornflakes and golden syrup - was a particular favourite) ruined with a bucket of oozing puss-coloured custard with a rubbery skin on top. Fish fingers and chips ruined by a peas which seemed to get everywhere: I was horrified by things which got everywhere. Peas, sweetcorn, baked beans, grated cheese. Wednesdays were Salad Days and Salad Days were the worst. The pervasive sour smell of salad cream, pickled cubes of beetroot, cold potatoes and iceberg lettuce.
When I changed schools at the age of 8 (and where I would stay to the age of 18), I could not believe that such a paradise could be considered a school. We would walk in pairs along the edge of the forest and beside the tennis courts us to a dining hall walled in dark wood. We would carry our own trays and could select what we liked from two long buffets - one for hot food and one for cold. Nothing was compulsory, only offered by kindly dinner ladies (Any beans? No thanks. Chips? Yes please. Help yourself to gravy). Many items we could just help ourselves to. A salad bar. Bread rolls. Fruit. Gravy. Ketchup. A full roast lunch on Wednesdays. Curry on Thursday. Fish and chips every Friday. A hot pudding everyday and a Creme Egg the day before the Easter Holidays. The reassuring option of a ham roll and tinned pineapple, always available should everything else go wrong.
The school was a somewhere between Malory Towers and Hogwarts, despite its location somewhere between EastEnders and Birds of a Feather, with batty professors and a Latin school song and more than one library. For us little kids, there was a brand new building, across an ocean of pristine lawns and cricket squares and a whole coastline of long jump sandpits. There was Cub Scouts for girls and boys alike, and members could wear shorts to school on Wednesdays. In the morning we’d sing modern hymns and in the afternoon do Maths with brand new text books full of multicultural cartoons, and after school there was a campfire and marshmallows. I thought it was more like a holiday camp than a school, a holiday camp being the highest compliment I could pay at the time. I was in heaven.
One break time I was walking the corridor at school, and was approached by one of the teaching assistants. I particularly liked this one, because she always seemed to take an interest in me and my habits, and I thought she was right to do so. I was interesting, and my family ensured I was used to the rapt attention of adults. Her curiosity about the little dance routines I would choreograph alone in the playground was warranted; I also thought they were excellent, and perhaps of a professional standard. The songs and plays I would write and perform to myself were likewise indicative of a precocious and burgeoning talent. I thought so, my parents thought so, my grandparents thought so, and that was that.
On this occasion, she wanted to know about my eating habits.
“Sara, can I ask you. What do you have for tea?”
I didn’t like this question. I could tell something was up. I tentatively offered the honest answer.
“Erm… crisps? And maybe cake or biscuits“
She was horrified.
“Just cake or biscuits?” she gasped.
I smile and nod as apologetically as possible. I think I’ve sussed out the problem, but don't have the social skills to clarify. There are people around and I’ve been singled out by an almost-teacher out of the blue. I just want the interview to be over before anyone else notices.
In my house, Tea was afternoon tea, which would would consist of, as I rightly said, maybe some cake or biscuits or crisps and a cup of tea or orange squash, and was taken with guests on special occasions. Maybe if someone was coming round after school but not staying for a proper meal, or for a birthday treat, or for a religious festival. Tea was not a frequent occurrence, but is was a pleasurable one. I also enjoyed the variety of teas one would get when visiting other people. At one house we’d have Mr Kipling’s Fondant Fancies. At another, we’d be allowed to make our own horrific confections of peppermint cream and chocolate crispy cakes topped with golden syrup. At one friend’s I tucked in to a Marmite sandwich only to discover it was Nutella. At my cousins’ there would be honey cake and marble cake. At my grandparents there would be chicken legs and little fried donuts called bubeles served with homemade jam from the quince tree in the garden.
At home we called the evening meal supper and the midday meal lunch. At school, lunch was called dinner, but I also noticed that most people also called their evening meal dinner. I had never encountered the term tea as a description of an evening meal. I had been fed generously at all sort of tables in all sorts of homes, in council flats and condos and millionaires’ mansions, and was a fledgling citizen of the world, with friend and relatives from a hundred different countries. But I didn’t really know anyone from Up North, and never - ever - had I encountered “tea” as an evening meal. So when I was asked about tea, I answered about tea as I understood it.
I have had the conversation several million times with friends from up and down the country and the class spectrum, and there really is no consensus, other than you’d have to be a bloody idiot not to realise that different people have different names for meals.
The school took it as a confession that I was subsisting on cake and crisps alone, whether out of child abuse or fussy eating, but it was made clear to me that fat children should not be eating cake and crisps. Fat little girls who liked to dance and sing alone were clearly being bullied - or were asking to be bullied - and needed to be normalised.
I was being called a fat little girl. This hadn’t occurred to me before. I was a fat little girl.
My eyes welled and reddened. Fat ugly tears spilled over my fat ugly cheeks.
Retrospectively, she may have got the wrong idea about me and my eccentricities. In fact I had lots of friends and was naturally very sociable, but every artiste needed time alone with the muse when it struck them, and so I unembarrassedly would take myself off to rehearse or improvise, the better to show off to my classmates later, over lunch.
But not any more. From then on, food would have to become my dirty little secret.
A letter was sent home, or a comment made in an otherwise glowing school report. My burgeoning chub needed to be nipped in the bud. Aged 10 I had a doctor’s note to get my prepubescent arse into Weight Watchers, and my mother took me to the meeting down the road from the school, as if to guarantee that teachers would would also be there. Aged 12 the same doctor thought it appropriate to give me amphetamine diet pills in a little brown envelope. It was like Requiem for a Dream set at St Trinians.
In our last term in the junior school, my best friends and I were the last in the changing room after school. I took the opportunity to show them my new set of underwear, of which I was immensely proud. It was an innocent moment. A matching crop top and briefs set, white with back spots and black with spots. I was proud of the size 12, which I equated with my not-quite age, rather than the grown up size. I awkwardly struck a pose, and in one, startling moment, realised that I was more and therefore less than these girls. They were lithe and beautiful, in their itchy gym knickers and and Lisa Simpson trainers. I had a sudden startling revelation of what womanhood was and what I was not. I’m sure my friends never batted an eyelid. I asked one of them recently; she’s still my best friend. She remembers the Simpsons trainers.
Meals become a minefield. For the next two years I wouldn't eat a meal in the school dining room, much to the concern of my friends, but the tuck shop lady knew I wasn’t starving. And by going to the tuck shop only when the rest of the school was at lunch, I missed the indignity of queuing up for sweets with my fellow students. Because god forbid anyone ever saw me in there. Two bars of chocolate, and a small bag of penny sweets, I’d always pretend that only one was for me, the rest for friends. I might in fact just be running an errand for my friends, and not indulging myself at all. It was very important to have a good cover story. Because fat little girls shouldn’t eat sweets. I would sit by my locker, calculating the Weight Watchers points of a Drifter or a Milky Way, reading Just Seventeen magazine or Marx for Beginners, drawing pictures of dogs, writing angry poetry, and having a good old cry.
At home it was a bit different. Eating en famille was important. The Friday night table piled with dishes. A slab of brisket, slow cooked all day whilst we were at schooling my parents were at work. Baked potatoes cut in half, scored, and brushed with butter before going back under the grill to crisp up. At least two gravies, one thick and meaty, the other a clear and shiny jus preferred by my middle sister. Tureens of cabbage - dark and bubbly savoy, pale and farty white, flaps of spring greens, bunches of curly kale (my personal favourite). another bowl of two of peas or beans or carrots. Pickles in jars and plastic bags or decanted in to bowls: new green, hamisha, Polish, bread-and-butter, spicy Israeli ones from a tin. A large round spiral of challah, the size of a newborn baby, that we’d cut in to fat slices and smear with butter, or just rip hunks of the twisted dough with our hands and dip it in gravy. A choice of desserts: always a big fruit salad, with melon and grapes and what ever looked good in the supermarket. Boxes of ice creams and lollies, straight from the freezer to the table, then anxiously taken back to the freezer before they melted. Maybe a Vienetta, or, if my cousins were in attendance, a Sara Lee chocolate gateaux (bleurgh). A homemade crumble or a shop-bough strudel or a pie, with a choice of custard or ice cream or cream. There might even be sweeties for after.
But I was getting mixed messages. Even at the heaving family table my abstemiousness would be praised and any divergences always commented upon or policed in someway. My grandmother’s warning “Nisht!” delivered as a hiss and with a smack on the hand. Treats doled out to the other kids and not to me. A smaller easter egg for Sara. The bizarre gifting of Diabetic Chocolate which tastes of shampoo and gives me the shits.
But self-consciousness once attained is hard to shake off. It was years before I felt able to eat in public. It took many more years than that not to be terrified of a friend or stranger joining us at home for a meal, and seeing all our peculiarities and overindulgences close up. And in a way I have never got over my horror of having to eat at someone else’s house. The etiquette, the assumptions, the menu. Of being seen as fussy or picky or greedy. Of having my plate and eating habits noticed or scrutinised.
As I hit my teens, I got more into my stride. I worked out what I liked and what I was like. I was a big girl, sure, but I was fancy and funny and fearless. Punky, gothy, neons, pastels, vintage, glitter, rock’n’roll. Britpop 90s London was a summer of love for indie kids. It was a great time to be fat or queer or alternative. It was a fucking awesome time to be a girl. We would stomp on school uniform regulations with platform boots. I dictated the terms in which other people would describe me. I was never going to be The Fat One. I was going to be The One with Pink Hair, the fairy wings, and memorably once The Green Eyebrows. I reveled in my The Girl Who reputation, which became my first ever email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
AOL I shit you not dot com. My parents are still on AOL. There are huge parts of the London suburbs where it’s always 1997.
No one ever commented on my weight or appearance for a great many years. I was happy, healthy, with good friends and good grades and some amazing outfits. Not until I went to University would I understand the bullying and harassment meted out to fat girls. The shame and humiliation reserved for those who just wouldn’t, couldn’t, fit in. But that’s another story.
It wasn’t until I lost a lot of weight that I felt permitted to enjoy food. It felt like coming out of the closet (larder). I try to be defiant. I take my picture eating an ice cream. I try to order what I want and what I need, not what I think I should have.
But even that is within limits. I am always aware of the optics of what I’m eating, where I’m eating, how I’m eating, and how much I’m eating. I honestly thought this was an experience reserved for fat people, but the more I’ve embraced food in my life and work, the more I notice the exhausting microbattles raging all around me. A table with four girlfriends can turn into a round of competitive abstinence. Just a starter please. Can I get this without the chips? Can you do a side salad as a main? A Sunday Roast piled high with a Yorkshire the size of a human head can provoke joy in some company and horror in others. One is now a Vegan, one is on Whole30, another is only eating now because she hast eaten anything all day. I admire how firmly and fixedly they stick to their regimes, where I will fall, fail at the first sight of the specials. I have taught myself to be disgusted by large portions: I can’t possibly eat all that. Desserts might sound lovely but are too rich. Maybe order one with five spoons. We signal our vice or virtue with every menu option. I am vigilant. I know what you ordered, what you ate and how much. I judged you on your choices. The pride I feel when I spread a banquet before my friends, the menu and lighting just so, is tinged with the shame of the fat girl at the feast. I pick at the dainty dishes I lay before my guests, unappetised, disgusted at all this bounty, all this butter, appauled at the gluttony that conceived of this feeding frenzy.
An embarrassment of dishes.
Should you quit sugar?
Following months of extensive reading, research, trial, error, and some pretty heavy falls off the wagon, I have concluded the following:
Is sugar addictive?
There are two schools of thought on this: Yes, and No. Some books says Yes. Some books say no. Hope that helps.
OK, to go slightly deeper here, whether or not sugar is a chemically addictive substance, it is clear that it is habit forming, we crave it, and some people certainly exhibit signs of physical addiction on it.
Is sugar dangerous?
It is bad for your teeth. It can mess with your weight and blood sugar, and in volume over time can bugger your body’s ability to control your weight and blood sugar, which leads to all sort of well known problems.
