In Tunisia in the early 1980s a standard loaf of white bread cost 80 millimes (0.08 dinars). But the price was set to more than double in 1984: the government had decided to cut wheat subsidies to meet loan conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund. The town of Douz on the edge of the Sahara was the first to rise up against the decision in late December 1983, in what would become a national revolt. ‘It was a big difference!’ Mohamed Fekih Chedly told me. ‘We acted impulsively, we didn’t have twenty millimes and they were going to make the bread 170.’
In my first year of secondary school, a science teacher began a lesson on nutrition by asking us to tell her what we ate for dinner so we could categorise the components of our meals into their correct food groups. She looked aghast as child after child muttered ‘chips and beans’. For some, ‘chips and beans’ was cover for something less wholesome and dependable. The teacher quickly abandoned the exercise and instead reverted to the mythical meal on the ‘food wheel’ poster Blu-tacked to the wall, a testament to our parents’ failings.
When McDonald’s announced that it would be delivering a million free school meals to children in need, the fast food giant was said to have ‘shamed’ the government. But McDonald’s – with its union-busting techniques, poverty wages and insecure working conditions – isn’t shaming the government by intervening; it’s fulfilling one of the Conservatives’ key articles of faith: that people should be dependent on the will and generosity of the private sector and the free market. When the Conservative MP Ben Bradley claims that extending free school meals ‘increases dependency’ on the state, he is not only peddling a myth about the psychopathology of working-class people, but toeing the line that, even in a pandemic, we should not turn to the state.
Bribing people to congregate during a pandemic and spend money so that others don’t starve is the mark of an economic system that doesn’t work, and a government that lacks the imagination to do better.
‘Chlorinated chicken’ is pejorative. Chlorine gas doesn’t come into it. The meat isn’t bleached. Poultry carcasses are washed with dissolved antimicrobials such as sodium chlorite, chlorine dioxide and trisodium phosphate. The EU banned it in 1997, not because the washes leave the meat dangerous to eat but because it might incentivise poultry producers and processors to give hygiene a lower priority. This argument was used in the 1930s by opponents of milk pasteurisation.
Earlier this year, a colleague sent me a link to an announcement on Eater London that had made him 'laugh aloud as a near-parodic London 2018 food thing’: three of ‘London’s hottest restaurants’ would be joining forces for ‘one night only in Soho’ at Kiln, a Thai barbecue joint that was voted the best restaurant in the UK at the National Restaurant Awards a few months later. Chefs from Kiln and Som Saa, a Thai pop-up that crowdfunded its way into a permanent home, and sommeliers from P. Franco, would be creating a ‘standing-room-only larb bar. Guests will pay £45 on the door, there’s only one type of dish, it’s all-you-can-eat, there’ll be natural wine, and there’ll be no bookings. There will be queues.’
In the spring of 2009 I received a phone call from someone who worked for a programme on the Travel Channel called No Reservations, of which I had never heard. He told me they were planning to shoot an episode in San Francisco over the summer and would I be interested in appearing. As no one had ever asked me to be on television before (or since), I said: ‘Sure.’ I was told that the star, Anthony Bourdain, had borrowed a copy of my book of essays, Cutty, One Rock, on a long flight to Sri Lanka from one of his staff and liked it so much he wanted to have me on his show. ‘That’s nice,’ I thought to myself.
Weeding in the garden of my ex-council bungalow this summer, I came across a young dandelion. It poked up next to the arthritic rose planted by the previous tenant, a Greek Cypriot woman who lived here for 16 years until her death. Her son visited us when we moved in and told us about the barbecues they had in the garden and the dolmades his mother made from the vine she grew here. After she died, he cut it back, but stopped short of digging it out, unsure whether the strangers moving in would want it. We did.
On 10 April 1845, the young John Ruskin wrote home to his father describing a meal that he had recently enjoyed at Champagnole: two trout ‘just out of the river, of the richest flavour’, a woodcock ‘on delicate toast’, and a ‘small perfectly compounded’ soufflé, all washed down with a bottle of Sillery mousseux champagne. As the sun set, ‘glowing over the pinewoods and far up into the sky’, making the champagne ‘suddenly become rose’, he wrote that he ‘felt sad at thinking how few were capable of having such enjoyment, and very doubtful whether it were at all proper in me to have it all to myself’.