But for most people, and especially people prone to extreme restriction, orthorexia, over exercising, and really most eating disorders, talking about sugar as toxic, addictive, a vector of disease, an feeder of cancers, gouts and diabetes, is profoundly unhelpful. If you want to use sugar - or these books on sugar - as something to beat yourself (or anyone else) with, then just don't. If you can't pin-point sugar as the really problem in your life and health - maybe as a diabetic, pre-diabetic, Liver patients, some Autism and seizure patients, some cancers, some IBS (FODMAP-ers) or the obese and super obese... really wouldn't pick this scab. If a part of you knows that orthorexia is the problem, not the eating, steer clear. There is too much new and unpopular science here to help you.
Reasons to quit sugar:
Sugar makes lots of people fat. Lots of people hate fat people.
Society is similarly unkind to the toothless.
If you can’t have a good, healthy relationship with sugar (or INSERT YOUR POISON HERE) then the argument for abstinence is pretty compelling.
And you don’t need sugar. Your body creates all the sugars it needs from the rest of your diet, any diet. So you can live without it, and if you can’t live without it, that might be the problem
Are some sugars better than others?
High Fructose Corn Syrup is terrible for all sorts of reasons. Socio-politically we are all in the pay of Big Corn. Behavio-evolutionarily speaking, we are all in thrall to King Corn. You know those parasitic wasps which lay their eggs in those ants which then hatch in their brain and drives the ant round like Krang in his man-suit? That's you that is. Corn, sweet sweet corn syrup, is the wasp, driving us puny humans to cut down our rains forests to plant more, eat more, crave more, plant more. If existence is but a dream, it is a dream in the mind of Corn.
Eating fruit is fine though. Crack on. The fibre and vitamins more than make up for the inherent sugars. What about honey or agave? Your body can't tell the difference between all the things it breaks down in to glucose and glycogen. It's just harder to drink the litre of honey equivalent to one large bag of Tangfastics unless you're a performance artist or Winnie the Pooh.
The best sugar of all is Cadburys Twirl. #Fact.
What are your top dieting tips, you weight loss guru, you?
- Never eat anything you would be embarrassed to be discovered eating e.g. two pizzas, XL marshmallow surreptitiously shoved into mouth during a meeting which you then have to swallow whole when your boss directs a question at you, a human child.
- Certain calories don't count if consumed in the bath, on the way to or from the gym, or Between 1am-7am when it is quite possible you were sleep-eating
- Fish are friends not food
- Avoid anything with marketing copy that addresses you in the first person, so as to imply strongly that it is the food and not the marketing company speaking directly to you. "I'm a squishy treat! Enjoy me as part of a balanced diet of other Talking and Sentient Foods."
- Eat food, not to much, mainly Twirls.
And how much weight did you lose during your experiment?
Fuck off, I didn't. #thinspo
HOPE THAT HELPS.
I was on my (conservatively) 93rd go at giving up sugar when shit got real. I had missed a series of phone calls from my GP, leaving each other increasingly cryptic and rambling voicemails like some second rate podcast.
After a week of missed calls, I had basically assumed I was dying.
After two weeks, I had decided it was probably nothing, and if I was dying they wouldn’t just stop calling. They’d probably send someone to knock on my door and poke my corpse with a stick. The Student Loans Company would have been round to repossess the flat.
So I’d sort of forgotten about it when the phone rang again.
It was the doctor. It was about my test results. There was something wrong.
Actually, it wasn’t too serious. There was a problem with my liver, but the blood tests weren’t terrible and there wasn’t any permanent damage and I could probably get it back to health with diet. My pancreas was fine. My blood sugar and insulin levels were fine. I wasn’t diabetic or even pre-diabetic yet. Yet. They knew and believed that I wasn’t a big drinker. I have what is known as NAFL (naffle? naff-all?) Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease. I was human foie gras, except that no one had forced grains down my gullet except me. Ethical foie gras. The literal goose voting for Christmas. I bloody love Christmas. Eat me.
I know all about NAFL. My dad had NAFL right before he had NASH right before he had cirrhosis, right before he had liver cancer.
I was going to die.
OK, maybe not right away, but unless I made some drastic and medically-sanctioned changes to my already drastic and medically-sanctioned diet.
The fact that I had already lost 65 kilos meant nothing. My 10 portions of fruit and veg a days meant nothing. My swimming and stretching and running and lifting meant nothing. And for all my self-loathing posts about how I’ve been comfort eating and regaining weight, I really haven’t been eating that much. Sure, I’d let sweet things back in to my life despite my suspicion that my body didn’t handle them well, but I wouldn’t want to suggest that I've been mainlining the white stuff. I’ve not been snorting it or rubbing it on my gums. But despite my best efforts, the powers of genetics and sheer malevolent bad luck have conspired with my GP (who has in the past blamed my hayfever, heavy periods and a broken toe on my weight) to put me on a diet.
I was going to diet.
Nothing concentrates the mind like the threat of impending death, so getting and sticking to the diet this time was a doddle. At least it was for the first week. Then I went to a party and ate half a bagel washed down with half a bottle of pink fizz. Then a few days later I got hungry and was far from home so succumbed to the charms of a bowl of cereal, despite the availability of a low carb snack (prosciutto) in my handbag (hambag).
But generally I’m adjusting well to life without carbs, and really without much food at all. The regime will get less strict as my condition corrects and stabilises. What has been shocking is that in learning about NAFL and the metabolic disorders, is how widespread is, and how poorly understood - and how poorly communicated - the dietary advice is. From extensive reading and consultation, it would seem that there are two routes you can take to reigning control of a runaway metabolism (NAFL, elevated blood sugar, Type 2 diabetes, hyperinsulinism): Very Low Calorie or Very Low Carb. I’ll report on low carb diets in later posts, but in the mean time…
The Very Low Calorie Diet
Also known as liver-shrinkage diet, Cambridge Diet.
The most mainstream and version of this is The Blood Sugar Diet by Dr Michael Moseley of 5:2 diet fame.
I have mixed feelings about this book because a) it completely changed my life for 8 weeks, and b) I have been entirely unable to repeat that 8 week experiment, even with medical supervision, in the 2 subsequent years.
But if you have been diagnosed with blood sugar disorders, and you can get your gp on board - it can help get you in control of your condition. For me, a cluster of abdominal conditions leaving me with chronic pain often triggered by food and drink - it left me pain free. And it can do the same for a spectrum of metabolic diseases.
It's based on the Mediterranean diet - lots of veggies, healthy fats like olive oil, nuts and seeds, moderate amounts of lean meat and fish, yogurt and other dairy. And light sprinkling of whole grains and and fruits. You can imagine assembling beautiful dishes as the sun pours through the window, the air scented with sea salt and lavender and the gentle sound of waves lapping in the fisherman's cove, as you tear basil leaves over the tomatoes you just picked 5 minutes ago. It's an idyllic and healthy way of life, and if you want to live forever this is the way you should eat. Spread the Good News.
The bad news is that it's just 600 kcals a day so good luck with that.
When I embarked on the Quit Sugar project, this was the direction I turned. In part because I’d done it before so knew it worked and was doable, and in part because it feels healthy. Your Instagram pops with blueberries and tomatoes, set off fetchingly by creamy yogurt and suggestive drizzles of oil.
The reality is that it’s not enough bloody food, and gawd help you if you want a glass of wine. After a couple of months of trying to get on and stick to this regime, I had failed to lose weight, and was sick of the sight of yogurt. I was hungry, hangry, and with not much to show for it. And I worry about the people who don't have a medical reason for cutting back this drastically. I have friends who would love to be given medical permission to stop eating and just Instagram their lunch instead. If you have a diagnosed metabolic disorder, crack on. If you if suspect that you have an eating disorder, or even perhaps a disordered relationship with food, step away now.
When chef and restauranteur Jackson Boxer found his sought-after and booked-up dining room at Brunswick House mysteriously half empty on Mother’s Day, he took to Twitter.
Forty six guests, who had booked for lunch today, and then confirmed by telephone that they intended to take their reserved tables, did not show up today. Pretty fucking disgraceful in all honesty.
Journalist and DILF Jay Rayner amplified this, with:
If you are one of those people who has ever done this - booked any restaurant then not shown up without cancelling - rest assured there are battalions of us who think you're an utter scumbag.
For standing up their restaurant reservations, the absentee punter is, in their absence and therefore quite unbeknownst to them, loathed.
In Boxer’s follow-up piece in The Guardian, he spelled out the blight of no-shows, and the cost and waste of their casual change of plans.
More writers and tweeters chirped in. In the heady back-and-forth, above and below the line, the ethics and economics of the no-show were debated. Food Twitter was out in force. Suggestions on how to combat this include deposits, prepayments, being publicly shamed and castigated, black-listing, and - for repeat offenders - being shot through the neck.
I, basically, agree. Restaurants - good local ones, innovative trendy ones, soulless chain ones - are going out of business at an unprecedented rate. And in an industry renowned for bankrupting its businesses, that's quite some rate. And for somewhere a good and as popular as Brunswick House to have gaping empty tables on Mothers Day, is downright dangerous for anyone who loves restaurants.
Small and trendy places born of the streetfood stall and pop-up kitchen, have gamed the system by having no reservations. You queue, you perch, you don't linger, you don't (generally) pay through the nose. I love a queue. I will join any queue going. People queuing for food are my people. In strange cities (and once in ILFORD) I have pulled over the car at the sight of a food queue and waited my turn.
But home in London, shiiit, I'm old, I’m tired, my feet hurt, and all my friends have kids/jobs/commutes that mean a meal out requires a certain degree of forward planning. I love a reservation. My favourite places are where you can make a reservation for brunch. I live in Islington where we have hit peak brunch. It is now impossible to get in to the favoured brunch spots of the young and beautiful people, who clearly aren't eating all the food they're photographing to click click click away the huger pangs of Insta-rexia, in a malicious hipster version of bedblocking. And while I can get behind a once-in-a-lifetime queue like the one snaking around King’s Cross right now for Hawker Chan’s Michelin-starred street food three-day pop-up, why people will wait over an hour outside an effing branch of Breakfast Club for Just Some Eggs is beyond me.
So offer me a restaurant with comfortable seating, attractive decor and an online booking system and I will be there. At a pre-arrange and pre-booked specific time. With bells on.
But now the situation is this. On seven of your Whatsapp groups, different combinations of well-educated, well-paid grown-ups, some of whom aren’t even related to you, are failing to commit to being in the same place at the same time to eat some food. Archeological evidence of fire pits and fish bones indicated that this was something that effing Cro-Magnons managed to coordinate, but those were simpler times and their expectations of how long it would take effing Karen to respond to en effing text message were possibly lower.
After much wrangling, a date, time and location is agreed. Someone, usually me, cares enough about what’s for dinner to agree to book a table, which I do, usually online via Opentable or similar. Sometimes you call up. Sometimes you leave a credit card deposit because fair-doos, I’ve certainly put more spurious things on my credit card.
The day approaches, and Karen has bailed. On the day the restaurant calls to check you’re still coming and you say you’re looking forward to it. I’m running late and we’re a man down, but it’ll be fine. Then someone else is stuck at work and someone else thought it was next Friday. So we’re down to 4 of us. One of us is off carbs, one is now a vegan, and two are off the sauce (none of these is me). By the time we order, and hour behind schedule and diminished in number, it becomes clear that it’s only me who has any intention of ordering and eating food. I look apologetically at the server, pleading silently with them to dribble on someone else’s ceviche.
But as I write this I am nudged by a niggling guilt. I’m meant to be at an aerobics class at the gym, but I gave myself permission to bunk off at the very last minute, too late to even late-cancel, and deciding the the £3 no-show fine is a price well worth paying for not having to go to the gym. As a business plan it’s a corker: an inverse gym membership, a bit like selling of indulgences. For £3 a day, you can avoid going to the gym entirely. Think of all time and money saved, relieving you of the sweat, worry, travel time, procrastination time, sprains, verrucas and mansplaining over the weights rack. I feel pleased and justified in my choice to no-show, and there is a wealth of self-care literature that validate my decision to stop striving and take some me time.
All of which is obviously bollocks, but you see we’re all assholes now. The personalised, self-centredness of modern life and tech means we can book or cancel or block or share our plans, our friends, or neighbours at a swipe. I get late cancels for dinner parties all. the. time. as if I was some faceless corporate entity and not a corporal human with my face, covered in polenta, glasses steamed up, just trying to feed my friends with love and carbs, Karen. It’s even worse on occasion-days, like New Year’s Eve. Weeks and weeks of people hedging their bets, not 100% committing, waiting-and-seeing if they get a better offer, tentative suggestions, followed by a last minute flurry of cancellations, changes-of-plan, people treating themselves to a quiet night in, offers they can’t refuse.
So I have every sympathy with the restauranteurs wanting to fine people for no-shows, or charge in advance. But I can see my future, sitting sad and alone at a prepaid table for seven, tentatively asking the server if the chef could do the risotto dairy-free.
What came first: bread, or civilisation? Consider the baker. There is skill, heat, an early morning, an understanding of dough’s subtle chemistry. Consider the farmer tending a field of grain. Consider the miller. Consider their wives and children, all living settled and proximate in the joint venture of making and breaking bread.
Wheat is an unlikely staple food. The wholegrain is a seed, and like most seeds, it contains all that is needed for life: fat, protein, vitamins. The fermentation that happens in dough helps make these nutrients available to the human digestive system, deeming all manner of grasses palatable, allowing us to consume calories which we hadn’t personally hunted or gathered.
Theoretically, you can live on bread alone. It’s a complete protein. But when we behold the commercial white loaf, its germ has been extracted, its fibres washed away, bleached, blitzed and blended into a fine white powder, all the nutrients and roughage and vitamins removed and then added back by an industrial process: fortified with vitamins and iron. Sugar is added to give a golden colour to the crust, and in varying quantities dependent on the sweet tooth of the market. American bread is sweeter than British bread. The bread on the Israeli market is both the sweetest and the saltiest. The wholesome origins of the bread basket and the cereal bowl have been corrupted. No wonder Wonderbread is making us all sick. We should be ashamed, and immediately go back to that fizzing Herman Ze German sourdough starter maliciously gifted to us at the school gate and which we’ve been trying to kill by leaving in the airing cupboard under the stairs ever since.
Never feed anything that lives under the stairs.
The historic role of the bakers oven is fascinating, and it’s here that the idea of us all baking our own bread falls down. We can’t all be baking our own stable food, the very notion is historically, socially, economically and nutritionally bollocks. Baking in most societies has been outsourced to someone with all the skills, experience, equipment to do it, because bread is a fickle and tricky substance, and bakers are badly paid alchemists. Or, the work of baking the daily bread was down to The Women, working all day in the home to meet the calorific needs of the family. Unpaid and undervalued, but part of the joint enterprise of family life, village life, community life. As more and more human moved to cities, and more and more female humans went out of the house to work, the more reliant we became on shop-bought bread. And for decades we were sold nutritionally bankrupt and absolutely fucking delicious sliced white factory-made bread, pleasingly cheaply.When the prices went up, or the commodity became scarce, we rioted. And now, in urban centres, it is fashionable for small-batch artisan loaves to be baked and bought and sold for "How much?!?!" and very lovely it is too. Baking your own bread in 2018 London is a lovely thing to do, as a hobby, if you are time rich, or just rich rich.
I’m deeply suspicious of all this harking pack to the golden age of prelapsarian Ur-bread. Our ancestors, bread eaters since before the time of the pyramids, were famously, short lived and short statured. Tales of adulterated bread run through the history books, scare after scare, each appropriate to the fears and tabloid bollocks of the day. Ergot poisoning, adding of allum, chalk, lead, bones, feathers. And then there are the failed harvests, the shortages, the fluctuations of supplies and prices and taxation. Scarcity of bread or massive price hikes have cause riots and revolution from Scotland to Syria, from the year dot to date. Bread is necessarily safe, nutritious, cheap, available.
But lots of people do have trouble with bread. I am one of them. The occassional Pret sarnie is unavoidable and basically fine, but give me beautiful, crusty fresh bread, lovingly made by someone with cool, strong hands, and I have a bellyache for days. For some unaccountable reason, which doesn’t stop me being irresistibly drawn to them, pretzels make me instantly throw up. I can’t digest crumpets but I am sworn to die trying. The healthy spelty seedy loaves go straight through me, like I’m one of those little birds merrily eating and shitting on the bird table.
I have to get my gluten kicks elsewhere. I think croissants are the perfect food, and the 50/50 butter to pastry ratio deems them perfectly acceptable on any low GI or low carb diet. That’s #science. Enriched doughs, like brioche, panettone, chollas, bubka, are the best of both breads and cakes and greater than the sum of their bready, cakey parts. You will take my giant panettone from my cold dead buttery hands. I am the proud inventor of the hot cross jamon bun.
“I would bet if you took a dozen people with a gluten intolerance and gave them [sourdough artisan’s] bread they’d be fine” Pollen says, dangerously, irresponsibly.
“Air cooking starches makes them delicious and digestible” he says. Take a bite of this sour bread and you start to salivate, which is essential to the digestive process”
Before you get BLINDED BY SCIENCE just consider this bollocks, and try to eat ANYTHING in the absence of saliva.
Pollan never uses the word “clean eating” but his (often justified) rejection of the western diet has underpinned the philosophies of a lot of shysters, hucksters, well meaning disordered eaters and skinny bitches alike. I get so annoyed because people’s body chemistry and emotional make up are so complicated when it comes to the simple act of eating. Let’s not over complicate it, or fetishise it or fear it. And as a wise man almost said:
Eat bread, not too much, mainly toast.
Michael Pollan is one of the great prophets of the sugar backlash. His name is one to drop in discussions of the Western diet. He’s a highly influential writer, journalist and activist, and is probably the reason you’ve heard of High Fructose Corn Syrup. People drinking along at home (and I highly recommend turning all your reading, viewing, cooking, eating, life, in to a drink-along game*)you can find his documentaries Cooked and In Defence of Food on Netflix, and his books which inspired them - along with the Botany of Desire and his definitive The Omnivore’s Dilemma in the usual places.
His onscreen persona is somewhere Between Victor Meldrew and Larry David, with some of the leaf-fiddling quick-pickling gaucheness of Nigel Slater. He talks to stadium crowds, turning up on stage with his grocery bags and allotment pickings, as unglamorous and incongruous as a latter day saint, or Jeremy Corbyn. He utters great words of wisdom, akin to Consider The Lily:
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”
He has made his life’s work the unravelling of the systems of that underpin - and undermine - the western diet. The agro-industrial complex, the supermarkets, Big Cattle, Big Pig, Big Corn, Big Sugar. He is chased through the cornfields of his mind by marshmallow men from the ministry, as his shines the light on HFCS and other “Edible Food like Substances”. American farming, food laws and supply chains are very different from European ones, hence our horror at what may befall our shopping baskets when we leave the comforting pasteurised bosoms of Mère Europe, whose worst excesses of foie gras fattening, and penny pinching and banana-straightening still forbid the chlorination of chickens and the feeding of HFCS to humans.
Pollan rightfully points out that the governments (in the US) puts out food pyramid diagrams encouraging people to eat more fruit and veg whilst also pumping money into subsidising industries and products which make us fat, mainly soft drinks, but the corn derivatives in the cheap food chain are pretty endless. Pollan places the blame with Agro-giants and the politicians they pay and lobby make the laws and defund projects that would allow more people to eat better.
Confession: I was raised on the sweet, sweet poison of American candy. As I write this I am literally eating Twizzlers, which have an import label covering up the Corn Syrup and replacing it with Glucose Syrup followed by three asterixes, so who the hell knows what I’m actually eating. I think its like the tastiest plastic you’ve ever accidentally put in your mouth.
He suggests that we should ever eat anything our grandmothers and great grandmothers wouldn’t recognise as food. He has clearly never met my grandmother. My maternal grandmother acquired a morgue’s worth of commercial freezers from Bejams when they closed down in 1992 and has been freezing and defrosting on an industrial scale and decade-long cycle ever since. She bakes for the freezer. She is already laying down the honey cakes for weddings of yet unborn great-grandchildren, like a shit sommelier. My paternal grandmother subsisted on a diet of gefilte fish and sugar free candies. My great-grandmothers survived pogroms, the Holocaust, two World Wars, the Great Depression, and endured unimaginable suffering and hardship on at least three continents. My own mother is yet to successfully boil an egg without literally setting it on fire (have you ever smelled burning eggshell? It’s the smell of my childhood). We should look to none of these women as the arbiters of edibility.
But the principle stands. Want a cake? Bake it ourself. Apple pie? Go for it! And all the better if your apples come from your own orchard, or at least your local farmers market, ideally in the Fall. Just like my great grandmother didn’t.
Pollan is self-evidently right about many things, eminently sensible, powerfully well-informed. He is curious and enthusiastic and communicative, more the storyteller than the investigative journalist. He is also a man of wealth, privilege and status. He has time, money, education, a small but perfect family in the liberal paradise of Berkeley California. It’s a company town, the company is question being the University of California. Everyone is healthy, clever, good looking, and has hiking books and tenure. He and his friends - including, bizarrely, James Taylor - whose pet pig Mona scared Pollan’s pet pig Kosher to literal death on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1970s - galavant around their well-situated gardens, building barbecue pits, brewing beer, baking perfect sourdough, making their own kimchi. You know, like white people do now.
One of the more mind-bowing things Pollan invites us to do, is to look at the world from the point of view of other species. What if we explore the ways in which domesticated animals and plants have been party to their domestication, giving us the feelies and the tasties so we will provide them with the perfect conditions in which to reproduce, thrive, and generally have a better time of it than they would in the wild. His major hypothesis is that corn is driving us humans around like those parasitic wasps who eat the brains of their prey, and walk around in zombie ant exoskeletons, because nature is gross and there is no god.
It’s a worthwhile thought experiment. Compelling. But as far as science goes it’s somewhat selective, and as dietary advice goes, it’s all a bit… niche. I’m going to write a bit more in future posts about his take on bread and booze because trying to summerise his entire ouvre in one post doesn't do it justice. But has Pollan changed by attitude to sugar? Not really. For, as much as I love the petrochemical tang of American candy, it does not form a significant part of my diet. His famous advice “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” is good and sound, as is the plea to cook you own food, grow your own veg, dine en famille and a la table, teach your children to cook and to eat and to garden. And his recommendation to eat less meat, buy the best you can afford, ideally with a name, a backstory a good life, and “one bad day" is an idyllic way to eat. I reckon I could afford to eat this way a couple of weeks of the year, maybe. In a good year. I daydream of life where I can live by these simple rules...
I call my life coach from aisles of Whole Foods in a flap.
“I forgot my mantra” I wail into my Apple Watch, knocking over a display of a kombucha with my yoga bag.
He replies in the calming Larry David tones:
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants, hardly any Twizzlers, just think of the food miles and for what? Strawberry flavour coaxial cable? Jeez, Sara, read the slogan on your fucking T-shirt.”
I buy the organic apples, the biodynamic flour, and the small-batch cinnamon to make my homemade apple pie. But in the sugar aisle, I stop again, confused. Agave, honey, or maple syrup? Will my internal organs know my good intentions and magically metabolise them differently to the caster sugar or golden syrup or molasses? I opt for the most expensive item just in case, and get an Uber home.
Back home I can’t work out where I buried my kimchi, near the heritage tomato patch or by the hen coop? I’ll have to find something else for dinner. I scroll through the options on Deliveroo, and see Ottolenghi Islington can deliver within the hour, or 3 different places are offering me sourdough pizza.
Now that really is the omnivore’s dilemma.
Argh Argh Argh Argh Argh
*smacks head against desk for the rest of forever*
I love Tom Kerridge. He is a phenomenal chef, a watchable broadcaster, he is well-liked and well-respected in the industry, and he generally comes across as a jolly nice fellow. He was also, until quite recently, very fat. No bad thing. Never trust a skinny chef. And as a fat person and notorious chubby chaser (from a long line of chubby chasers) I am more than happy to see more of him on the telly. That said:
THIS PROGRAMME IS EVERYTHING THAT IS WRONG WITH OUR ATTITUDES TO DIET, WEIGHT, AND FATNESS.
The clue is in the opening sequence in which Kerridge utters the immortal words which reveal the secret of his weight loss success:
“I cut out carbohydrates, quit booze, and hit the gym. I lost 12 stone. But it’s a strict regime which isn’t right for everyone,”
and here I’m paraphrasing,
“so here’s a totally different way to lose weight that is scientifically proven to have no long term benefit to those trying to lose weight and that you have literally tried and failed at 100 times. It is based on the NHS’s approved cut calories approach which is very, very out of date, but also cheap, uncontroversial, and unlikely to harm anyone.”