On Thursday, Labour outlined plans to apply VAT on private school fees to fund free school meals for every primary pupil in England. The numbers add up: the provision would cost £900 million a year, and the prospective tax would raise far more than that. Speaking alongside the shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, Jeremy Corbyn said the measure would help ensure that ‘no child is held back because of their background.’ Free school meals are far from gesture politics; their nutritional and cognitive benefits, especially for poorer children, are well documented.
No one could accuse Diana Kennedy of cowardice. The 92-year-old Englishwoman lives in an adobe house in Michoacán, three hours west of Mexico City, where she writes about Mexican food culture. She has seen off extortion attempts by the local police. She isn’t bothered by nearby drug traffickers. She travels through the provinces of Mexico in an old jeep, in which she also sleeps. She takes a spade with her so she can dig the wheels out of the mud when necessary. ‘I never travel in straight lines,’ she says.
Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation included in its first edition an appendix with vegetarian recipes, ‘Eating for Liberated People’. For utilitarians, the belly’s as good a persuasive route as the brain. The Transcribe Bentham project at University College London has put out Jeremy Bentham’s Prison Cooking, the perfect gift for a loved one spending Christmas in the nick.
In André Maurois's 1930 children's novel Patapoufs et Filifers (translated by Rosemary Benét as Fattypuffs and Thinifers in 1940), Terry and Edmund are the children of Mr and Mrs Double. Terry, like his father, is thin; Edmund, like his mother, isn't. One day, the inseparable brothers descend into an underworld where you're either a Fattypuff or a Thinifer. The brothers are therefore divided, one packed off to Thiniville, the other to Fattyborough.
Escalope de foie gras à la Cambacérès, roughly speaking, is a piece of toast covered with an apple purée and a slice of foie gras placed on top, the escalope already dusted with flour and briskly fried without oil or butter. A Madeira sauce – reduced beef stock with some of that fortified wine – is poured over it all. (A warning: this completely misrepresents the dish. There shouldn't be anything rough about it. A Madeira sauce isn’t something you can rustle up in moments.)
A new butcher's opened in Primrose Hill earlier this autumn, and because the shop sells foie gras it has been besieged by animal rights protesters, if only on Saturday afternoons. 'You have blood on your hands,' was one of the taunts aimed at the butchers the other day. The livers of wild geese and ducks typically double in size as they prepare for migration or the winter ahead. If domesticated and force-fed, their livers can expand six times or more. The fattening of all animals is ancient and persistent, and the making of foie gras is as old as Greece. Ditto, the sacrificial and spiritual significance of the livers of goats, sheep and cattle; the complexion of a liver determined whether the feasting element of a sacrifice would go ahead. If the liver looked unusual then the animal was dispensed with. The cultivation of edible livers has been so systematic and accompanied with such veneration and symbolic force that to call the practice 'inhumane' is, historically speaking, to misrepresent it (which isn't to say the animals don't suffer).
Amanita caesarea is an edible mushroom that grows around the Mediterranean from late August to October. In France, it’s known as the oronge, in Italy the ovolo. In London, they’re Caesars, or that’s what the greengrocer said when I bought some last week. He’d heard about them for years, but this was the first time he'd seen them at New Covent Garden. There weren't many takers over the next few days, I noticed; orange and yellow, Caesars are beguiling to look at, but that's their problem. Mushroom buyers in Britain tend to like their fungi to look like a suit: neutral.
In his autobiography, My Silent War, Kim Philby reminisces about the food he knew in London in the 1930s. 'Haute cuisine', he liked to label it, only the 'haute' element was more about his appreciation than it was about the food itself. His taste, as two new books about him suggest, was for Mediterranean cooking, food that Elizabeth David would make better known after the war – bouillabaisse, paella, that sort of thing. He apparently wasn't a bad cook, either, which was less typical of men of Philby's background.