The NHS recommends cutting calories as the best way to lose weight is both true and false. Most Primary Care Trusts will have a few different versions of weight loss plans. One will be a based on a plate of food, divvied up like a pie chart except without the pie. It encourages you to eat less crap and more fruit and veg. It will give you a very general and depersonalised calorie goal base on age and sex and nothing else. It is in line with WHO guidance, and is fit-for-purpose in a land where some people are over weight, some are underweight, some overweight and underweight people are malnourished. It assumes you have some choices around food, but doesn’t make too many assumptions.
There is a different version of this that you will be given by the NHS if you are referred to bariatric or eating disorder services. It will usually be based on the latest evidence-based research, be a lot more personalised, and be a lot more supervised. Depending on how overstretched your hospital or PCT is, you may be seen by a specialist doctor or nurse every few weeks. you may be put on medication. You may be put on a very low calorie or meal replacement diet. You may be offered surgery.
Somewhere in between is the shit diet advice that most people get. You go to your GP with an ear infection or a weird mole (or, once, memorably, a leaky belly button). You are weighed and asked about your diet. You wonder what this has to do with your ear/mole/belly button. You are told to lose some weight and that then and only then will your ear/mole/belly button we cured, or be worth curing. They suggest Weight Watchers. You cry, you never go to the GP again, you die prematurely of something that could have been dealt with some modest medical supervision, the first symptom of which was a leaky bellybutton.
Tom Kerridge is taking it upon himself to offer us the sort of shit, anecdotal, tilt-headed diet advice that one would get in the Weight Watchers car park. He has written some decent recipes, all of which would be improved by more butter and less artificial sweetener.
Live Blog as I watch the series on iPlayer
Episode 1: Comfort Eaters
-The first dieters TK meets are Comfort Eaters. He gives them a lavish buffet of low calorie diet treats. They pile their plates high. One baked donut might be diet food. Two is just food. Three donuts, and I say this without judgement, is a lot of food. Literally everybody here has missed the effing point of a low calorie diet.
-The description of the diet and the calculation of personal calorie threshold is ver similar to the weight watchers approach, and also to any BMI-based programme. But he gives his dieters a toolkit that includes a blow-torch and a spice rack, so I’m not hating too hard.
-Note his use of non-caloric sweeteners. This raises alarm bells for a lot of people, but are in fact not inherently evil. One of the other books on my reading lists, Taube’s The Case Against Sugar points out it was Big Sugar that spread the fake news that artificial sweeteners cause cancer, which is not borne out by good science, unless you are personally a small male rat living exclusively on Sweet’n’Low.
- There is repeated use of the word binge which I think we should be careful about. It is used as a pejorative term for over eating and bandied about unscientifically. Avoid.
- Ozi is lovely. I love him and his friend the biscuit barrel cradled under is arm like a weird sidekick.
-Argh! TK literally told Lee not to buy the real cream and to buy the Elmlea Single instead! Now there’s a lot of bollocks in the press at the moment about processed foods, and I don’t want to be a food snob about this - Elmlea has a place around the arteries of my heart too - but compare the ingredients! Compare the prices! Now buy the fucking cream and not the Elmlea, Lee!
- Double Argh! After having walked around an Asda with Lee, TK uses rosewater which is clearly from the Waitrose Love Life range <insert rant about food, class, cost… oh, wait, I already wrote one>
- So far the two comfort snacks he’s made - muffins (190 kcals) and rice pud (290 kcal) are calorifically comparable to any normal size chocolate bar. If you want a sweet treat under 300 kcals, eat a Mars Bar. If you want one under 200 kcals, eat some Maltesers. Utterly bemused by this.
- Tom Kerridge finally discloses another key part of his own weight story: that he used to down 15 pints of lager a night quite regularly. Now we’re getting somewhere.
- I’m now totally shipping Ozi and Lee. Even more now it turns out that he’s actually gained weight in week 1. Oh Ozi.
Episode 2: Busy People
- Again with the calories and fat-phobia! I mean look, just look at the zero calorie spray vs the olive oil (also with a spray pump) Olive oil is the backbone of the Mediterranean Diet which gives you life. Fats fill you up.
- Kai has autism! Autism is one of the conditions which diet can make a huge difference, and many kids with extreme autism are prescribed a ketogenic diet which is proven to control some of the more extreme
- She is a diabetic. Now we’re talking. Blood sugar. A blood sugar diet should not contain potatoes and pasta, let alone pastry and apricot jam. Not that there is anything wrong with potatoes and pasta and pastry and jam, they are cheap and delicious, and contrary to popular believe one can live on bread alone, but don't try this at home IF YOU ARE DIABETIC.
- I’m actually a big fan of chia seeds so ner ner ner. They taste nice and have a pleasing texture - like poppy seeds when first sprinkled, or like frogspawn IN A GOOD WAY when soaked. They are nicer and easier to to digest the good his than flax seeds, and can similarly be used in your diet to help you poop. Most days I have porridge or yogurt with a tablespoon of mixed chia, flax and sunflower seeds, because left to its own devices my body would hold on to all my shit until I explode like the gluttony guy in Se7en. TMI? Anyway, shut up and eat your chia.
Episode 3 - Fat Foodies
- Good luck y’all finding fresh chervil. I couldn’t get any last summer and I live in Islington and have a frigging herb garden (well, balcony).
-Oh god, we have another Ki. One is an autistic seven year old boy and one works in fashion so is also to all extents and purposes an autistic seven year old boy.
- TK talks about his hedonistic, addictive streak… this is important… this is something it would be good for a relatable mainstream character talking about on the telly at a respectable time of day.
- Exercise… so the advice on this is less clear and whilst exercise is very good for you indeed, it will not make you lose weight… and as a fat girl who has always done a lot of exercise you have to be very careful to avoid injury. But both I and the scientists can recommend weight training in particular as a way to get you and your body to work together, and strong is the new blah blah blah.
Episode 4 - Fake junk food
- I hate everything about this episode.
- Maybe don’t bother making your own doner kebab from scratch. Maybe just order a sheesh kebab?
- I can understand why sometimes one might use low fat yogurt in a sauce (I sometimes use quark which is higher in protein than yogurt) but to add artificial sweetener in a savoury yogurt sauce… there’s just no need. Don’t do it. No one needs a fake kebab served with fake Yop.
- This whole recipe is grim, kill it with fire
- OMG he just killed it with fire - a literal blow torch - and it looks DIS-GUST-ING
- Tom’s take on cheat days is quite sound though, although we need to kill the term “cheat days”. If you eat your week’s excess calories in one delicious cheat day, then don’t be surprised if you don’t lose weight or indeed gradually gain weight. If you are someone for whom cheat days are crucial - foodies, chefs, people in the hospitality industry - consider the Fast Diet or 5:2 so you have enough spare calories to get you through the tasting menu with wine pairings, and gain all the potential benefits of intermittent fasting on your system.
-Nice to see a man bemoaning the clothes he can’t fit in to. Not “nice” but, y’know, good to see on telly, not "just" a women's issue
- Oooh, donuts. He’s making donuts. I like donuts. I am interested.
- Oh, he’s using donut-shaped moulds and a piping bag. I’m literally never going to do this.
- Another super interesting bit which the producers are going to totally skip over. Being seen as a Big Bloke is an identity. It was his identity, and that doesn’t encourage Big Blokes to cut down.
This is one of my issues with this whole fucking Tom Kerridge Diet venture. I listened to him on the wonderful Diane Henry’s podcast. He came across very well, and Henry is both an excellent interviewer and congenial company for this long format show. They have time and space to talk freely and widely. And the most telling part was TK expounding on his larger life. How he could be larger than life. How he achieved success and respect in the food industry as a Big Man. How he found love. How he had a telly career. How no ever gave him a hard time. And when felt the first twinge of negative impact on his health, he quit booze, quit carbs, spent hours every day in the gym… he had money, time, support, minimal stigma. He says he never suffered for his weights. He had the skills and knowledge and budget to totally transform his life. That’s nice for him. But I find it cynical and disingenuous to peddle this totally DIFFERENT utter bullshit low cal sub-prime sub-scientific Buy-My-Book BOLLOCKS, and use this charming cast of single mums, military wives, lonely immigrants, people who are tired and poor and busy and sick and bullied.
Fuck off Tom Kerridge. Take your fake donuts and kebabs and Elmlea Single and fuck off.
(Leave the spice rack and the blow torch though. We like those.)
If you want to want to make the gods laugh, make plans.
The first two days of my Quit Sugar Plan were full of misery, self loathing, cravings, blind fury, and totally spurious online purchases. But there were also some less spurious, optimistic shopping. Ingredients for a restorative chicken broth, vegetables for roasting, pickles for snacking. I’d also acquired some neoprene socks and gloves that should allow me to swim outside (in a heated pool, I’m not a maniac) all year round. I was getting into the groove and was looking forward to feeling better.
Then, there was a death in the family.
I was determined not to be derailed - there’s never a good time to make changes to your lifestyle, and a new lifestyle has to be able to withstand, y’know, life. But life also has to be lived in the real world, and in real time. There are long motorway journeys, complete with petrol station convenience stores, service stations where the healthiest options are something of a compromise amongst the Starbucks, McDonalds and drive-thru Greggs. Meals are grabbed on the go, or or far later and further from home than one would wish. There’s the endless admin and bureaucracy, the different griefs and sadnesses of a complicated cast of loved ones. There are teas and biscuits, and the beige buffet and card-behind-the-bar of the funeral.
A lot of emotional calories are burnt and need to be replenished. We take comfort where we can find it.
And, at times of stress and sadness, food is a comfort. I try to show my partner that he is loved and safe by putting more butter into the mashed potato, making dessert on a weeknight, filling the cupboards with treats. I bake* cinnamon buns at the weekend so the house of mourning will be filled with warmth and sweetness. There is a German word - there’s always a German word - Kummerspeck - which can be translated either as grief bacon, the bacon you comfort eat in your sadness, or grief fat, the weight you gain from eating said grief bacon.
So, no, the diet’s not been going well.
You will be very pleased to know that my reading has come along excellently. I am brilliant at reading. When it comes to reading, I have willpower, determination, focus. I also have new glasses so I can really - y’know - see what I’m reading.
I’ve also been engaging both ears in the struggle, taking on some of these books on Audible on long car journeys. I also listened to food writer Bee Wilson’s recent Radio 4 series Sweetness and Desire: A Short History of Sugar on iPlayer.
She addresses the debate - which divides scientists, doctors, dieticians and wellness bollock-peddlers alike - as to whether or not sugar is addictive. The way it caresses the rewards centres of the brain, the exhilarating roller coaster ride of soaring and plummeting blood sugar, are well recorded and understood. The newer science into the way it requisitions your fat cells, creating room within the sugar-sensitive for you to expand into, like you were one of those expandable suitcases - is widely known and understood. And the influence on sugar on appetite is so bloody complicated and difficult to measure - working on both the hormones and the emotions - that some still assert that sugar isn’t addictive like a drug: it’s simply more-ish.
Whether or not sugar is a chemically addictive substance, there are plenty of us in the population who have a problematic relationship with it. And those of us who engage in addictive behaviour to the detriment of our health, happiness, wellbeing, the biochemistry of it is by-the-by.
It's really only ever socially acceptable to be an addict if nobody needs to know or speak about it ever.
Russell Brand has, quite endearingly, been addicted to most things and seems to be able to turn the most benign of activities - yoga, using long words, wearing skinny jeans - into potentially life-destroying, relationship-devastating, career-defining problems. Sugar, sex, work, scag, he's done ‘em all in ways, quantities that make his very survival a miracle significant enough to justify his erstwhile Messiah complex.
He knows of what he speaks. His book is a marvellous companion to anyone engaged in or curious about 12 Step Programmes. I for one am grateful for his very sensible unpicking of the "higher power" malarkey. And if your drinking, eating, bonking, whatever, feel totally out of control, you can find your nearest meeting with a quick Google in Incognito mode, and you can download this book on your Kindle or Audible without anyone ever knowing, and you will receive a dose of compassion, understanding, and a total absence of judgement. It was a hug and vote of confidence I had no idea I even needed and I found myself, headphones on, Brand's Artful Dodger tones in my ears, tears pouring down my fat face.
So, time to try again. Fail again. Fail better. The diet, as the saying goes, starts tomorrow. Tomorrow, as it so happens is Shrove Tuesday, otherwise known as Mardi Gras - Fat Tuesday - or Pancake Day. This is the day when Christians have one last blow-out before the fasting and repentance of Lent. Lots of people give up chocolate or booze, and this year, following the popularity of Veganuary, I imagine a great deal of people will be doing Vebruary or Vent or some such. And so, fine, I’ll do it, I’ll give up sugar for Lent, just like Jesus did. I am basically Jesus.
I might have been listening to a little too much Russell Brand.
*OK, they were IKEA Bake From Frozen Cinnamon Rolls, but it’s the thought that counts.
Last weekend, Angela Hartnett went on Desert Island Discs and said that the British don’t have a food culture, there are just some people who have money and can afford to pay for good food.
Hartnett is a deity in the culinary pantheon, and is unusual in that she is both a shining star and an eminently sensible person. A woman of such no-nonsense credentials that she laughed in the pock-marked face of Gordon Ramsey, and lived to tell the tale. She takes none of this cheffy, foodie willy-wangling seriously, because it is, after all, “just a plate of carrots”.
Journalist Debora Robertson followed up with a thoughtful piece on the particular nastiness of Food Snobbery in the Telegraph. One commentator snidely remarked that the Torygraph should push off out of The Struggle, to which the glorious Ruby Tandoh suggested she “cunt off”. It was a great day on Food Twitter.
I chimed in. I struck up a conversation with one of my favourite booze-writers and Kitchen Cabinet regular Rachel McCormack. As a Scottish food and drink writer, with expertise in Catalan food, drink and politics, I was surprised by the vehemence of her take:
We don't have a food culture, we just don't. Our food is a class signifier far more than a culture.
I find this idea fascinating, and shaming. It feels true. I feel it as I walk up Chapel Market on a Sunday from the Farmers Market end to the Daily Market end. I felt it when I squealed with delight when my partner told me we were getting a Whole Foods at the end of the road, and my moans of disappointment when it turned out we were in fact getting a joinery and an HSS hire. I feel it when one of my neighbours at our Housing Co-op has to sign for my Veg Box or Wine Discovery crate or the Ocado van pulls up. I feel it when I drop off my Food Bank donations by the till at Waitrose , or worse when I get an Uber to take it round in person. In Islington - Islington. Say it twice for there are indeed two Islingtons.
But it also feels totally untrue. Who is the “we” here? Who are the British of whom we speak? What is this beige buffet of Britishness, class-ist, philistine, pale and bland as white bread?
I find all this talk of class alienating. Because my experience was of growing up in a vibrant food culture, which I am sure combined many diverse aspects of class, wealth and virtue signals, but in such a mishmash that you could not hope to decode it, even with a copy of Debrets and minor public school education.
Because I - and I am inherent to any we I can participate in - was raised in a vibrant and class-fluid food culture. I speak, of course, of the ancestral homeland, the Old Country.
Ilford is a London suburb the Essex/East End border, which, like a reverse Mecca or a shit Jerusalem, unites travellers from across the world in the fervent desire to get the hell out, go mad, or kill everyone. And, like Jerusalem, it has its Jewish, Muslim, and Christian quarters, with further fractions etched out by Hindu, Sikh and Chinese diasporas, waves and tides of 20th century immigration ebbing and lapping on the shores of the Cranbrook Road. It became home to the refugees of innumerable wars and disaster areas. Ugandan Indians, Kurds, Romanians, Rwandans, Bosnians, Serbs and Croats. And the economic migrants, Nigerians, Polish, Hungarian. It was a Ithaca: a place you had hoped would be journey’s end, but was in fact a bit of a disappointment. A rest rather than a new beginning. A bad motherland, to which we are all ambivalently attached.
Say what you like about Ilford, but it is a place where you’ve been able to find tahini, turmeric and jackfruit since, I dunno, decimalisation. Most of these items you could buy at any hour of the day or night, and be served by a tiny child who had been left to mind the shop whilst the adults were at second jobs or night school, at the mosque or synagogue, or in prison. Purchase and consumption of these items signified nothing - nothing - except the taste of home.
And it really didn't matter whose home. On festivals we would exchange samosas or jalebi or pierogi or hammantashen or honey cake with our neighbours and drink masala chai three doors down. There is a whle world of dumplings and a season for each one. We consumed a lot of chicken. Fried pieces in boxes, or in a soup lovingly simmered for the precise amount of time to extract the maximum amount of guilt. On a Sunday mornings you can wander along the Barkingside High Street, which is by any normal metric an utter shithole, and join a queue for fresh Sri Lankan curries or Jewish bagels or Italian gelato. There is an egg-free cake shop, British, Halal, Kosher and African butchers and fishmongers. There are four Jewish delis and bakeries, ranging from the Glatt to the glitzy. There is no shortage of grilled meat, kebabs, chicken shops, noodle bars. Vast banqueting suites accomodate large celebration meals, and local cooks cater for weddings of some thousand guests, often in marquees in suburban back gardens.
You could accuse us having no culture in Ilford - the cinema long ago became a bingo hall which became a mega-mosque which became flats - but you cannot say we have no food culture.
That said, and without wanting to sound racist against, y’know, white people, I do kind of agree that the British in general have no food culture. I can go to the house of any of my Indian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Israeli, Nigerian, West Indian, or Scandinavian friends, safe in the knowledge and mutual understanding that I am going to be fed. And time and again I have been baffled and outraged by friends (only ever the white, British ones - and the whiter and more British they are the more likely this is to happen) turning up at my house, having already eaten, as if I wasn’t going to feed them like foie gras geese from the moment they arrived to the second they left.
Food is my culture. I feel a twitch on the end of each strands of my DNA, like the taste of madeleines on a thousand foreign tongues. I feel it in my bones and the bones of my ancestors as they dissolve into distant soil: come, sit, eat.
In Pygmalion, Professor Henry Higgins boasts that he can pinpoint here a person is from by listening to the way they talk. “I can place any man within six miles. I can place him within two miles in London. Sometimes within two streets.” I once had a linguistics tutor pull the same trick on me. It was creepy. But I would defy him to do the same thing now. Talk to a young Londoner. The ubiquity of Multicultural London English is a great leveller. On the top deck of the bus (the horror, the horror) you can’t tell the schools apart. And whilst there is a huge gulf between rich and poor, and the extremes of both in this capital are truly horrifying, there is a Multicultural London way of speaking. There is a Multicultural London way of eating. And in the centre of town, and in the places where being Minority Ethnic is not a minority position, there is a London Multicultural Food Culture which is divorced from class. An immigrant, diasporic, food culture. A sense of the importance and significance of food and meals and flavours. An appreciation of our own and your neighbours diverse food heritage. A love of the marketplace and the communal table. An ear for languages where foreign is the same word as guest and friend. The importance, virtue, culture, and significance of hospitality.
And, tbh, some asshole’s going to sprinkle sumac and pomegranate seeds on your kebab wherever you are, from Ilford to Islington. What you are prepared to pay for it, in what environs, and with what brand of soap in the bogs, is another story - and this is where the the conversation goes full circle. If you have no food culture, but you do have money, you can afford to buy one in, from the Connaught or Ottolenghi or Whole Foods or Deliveroo or Blue Apron or the DietChef.
Maybe I’m guilty of over-romanticising the immigrant food experience. The food of poverty, the bread of affliction, the cheap cuts of meat, the over-reliance of sweet treats, the economic and social impoverishment of generations of immigrant women slaving over hot stoves to feed the family on a pittance whilst the neighbours turn up their noses. We should talk of the dietary diseases more prevalent amongst People of Colour and second generation immigrants. We should talk of the chicken shops around the school gates. We should talk about the amounts of money spent on marketing crap food at kids and the totally other amounts of money being spent on school meals, home economics lessons, growing spaces, playgrounds. We should talk about about the food banks.
My partner is from white, British working class stock. They do things differently there. I now too turn up Having Already Eaten, because I learnt the hard way: line your stomach, or you’ll end up singing/falling over/throwing a chair/throwing up/getting naked by 3pm at a Romford wake because you assumed that lunch would be served.
It’s only 5 miles from Ilford and Romford, but it may as well be 500 or 5000.
I don’t know what they make of me and my food. Foreign muck? Posh nosh? Do I give off wafts of a different culture entirely, like the tell-tale scent of frying onions and or slow-cooked sabbath cholent. Like the banquet of curry smells from next door when all their kids are home from university, the eye-watering wince of vinegar being boiled for pickles, or the uric tang of a hot pho pot bubbling away two doors down or the unseasonal barbecue from the house behind, a familiar-unfamiliar meat - mutton or goat. And throw your windows open on a spring morning and you’ll get waves of bacon, chai, cholla bread, and the sounds of TVs in a dozen languages, and music in a dozen different keys, and Sikh builders shouting at Polish builders, and the soft shoe shuffle of the Lubovitchers and the revving engines of the rudeboys before we all go home for Sunday lunch.
Sunday lunch. Maybe that’s something we can all agree on. That you should have a Sunday lunch with your Mam or your auntie or your Nan and whoever else is around. You gather at table, at your folks’ house or the Toby Carvery or your uncle’s restaurant, with a mountain of roast beef or bags full of bagels and plastic containers from the deli or six different curries and chutneys, with the old folks telling the same story for the hundredth time, and the ageless bickering of siblings and the screaming of babies. Maybe we can agree on the Great British Sunday Lunch, whatever the menu, as our shared food culture.
Leave room for pudding.
...or DO YOU???
Happy Blue Monday! How’s your January going? Sucky? GREAT.
As our annual celebration of Good Will to All Men gives way to the yearly Festival of Self-Loathing and Unsisterly Side-eyeing of All Women, I would like to offer you a complete and highly scientific review of the available literature, with some editorialising by me, a person whose name is DOCTORS and whose opinion is therefore SCIENCE.
There have already been some excellent and insightful reviews of the latest diet books to skew the sales figures of the publishing industry and convince the world that people are still buying and reading books. I'm guilty of participating in this myself. New Year, new me, new fad diet book. My resolution last year was to Stop Dieting and Start Living, a venture so successful that in a mere 12 months I have gained a celebratory ten kilos, which translates to about 22lbs or, to help you visualise, 44 bags of sugar.
I think it was those 44 bags of sugar which were the problem.
I love sugar. It has been my lifelong friend, companion, secret elicit affair. I have shared beds and holidays and dining tables with it. We've had cozy nights on the sofa and raucous nights out on the lash. I have never met a dessert I didn't like, although I always wonder about people who order the crumble when there’s a sticky toffee or chocolate pud on the menu. I have a particular love for the unloved and unpopular treats. Chocolate covered raisins, Fry's Turkish Delight, marzipan, glaceé cherries, soft red liquorice, jelly beer bottles. I am a recent convert to doughnuts. Cadbury Twirls and Picnics are obvious choices but good ones. Marshmallows are underrated, and chocolate covered marshmallows are my absolute favourite, see also the M&S Walnut Whip. Anything sold by the cash register at TK Maxx or Topshop is an undiscovered gem, in fact 9 of the 10 kilos I gained last year were Candy Kittens. And if you were wondering who the hell buys those sweets by the check out at Toyshop and TK Maxx: it me.
I try to be as body positive as the next person (which is generally Not Very, but hey ho, change comes slow) and so this isn't about changing how I look, but it is about changing. Yes, I have a problem. And having lost over 65kg (which is, coincidentally, the weight I should be for my height if you believe in BMIs), not to mention the years and years of diets and regains that marked my teens and twenties, I know I need to get off this slippery slope. Sure, it’s been a hell of a year, and eating my emotions was probably the of the least harmful things I could do in the circumstances, but… but… BUT.
Added to this I have all sorts of metabolic and gut-plumbing issues which mean I do gain weight easily (at around 1400 kcals as day), and digest sugars poorly. I have a family history of diabetes and liver problems, a personal history of yo-yo dieting, and a really complex and painful medical status quo. All in, it would be no bad thing to quit sugar, lose a few pounds, no big deal.