Horse sold as beef led to Chris Elliott’s review into the integrity and assurance of food supply networks. His interim report was published on 12 December. The proposed ‘food crime unit’ gripped the media. It’s a good idea. But not as good as the idea for a ‘legally privileged information gathering facility’ run by industry, separate from government. Elliott could have called it a ‘clype unit’ if he’d used his Ulster Scots. A clype is a tell-tale. The facility would be a safe haven for industry to share suspicions, even gossip, while protecting commercial confidentiality.
As the saying goes, horses for courses – and now, if the Princess Royal gets her way, those courses will include not just Aintree or Newmarket, but first and main, possibly served with horseradish sauce or horse chestnuts. Princess Anne, as she used to be known before she was upgraded to Princess Royal as one in the eye for Diana, declared last week that horse should be on the menu again, notwithstanding the brouhaha earlier this year over horse meat. Times are hard: food is dear. So the proles can't afford Tesco value sausage? Let them eat horse.
Earlier this year the WWF announced that Nutella, the chocolate spread, would soon be produced only from sustainable palm oil. This sounds like good news. Millions of hectares of rainforest have been cleared to make way for palm plantations. In Borneo and Sumatra, this could soon mean the extinction of the orangutan. The smog that recently enveloped Singapore was caused by fires used to clear forests.
The British aversion to eating horse is strong and longstanding. ‘Horse-Eating’, the lead piece in Charles Dicken’s Household Words for 19 April 1856, explains why: Prejudice, and nothing else! the same prejudice which makes the English refuse to taste frogs and escargots, though both are esteemed and expensive dishes on the continent; which makes the Orientals reject the flesh of the hog, though here we know how good it is; which causes, in short, nearly one-half the world to loathe nutriment which is greedily consumed by the other half; which has given rise to the true, but unreasonable fact, that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. The problem isn’t taste. On his last march, Captain Scott’s diary entry for 18 February 1913 read: ‘Temp -5.50. At Shambles Camp.’ Captain Oates’s ponies had been shot there on the way to the Pole. ‘Here with plenty of horsemeat we have had a fine supper... new life seems to come with greater food immediately.’ On the next day: ‘To-night we had a sort of stew fry of pemmican and horseflesh, and voted it the best hoosh we ever had on a sledge journey.’
Yesterday it was reported that 75 per cent of beef products exported to Ireland from Poland may not be beef but horse. The Food Standards Agency in the UK promises to make public from now on the results of its investigations into the meat (and horse) trade. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Auguste Escoffier was draughted into the army as a cook and stationed at Metz. He wrote about horse meat in his autobiography. Food at first was plentiful; then, as the war carried on, it wasn't: Around 15 September the lack of food supplies began to be felt and I had to attack my reserves.
The cost of eating and drinking is rising. Breweries and beeries won’t feel the recent increase in barley prices as fast as farmers will: those who use it for animal feed have already seen the price of a bushel of non-malted barley (about 22 kg) double since the end of June. Bad weather in Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, which between them take half the world’s barley to market, is the cause. The rise pushes up the price of grains in general and hits us all eventually, but the hit is staggered. In rich countries we spend less than one fifth of our income on food; in developing countries the figure is more like a half or three-quarters. The gap is narrowing as the value of food appreciates all over the world.
The revelation that meat from the bulls Dundee Paratrooper and Parable has been eaten by people created a media storm this week. It happened because the animals were the offspring of the cloned product Vandyk-K Integ Paradise 2, a Holstein cow in Wisconsin. Particular outrage has been expressed by Compassion in World Farming, the RSPCA and the Soil Association. They have said that the cloning process causes animals to suffer, and have raised food safety concerns. The Food Standards Agency is the main regulator; it has pointed out that milk and meat from clones and their progeny is a 'novel food' and requires authorisation from them before it can be marketed. They say that this was never sought. I have no doubt that the milk and meat from these animals was safe to consume.
In this week's New Yorker, Jill Lepore reviews a new book on management consultancy by Matthew Stewart, The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting It Wrong. Both the book and the piece take a dim view of what management consultancy achieves: offices become more 'efficient', but life doesn't become any better for those who work in them. Efficiency was meant to lead to a shorter workday, but, in the final two decades of the twentieth century, the average American added a hundred and sixty-four hours of work in the course of a year; that’s a whole extra month’s time, but not, typically, a month’s worth of either happiness minutes or civic participation.