I first quit sugar in 2002, when we were all doing Atkins. Fat was in and Carbs were out. Little did we know then of the harm all the nitrates in the bacon and salami were doing us, so that we might as well have been putting them in a pipe and smoking them. There were no sweets. You were meant to avoid Diet Coke and all caffeine and any other addictive substances, but I ignored that, and replaced the sugar in my diet with endless coffee, fags and sugar-free fizzy drinks. Boozing was quite tricky in Atkins as your body simply processes alcohols into Happy Sugars, but switching my customary quadruple Baileys for a gin-and-slim and a sugar free vodka jelly no doubt contributed to my Astounding Weight Loss. I was at Uni, and I didn't have a kitchen, so I worked out how to live on mugs of microwaved scrambled eggs (they turn in to a perfect eggy sphere) and the occasional Pepperami. Friends would come round to feast on ham (the poor students had been starved of protein themselves) and all the left over Baileys I was no longer drinking.
I lost a shedload of weight. It took me about 5 years to regain it (and then some) but with courage, perseverance, and three unhappy love affairs followed by a stable relationship with a loveable slob, I did it. And so, I had to quit sugar again. This time I did Weight Watchers. I had a WW meeting in Soho, near the publishing house I worked at. I was living alone in gorgeous little flat in a posh area, a cool day job, and was working on a load of shows evening and weekends. I was swanning around feeling very pleased with myself and eating my bag of Florette salad leaves like crisps, and GUESS WHAT - the cravings subsided, the weight came off.
Then I got a real grown up difficult job with a long commute. It was less glamourous, but I was busy and important. I moved in with the loveable slob and together we ate man-portions at home and restaurants. It was before the credit crunch and eating out was a thing people could do. I worked long hours, but luckily there were plenty of places to grab plentiful cheap food. A bacon sandwich for breakfast would often be required what with the late nights and early mornings. Chocolate brazils would get you through the afternoon energy slump. And drinks and a bite to eat in the evening, obviously. We’d just moved in to King's Cross, as the first outriders of gentrification, setting up camp around the same time as the area’s first tapas bar, so my diet was soon 90% chorizo and cider. And around the same time came the trend of fancy milkshake bars, and it was important to me to support the local economy. My favourite of these milkshakes contained chocolate ice cream, whole milk, a Dime bar, and two whole chocolate muffins.
Not that I consumed these things regulalry or engaged in binges, you understand. I wasn't trying to gain weight. But these things would call to me, speak to me, and I spent a lot of time, energy and mental exertion trying not to eat them. Attempts to get my diet and my thoughts under control failed and failed again. Finally after very drastic surgery, which also failed and failed again, I no longer had the appetite, capacity or desire to eat sugar. My new regime was necessarily low carb, low calorie. I lost over 80% of my excess body fat.
Ironically, becoming slimmer gave me permission to enjoy food, to be open about liking food, and to not feel like food was in charge of me. It was liberating and joyous. It was also remarkably short lived.
When I took up running in my new lean(ish) body, I found it necessary to unquit sugar. This so confused my metabolism that whilst I still much lighter, I am now over 80% marshmallow. Marshmallows are made from egg whites, which is a good source of lean protein, and sugar, which is not. Sugar confused me and my appetite and my emotions, and I have been in its thrall, expending incredible amounts of time and energy trying to avoid it, only to find myself ecstatically polishing off the Percy Pigs (to say nothing of the Reversey Percies, which are not just just delicious, but win extra points for sounding FILTHY).
So, here we are. I don’t want to Go On A Diet, but I do want to get rid of this toxic relationship and these 10kgs I seem to have found (and as many of their friends as want to go along for the ride). I’m ploughing my way through range of literature on the subject and will report back. I want to understand the science and my own experiences in a wider context, so I’m including diet books, science, history, recipes. This is my reading list - let me know what you think!
Gary Taubes: The Case Against Sugar and Why We Get Fat
Dr Jeff S Valek and Dr Stephan D Phinney: The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living
Dr Michael Mosley: The Eight-Week Blood Sugar Diet
James Walden: Sugar
Michael Pollan: The Botany of Desire and The Ominvore’s Dilemma
Russell Brand: Recovery - Freedom from our Addictions
Dr Robin Lustig: Fat Chance - the hidden truth about sugar, obesity and disease
Plus I’ve got a load of I Quit Sugar-type bollocks, and the new Tom Kerridge, which I am dubious about because I think that someone might have killed and eaten the old Tom Kerridge and is wearing his deflated skin around like a macabre man-suit in order to sell books. But I'll probably give these books a cursory glance as well, if only because I think they might be funny.
So, Happy New Year, Happy New You. Wish me luck!
*stuffs last marshmallow in face and hopes no one notices*
There’s an old Russian story about two sisters who were both in love with the same prince. The younger, prettier sister was favoured, and the older sister magnanimously agrees to prepare the wedding feast. As she stirs and folds and bakes and crimps, she weeps. She weeps into the doughs and the broths and creams and dumplings, and stares out of the window into the middle distance, as though hoping to glance her lost youth disappearing over the tundra and beyond the horizon. At the wedding feast, the guests merrily tuck in to the sister’s offerings, only to find themselves overcome, at first but love, then by sadness, and then by an urgent need to vomit in a ditch.
I’d already written this paragraph when I realised it was actually the plot of Como Agua Para Chocolat, or Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, which is Mexican and brilliant, so you should read the book or watch the movie right now. Probably the best book ever novel about food, for those of us who cook our feelings. Although Nora Ephron’s Heartburn and Joanne Harris’ Chocolat are very honourable mentions.
I will admit to a tendency to conflate the old wives tales of Eastern Europe with the plots of movies, and with things that actually happened to people I’m related to. The reason for this is that my knowledge of folklore, family gossip and the plots to arthouse movies all come from the same source: overhearing one side of the conversation my mum was having over the phone to her brother Peter.
My Uncle Peter was many things - a novelist, photographer, screenwriter, composer - but he was mainly a bum. He would travel the globe, his worldly possessions and two outfits fitting into one or two bags, writing, recording, making friends, and getting in to scrapes. He was my absolute hero. He was mum’s little brother and the two of them were very close and very different. Whenever he could, he would write her long emails or if someone else was picking up the phone bill, make a long call from wherever he happened to be. They would catch up on the latest eccentricities of my grandparents or my father, the latest news of old friends. But mostly they would talk about movies. As a film buff and frequently flier, he was always full of recommendations which my mum would then record off the telly. I loved listening to them talk on the phone. My mum’s expressive tones and squalking PAH! of a laugh. The scandals, the intrigue, the jokes. The plot twists revealed, the endings ruined, deliciously, warmly, humourous, and with love.
These phone calls, and my uncle’s antics, were a real source of joy and wonder to me. We had a lot in common. He sent me cool new music on tape, and I was added on to his phonecalls and his email list. He always encouraged me as an artist, and seemed bemused that I was constantly going after real jobs, instead of getting on with living life and making art. He’d never had a real job and didn't see why I should have to work for living when there was a whole world out there, waiting for me. As I got older I’d roll my eyes at this. I was far too sensible and realistic for this malarkey. Real jobs were what all of us just had to get on with an do in real life. We couldn’t all be hobos.
It was after his sudden death last year, aged 60, in Kuala Lumpa on New Years Day that I decided to start living less realistically. After all, what good was it doing me? I couldn't just pack it all in and jet off round the world - I had accumulated responsibilities and possessions and relationships which could not just be shrugged off. But I could focus less on a career, and more on doing stuff I actually wanted to be doing. Living life, making art. I could say Yes to opportunities that might not be steps on a ladder, or be quantified in a salary, but as long as I could keep afloat then why on earth not?
So, this time last year I accepted my first writing commission. It was just ghostwriting, and just for a friend of a friend, probably just a vanity project, but nonetheless I could say - at last - I was a writer. It turned into something of a saga. Writing someone else’s misery memoir is a very schizophrenic experience, and I felt like I was drowning in bad decisions and self-loathing that wasn’t even my own. For hours and hours, the subject would recount their story then I’d go away and transcribe then sculpt the story into something readable, something filmable.
But my subject's words left a bad taste in my mouth. The practicalities of a writer’s life were a challenge to me. How can you tell the difference between a good and a bad day? Should I write at night and sleep in the day? Should I go to the library, or a cafe? Stuck at home, the fridge would call to me. Never the best typist, I managed to turn a vicious custody battle into a viscous, custardy one, and so my mind went immediately to dessert.
I am a relative newcomer to custard. Not that I was deprived of it as a child, indeed I was practically drowning in it. Industrial tureens of the stuff graced every school dinner, and a steaming pyrex jug or gravy boat of Birds would finish off the family meal more than once a week. But I was a custard-avoider. I shunned the yellow peril. Because why would one opt for a creme anglais when so many other cremes were available? Whipped cream, ideally the sweet and plasticky squirty stuff, but lovingly hand-whipped with icing sugar and marsala wine would also do. Brandy cream at Christmas and leftovers taking you the whole way through January. Sour cream on stewed cherries, creme fraise on lemon tart, clotted cream on scones, single cream spilling photogenically over berry crumbles and strudels, chocolate puddings swimming in a moat of double cream.
And best of all, the king of all creams, the ice cream.
Ice cream is not a dessert, by the way. It is a condiment to accompany and enhance a dessert. It may be taken as light meal or snack, like afternoon tea. Or, it can take the place of a cheese course, by which I mean it can be eaten after dessert, say, on a warm summer night on your way home from the restaurant.
Don’t get me started on sorbet. Suffice it to say that sorbet is not ice cream, it is not interchangeable with ice cream. I married a man who prefers sorbet to ice cream, ice cream to real dessert, and custard above all things. Rhubarb crumble and custard, apple crumble and custard, tinned fruit cocktail and custard. And worst of all, trifle. Wet cake. Jelly with bits. The nastiest booze. Bird’s custard powder, or Ambrosia from an effing packet.
Over the years I have, grudgingly, tentatively, come to an understanding with custard. There is a time and place for everything, and the trick for me and custards - as with many things you can’t stand - is to burn it with fire. Crisp and oozy Pastel de Nata. The bouncy mouthful of Canneles. The bittersweetness of a creme caramel. And my particular favourite, Crema Catalana. And with Catalonia so much in the news, and the general 1930s-theme to current events of late, what better to indulge in that a comforting, boozy dessert, which risks blistering your tongue with molten sugar or slicing through the roof of your mouth with jagged shards of caramel?
This particular recipe has been in my repertoire for some time, and I have no idea where it came from. I thought is was Moro, but it turns out not. Perhaps adapted from Claudia Rosen (although why mess with perfection? Seriously, why are you following my recipe whilst Claudia’s is still in print?) Perhaps it was found on t’internet, and honed over the years. The two things that really do elevate this recipe (if not to Claudia standards, then certainly to that of any fashionable dinner party) are the thick crust of burnt sugar on top, which should shatter hard and sharp like ice on a winter pond, and the infusion of flavours in to the custard before you bake it.
I had been playing with this infusion for years, experimenting with different flavours and combinations and quantities. Different chilli peppers, sharp, smokey, piquant, sweet. Various citrus fruits (seville oranges for bitterness, lime leaves for the exotic, yuzu because its the law to but yuzu in desserts now). The amount of saffron, the type of cinnamon bark, alcoholic pick-me-ups like Grand Marnier or Pedro Ximenez sherry. Warming spice mixes like garam masala or ras al hanout. Peppercorns of different hues and habits: green, long, numbing, hot and pink. I would imagine the old spice routes and the Silk Road; the adventurers, merchants and gypsies, their caravanserai winding their way from Canton to Catalonia and back, their luggage scented with the campfire and the souk and and the journey.
But on one occasion, something odd happened. I thinking about my book, the misery memoir. I was thinking about life in 1970s and 80s Essex. I was thinking about the trifles and tinned puds of the white British working class experience. I was thinking about how small one’s world could be, and how simultaneously vast and terrifying. What is the whole wide world to someone who was not a merchant, an adventurer, a traveller? As I stirred in a pinch of this and a scattering of that, the spices seemed to scorch and go acrid, and then burn out to mellow blandless. The result tasted fine, the flavour sweet and familiar. It reminded me of something. I gave it to my husband to try, and he said, “Delicious. Tastes like real custard”.
“Yeah, like from a packet.”
Sometimes you cook your feelings and end up with Birds Instant Custard. Go figure.
- 600ml double cream
- 600ml whole milk
- 8 egg yolks
- 4tbsps cornflower
- 160g caster sugar, plus 4 more tbsp for the toffee
For the custard infusion:
- 2 tbsp orange zest
- 2 tbsp lemon zest
- 1 cinnamon stick
- A mix of 10 pink, black and sichuan peppercorns, lightly crushed
- 1 dried chilli pepper
- Pinch of fennel seeds
- 1 star anise
- 4 tbsp of Grande Marnier, sherry, brandy, or dark rum.
Pour the cream and milk in to a saucepan, dd the cinnamon stick and zest, and bring to the boil. Add the optional infusions, packaging the dry ingredient in a pouch of muslin or a tea strainer. Remove from the heat and leave to stand for an hour before removing the infusion pouch and cinnamon stick.
Beat the egg yolks and sugar together till pale, thick and fluffy. Add the cornflower and beat until combined and all lumps have gone.Put the saucepan back on the heat and bring back to the boil. Sieve whilst still hot. Combine 2 tbsp of the cream mix into the egg mix, and then add the rest of the cream mix. Over a low heat, stir the mixture until it looks like custard.
Chill for 4-6 hours. Just before serving, coat with the caster sugar attack with with either a blow torch, or put under a scorching grill to caramelise the top.
Erstwhile star of Blossom, Big Bang Theory, and - lest we forget - the young Bette Midler in Beaches - Mayim Bialik made waves last week with a New York Times op-ed describing her experience as a young woman in the Hollywood system. Her perspective is very different from many that we have recently, for the slightly awkward reason that she has made a career of quite specifically Not Playing The Sexy One. And whilst she did not say - as had been widely, angrily, reported - that little sluts like Six and blonde ho-bags like Penny were asking for it, Bialik’s reference to own modest dress and massive hooter (not to be confused, American readers, with hooters) could certainly be read as victim-blaming. Which is a shame, because there is a fascinating angle to be taken here on the crushing misogyny inflicted on the unfuckable by the self-appointed arbiters of fuckability.
I think of my own experiences in the workplace. The office sex-pest who latched on to everyone except me. The famous Artistic Director who resolutely failed to get my name right in six years of working together. The projects I had run and the men who had taken credit for them. The suspicion that some of the opportunities I was missing out on were more to do with my gender, age and figure than my qualifications and experience.
I mean, what am I? Chopped liver?
But then I also thought of the privilege and status conferred upon me and my matronly bosom. I thought of the younger women I have mentored, stood up for, empowered, encouraged, promoted and championed. The freedom to work in very male environments without the fear and blushes that come with being see as sexually available. The big-sisterly role I have been able to take to kindly correct or firmly call out the behaviour of men of my acquaintance (and, indeed, friends) towards women of my acquaintance (and indeed friends). I thought of the violent outburst of another Artistic Director I worked with, in which I intervened, drew a line, and stood my ground. I think of the highly gendered bullying of one boss (my boss’ boss) who I reported to HR.
I could be clear, confident, unemotional, eloquent, impersonal.
Or, I could be bossy, pushy, a ball-breaker.
I was old enough and ugly enough.
And then I think of the Oscars, Baftas, the sheer seismic salary scales of these men. And I think of my career, and how I have taken a hit each and every time I spoke truth to power, every time I stood up for myself and my colleagues. I can think of three jobs I quite specifically don't have right now because of this very reason. I think about how my friendly tellings-off have gone down like a shit sandwich and how I don't really have these friends anymore.
So maybe I had escaped sexual harassment. Gendered harassment and discrimination, sure, but no real pestering or bothering. I mean, that guy who pulled his car up along side me on my way home from work last night was just paying me a compliment, and I really was asking for trouble out on my bike, a lone woman late at night. The time that Office Sex-pest said I looked just like the painting of a sprawled and naked model I was flattered: I love Modigliani, and my haircut is very much like the woman depicted. Sure, I’ve been catcalled on the street, but it was mainly guys shouting at me for being fat, and never men leering at my womanly form. And of course - like so many women I know - I have had jugs juggled, hooters honked, melons perved. Mostly from random nutters, but have also certainly shouted "Oi!" at a male colleagues copping a feel at work parties - but hey, it was late, we’d all had a drink, I do dance quite energetically, and it was probably my fault, me and my out-of-control boobs. Ugh, sorry, I’m sure you didn't mean to touch me up, these things get everywhere. No big deal.
It’s my fault. It’s a compliment. It’s no big deal. I can take it.
The idea that women should conform to a societal norm or beuty and behaviour is bad for all women. We all pa a price for it. There’s the deepest, darkest level of this; the punishment and “corrective’ rapes, abuse and coercive control are meted out on queer and trans women, on disabled women, and on women whose perpetrators have deemed them fat or ugly or stupid or otherwise bad. The racialised sexism and sexualised racism experienced by women of colour - not least in Hollywood. There’s the casual Everyday Sexism level, the being ignored or overlooked by not presenting as young, pretty and perky, as being able to take a joke, a wink, and perhaps a little bit of the other in the bogs at the office Christmas party. Some girls get Fwooooarrrred at by gents in the safety of their fast-moving vehicles, other get Fattttyyyyyyyed. Some have their skirts lifted, some their headscarfs yanked. Some are groped, some are hit.
I check my privilege. I am educated, professional, white-looking, cis, heterosexual woman. I have a flat, a family, friends, a network, a voice. At my most vulnerable, when I feel powerless and hopeless, I still have a whole world of options and safe-havens.
And I worry that privilege, force of habit, and the pervasive way things are have made me complicit. I’ve joshed along with play-flirting, I’ve given the hugs requested by men in return for them just doing their fucking job. I have judged other women and no doubt been judged by them in turn. I’ve internalised the rules of engagement, the pecking order, and my place in it, and I have projected and imposed that on others. There is a full and colourful spectrum of violence and humiliation perpetrated - some casual, so some malicious, some criminal - and we need to recognise the intersectionality and insidiousness of misogyny.
Bialik is an Orthodox Jew. We don’t have many of them on the telly, so no wonder people were surprised at the conservatism displayed in her article: this is not what we expect from Hollywood. I often read her on GrokNation because she writes well and on subjects which interest me, and because it’s very rare for an atheist Jew like myself to get to hear what an orthodox Jew thinks, IRL. I can never work out what the hell a religious way of life offers to any woman, let alone one whose wealth and education give her plenty of options. The world would be her oyster if oysters were Vegan or Kosher or into attachment parenting. I don't get it, but I like her, I like her writing, and I LOVE Blossom.
Her opinion on #MeToo in general and Weinstein in particular is interesting, and one that deserves a platform. What happens to the women who are desexualised, or for whatever reason, off the sexual menu for your average sleezeball? Orthodox religious dress of many faiths is intended to free the woman of the world of desire and the male gaze, although not for nuns, who are, famously, sexy. Many liberals find the very idea of this conservative mode of dress abhorrent, proscribed by old men with beards and long fingernails, lasciviously pawing over the sinfulness of the very thought of a woman’s body and what they’d like to do to it. But it does kinda work as a repellant for mens’ sexual advances.
If only the full sheitel or burqua gave protection from racism, sexism, and all other forms of discriminatory practices and harassing behaviours, instead of acting as a weird shit-magnet and projection-screen for the the prejudices and misconceptions of even the the most right-on of us. If only anything any of us wears - pant suits or habits or hairwraps or our headscarves - if only they protected women from being raped. This is why victim-blaming is so comforting and persuasive: it gives us the illuson of power and control over our fuckability.
It must be nice not to have to have this conversation. It must be nice to not have to think about how what you wear might be read. It must be nice not to be blamed or to blame yourself. I must be nice to be believed and heard and seen. So Bialik was missing the point, and we’re missing the point to attack her. We must hear, see and believe all of our sisters as they shout #MeToo out loud or silently in their hearts. We're teetering on a tipping point of major social change and only full weight of intersectional solidarity will push us in to that bright tommorow.
Don’t know about the future, that’s anybody’s guess
Ain’t no good reason for getting all depressed
Buy up your pad and pencil, I’ll give you a piece of my mind
In my opinionation, the sun is gonna surely shine
Stop all your fussin’
Slap on a smile
Come out and walk in the sun for a while
Don’t fight the feeling, you know you want to have a good time
And in my opinionation, the sun is gonna surely shine.
A cure for all known ailments, maladies and broken hearts. Roughly translated from the Hebrew by Sara with love*.
A whole chicken, or the equivalent thereof. Traditionally, you use a “boiling fowl” but I’m not sure if you can get hold of these outside the Pale of Settlement (Redbridge). I heard Nigella sometimes just uses a pack of chicken wings. I often just take the breasts of a regular chicken and use the rest of that, or a kilogram pack of bone-in thighs. On this occasion, I used the left-overs and carcasses from 2 packs of M&S roast chicken quarters.
Onions I used 2 white onions and 3 large shallots
Celery 1-2 sticks
Carrots 3 large
Bay leaf 1or 2
Water As much as you can fit into the largest pot you own, along with the chicken and veg. This stock pot easily holds 6 litres.
Petrushka or parsley Petrushka is sometimes called Hamburg Parsley, a bit like a cross between a parsnip root with a flat-leaf parsley crown. I have never seen one in the shops in the UK, but my Dad bought me some seeds from the Mr Fothergill Eastern European collection . That said, this is quite a lot of effort for a leafy parsnip, eaten by people who can’t afford real parsnips, so I really wouldn’t bother. Just use some parsley stalks.
Salt A lot of people use Kosher salt in cooking, not sure why, but here's a legit use of it.
Ground white pepper
Love, guilt, repentance, forgiveness. Think about who you’re making the soup for and adjust the quantities accordingly, but not so much as to sour the broth. *Unfortunately it turns out that Love is not an FDA-approved ingredient so proceed with caution.
For the matzo balls (makes 24 balls, which is possibly too many)
270g matzo meal Look for the Kosher aisle/shelf/ghetto at your favourite supermarket.
Salt and ground white pepper
Schmaltz This is chicken fat. You will scoop this off the top of the soup, either as hot globules from the hot soup, or as a white-chocolatey slice from the top of the refrigerated soup. My Mum says it’s good for you. Alternatively use butter or rapeseed oil. You need about 4 tbsp of fat from whatever source.
Soda water 100ml
Optional ingredients for fancy balls (pick one or a combination): turmeric, ground ginger, fresh parsley, finely choped garlic or shallot, dill, coarsely ground back pepper.
Put all the soup ingredients in the largest pot you can get your hands on. No pot and no amount of water is too large. Bring to the boil, and keep it rolling until a layer of bubbly scum comes to the top. Skim it off and turn the pot down to simmer for 3-4 hours, or put in a slow cooker overnight or all day whilst you’re out at work.
Once it all starts cooking and some fat comes to the top, scoop off a few tablespoons-worth to put in the matzo balls.
Mix all the matzo ball ingredients together in bowl and season well. At this point you could add some of your fancy ingredients. I lie to add lots of pepper and enough parsley and dill to turn the balls green, but no one in my family approves. Put the mixture in the fridge to stiffen for at least half an hour before forming into balls. Poach them in water or less-lovingly-made stock for 30 mins or until they are big, bouncy and fluffy.
When you want to serve the soup, sieve it, then put it back on a high heat. Plop in the balls and let them boil in the soup for about 15 minutes..
Serve in generous portions to many loved ones. May be served with vermicelli noodles or orzo, and coins of carrot and shredded pieces of the cooked chicken. And if my parents aren’t watching, I add a glug of vodka, or serve with an ice-cold vodka chaser.
The soup gets better with age for about 5 days, then goes off, at first tasting sharp, then and smelling rank. It freezes well, which is lucky, as it’s annoying to make in quantities smaller than the shed-load.
You will notice that that you are left with a lot of boiled chicken, which has had all the chicken-ness sucked out of it. If you being super-frugal, you would pick out the bones, roast them, then boil them up again with some more celery, onions, carrot and fictional root vegetable to make a stock, which you put into one of your five industrial-size freezers and forget about it. Then, take the meat and fry it up with some more schmaltz, loads of salt, pepper, paprika and chilli. This is called gedempt, which literally means “dampened” but more accurate translates to “acquired taste”, if didn’t grow up in a shtetl. A shtetl is like Fiddler on the Roof without all the yiddle-diddling. Or your could mix the chicken with mayonnaise for sandwiches, or cook it up with some left-over egg-fried rice, peanuts, chilli and egg for a nasi goreng (the full recipe for which I might do another time because it’s lovely).
Enough, already! Let’s eat!
For observant Jews - quiet unlike myself - it goes a bit like this:
Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. The most solemn and holy day of the year, a day marked by fasting, prayer, and meditation. From sundown to sundown, not a morsel, not a drop should pass your lips. It comes ten days after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The intervening period are sometimes known as the Days of Awe, in which we confront our bad deeds and those we have done wrong to. We ask our trespasses be forgiven, and forgive those who have trespassed against us. At the end of all this soul searching, your friends and your family forgive you and you forgive them. Your god forgives you. Even you can forgive yourself.
And then, we eat.
For we non-observant Jews like myself, the process is less proscribed but is still imbued with symbol and significance. The seasons change, the leaves blush and burn, the kitchen fogs with soups and stews, honey cakes and pumpkin spice. The start of a new term, the fresh cracking open of books and conkers and the packaging of stationery. Renewal.
This year on Rosh Hashanah, I was two days in to my new career as a short order barbecue chef and already thinking that there must be easier ways to earn £9 per hour. My feet hurt and I smell of meat fat, apart from my left hand which smells weirdly of mayonnaise. I hadn't realised that mayonnaise was a smell. And despite being bone-crushingly tired after the last night’s shift, I had failed to get to sleep afterwards, racked by leg and lower back pain and panicking about which sauce goes with which meat.
The sleeplessness continued over the next few weeks. It gave me a lot of time to consider everything I had done wrong this year, in excruciating detail. My religious education is lacking in places and confused in others. I conflate the stories I was told in Hebrew school and by my grandparents - biblical, traditional and historic - and as a child I was terrified by all sorts of nighttime visitations: the Angel of Death, the golem, the prophet Elijah, the Einsatzgruppen, the tooth fairy, and Santa Claus. As the nights ticked forward towards Yom Kippur I considered myself before the recording angel, an ancient of days with a long white beard and blood red robes would be making a list and checking it twice, and decide if I was nice enough to be allowed to live another year.
I worry about how this year measures up. I haven't done much to recommend myself to either God or Santa this year. I fear I may well be on the Naughty List.
This year I have been scared and disheartened. I have been angry and sad. I have been not entirely honest. I have been vain and proud, for all the good it did me. Like Jonah I have been stuck in the belly of the beast with no thought for anyone or anything other than my own pitiful state and how the hell to get out. I have been a seething pit of resentment, begrudging everyone their health, their wealth, their happiness, their success, their good looks, their relationships. I have been a bad friend, a standoffish daughter, a flakey sister, an absentee aunt, a pointless employee and absolutely no cop whatsoever as a wife and partner.
I’m also probably a bit guilty of being somewhat hard on myself.
But how to say sorry and make amends? And how to forgive when you really, really don’t? I scraped the barrel of my soul trying to muster something that wasn’t green and slimy, and was surprised to find grains of… something. Compassion, maybe. Understanding. Accepting that we are all born to trouble, even as the sparks fly upwards. That we’re all clinging on for dear life. Maybe I could just understand that sometimes people fuck up, I fuck up, things are fucked up. Compassion. Understanding. Fuck it.
Friday night was Erev Yom Kippur, which is a bit like Christmas Eve if you knew that Christmas was going to be shit. Traditionally, it begins with the prayer of Kol Nidre. It’s a sacred, profound and cathartic moment, so I must say I felt conflicted, standing in my apron, gloves and work boots in a cramped commercial kitchen, prepping smoked pork and sausage meat for Spicy Hog barbecue sandwiches. Working on the Sabbath is bad enough, but up to my ankles in leather and up to my elbows in pig meat on Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths? Oy.
It’s coming up for sunset when the lights begin to flicker. The water stutters out of the tap. A power cut locally is resolved, but has somehow put all the water pumps offline for the block. Thames Water is called and lots of little white vans and tutting men in high viz appear. We struggle on for a bit, but there really is a very limited amount of time one can safely engage in food service without hot and cold running water. We have to close. Everyone’s being sent home. All the food prepped will have to be wasted, so I selflessly volunteer to give it a good home.
I call my mum. She’s made a chicken soup to break the fast, but not done anything else. She says to bring the brisket, but leave the pork. Not on Yom Kippur.
And so we will fast for the next 24-ish hours, or mean to, or attempt to. And then we will gather at my parents’ table, like we do every year. There will be seven of us, or ten, or fourteen, whoever can make it. The youngest not yet two, and the eldest not quite 90. We will gather and eat and talk and laugh as though the intervening months, years, centuries never happened, and if they did it’s just water under the bridge.
Love. Forgiveness. Acceptance. Chicken soup. Brisket.
It was the week before Christmas when I found myself crying in to a bowl of chickpeas. I was prepping for a party, narrating merrily in my head as though I was on camera. I’d always start out as Nigella, decending into Keith Floyd, then the Spitting Image version of Keith Floyd, and then the Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show. In this voiceover I was chatting about the provenance of the chickpea, the role of the legume in Middle Eastern cookery, the row over which of the Semitic peoples invented hummus. My hands were plunged into a vat of cold water, as I lovingly shucked each individual pea of its seedcoat, so the resulting hummus would be slick and silky as gelato. Better than gelato. Garlicky gelato.
I was studying horticulture at the time - which is another story - and checked off the parts of the seed, none of which sounded appetising. Testa, micropile, radicle. Gently squeeze the pea, nudging it off-centre without crushing it, and it breaks easily in two revealing the endosperm, replete with enough protein and fat to get the embryonic plant through a long, dark winter under the ground. For the benefit of my friends, however, I would also be adding a bucket of olive oil and tahini, and rather more cumin, garlic and lemon juice than is traditional. Certainly enough salt and fat and spice and sharpness to get them through a boozy night. On Radio 4 Sheila Dillon was interviewing Diana Henry about her early career and her favourite food writers.
The programme finished and I played it again. And again. Food writing was A Thing. It was a thing that People did. There were People who Cooked Things and Wrote About it. Some of them even did so For Money.
When my partner came through door he met a cacophony. Falafel deep frying. The power-blender on full jet-engine mode, next to the crappy old blender rattling like a Kalashnikov. The radio on full volume. And me, howling, howling, howling.
He was used to a certain level of histrionics before a party. I would plan 20 different dishes and inevitably run out of time, or thyme. I would cut a finger badly on a mandolin and have to prepare the food single handed. I’d cause a small house fire trying to smoke meat in a domestic fan oven. I’d push the blender beyond its capability and end up breaking or fusing or jamming it. And I’d be cursing J. I’d expect him to develop all kinds of new skills and faculties: psychic abilities, a boss who would let him take the afternoon off, a sense of urgency, table-setting flair, a knowledge of wines, and ideally some knife skills. I’d also expect him to clear up the destruction I had wrought in our kitchen before the guests arrived, and again after they had left and I had passed out drunk and footsore on the sofa.
The destruction was something. At best, the kitchen would resemble a Jackson Pollock, but often it was more like a Goya or a Bosch. Once there was a whole pig's head snarling from a stock pot. Another time five kilograms of coleslaw needed to be destroyed as it was no longer kosher or suitable for vegetarians thanks to the amount of my blood in it. Once he arrived at what seemed to be a crime scene but what was in fact a very good romesco sauce splattered up the walls by a malfunctioning Vitamix. A dirty protest turned out to be a similar issue with the same appliance and a chocolate mousse.
And as my skills developed, and my friends' enthusiasm for my cookery grew, so my ambitions and expectations would inflate. The amount of people we could fit in our tiny flat. The amount of food these people could consume. How late they were prepared to eat, and how unfamiliar an ingredient they would put in their mouths. I would plan and sketch out menus and recipes in great detail, after weeks of thought. I wanted to show people I loved them by what I put before them on the table. But I also wanted to challenge and confront them. I wanted my table to be a place of ideas and debate. I wanted passions to be stirred, arms to be flung emphatically, voices raised in argument, laughter and song. I wanted people to be as surprised by what came out of their mouths as what they put in to them.
That was the idea, anyway. More often, the only disagreements would be between me and my partner and be purely administrative. There would be some good natured scoffing, followed by some drunken singing and dancing in our tiny living room. He would break the back of the washing up and go to bed, and I’d open one last bottle with the last remaining guest at 3am.
But all this cooking and feeding and experimenting and scribbling seemed to be going somewhere. It needed to be going somewhere, because I really felt that I was going nowhere. It had been a tough time. A couple of bad moves and a lot of bad luck had driven my career into a muddy ditch. My dad had been very sick and in hospital more than out. My sisters had both had babies. I had been alternately battling and ignoring a severe stomach condition which left me wracked with chronic pain. It had played such havoc with my nervous system that my entire body ached and stabbed, and destroyed my digestive system to the extent that a mystery ingredient in a nice restaurant would send me writhing on the bathroom floor in agony. I had lost and gained mountains of weight. Repeated surgeries left me weak and and angry and phobic. I was stuck, angrily spinning my wheels and gesticulating furiously at bystanders. I felt defensive, hyper-alert, braced, vigilant, triggered. In the days before the hummus incident, there had been more bad news, devastating news, from another specialist. But for all the world I was just another 30-something freelancer home-making hummus accompanied by Radio 4 in an Islington kitchen, fairy lights twinkling and the tiny flat smelling of Christmas tree and oranges, cinnamon and ras al hanout.
Something had to give. On this occasion, it was the hummus.
A Sort-of Recipe for Hummus
To be served on the bare wood floor amid shards of a very broken and once very beautiful Persian bowl.
I’ll do more on hummus another time, as my recent Israel trip showed me that this is really just the tip of the hummus iceberg. For future recipes, I’ll do a proper home economics job, but for now, I’ve bean vague on quantities, as I do it all by taste and touch, and recommend you do the same. These quantities should feed 6 people, and can be stored in the fridge for a couple of days, or frozen. Or, you know, thrown on the floor as you weep for your lost youth, vitality, dreams etc.
1 can of chickpeas (you could use dried, but you have to soak them overnight then boil them and cool them, so it takes a bit more planning)
Lemon juice - to taste, but I use about 3 lemons
Ground cumin - to taste, but start with use three-quarters of tsp. Make sure you use ground cumin, or you can roast and grind the whole seeds yourself
Tahini (sesame paste, available from most big supermarkets in the ethnic/kosher/Middle Eastern section - to taste, but at least 2 tablespoons, and you could use loads if you like the flavour
Salt - to taste, but "more than you think you need" is a good place to start.
Garlic - I tend to go for "too much", so just add a clove at a time. I use about half a bulb for 1 tin of chickpeas
Olive oil - a surprisingly large amount
Other ingredients you can use one or two of, if you're feeling fancy:
Freshly ground black pepper
Preserved lemons - blitz the whole thing and use instead of the lemon and salt
Sumac - ground purple dried berry, tastes like lemon
Lemon salt - er, lemony salt
Toasted pine nuts
Black and white sesame seed
Drizzle of strongly flavoured oil - lemon infused rapeseed oil, sesame oil, good quality extra virgin olive oil
Ras al hanout - Moroccan spice blend with rose petals in
Za’atar - Middle Eastern herb and spice mix with hyssop and sesame.
Pomegranate molasses - sharp and sweet
Soy sauce - savoury and culturally incongruous yum.
Loving peel your chickpeas. Add everything together (except the oil) and blend or mash. Add in the oil (and the odd tiny splash of cold water) until the texture is right. It’s more olive oil than you expect: I use a similar quantity of oil as chickpeas. Taste and adjust flavours, by adding more lemon and salt, and any fancy bits you choose.
Also on the menu:
Chicken soup with matzo balls
Lamb sharwarma, made porchetta-style with a swirl of ras al hanout, fruit and mint stuffing
Falatkes! Half way between a latke (potato pancake) and a falafel, made with sweet and regular potato, and served with a green tahini sauce
Fennel and winter veg slaw with pomegranates
Spicy devils on horseback (dates stuffed with blanched almonds and harrissa, wrapped in bacon and panfried
Flatbreads and naan from Ararat bakery
And, as a last minute substitution, shop-bought hummus.
Serve with the love of a good man, dear friends, and about 24 bottles of Cava.