It’s curious in so many ways, watching the consumer bubble as it shrivels. People don’t stop wanting to buy stuff just because they are frightened. There are so many ways that fear can motivate you to buy yet more. Over the past year, I’ve watched with interest as more and more items in our weekly Sainsbury’s shop have been reassuringly repackaged as Basics, with ugly orange labels and cosy little sayings: Basics potatoes come in ‘all shapes, all sizes’; Basics flour is ‘a little less refined’; Basics houmous has ‘less tahini, just as tasty’, and at 75p for 200g, is actually a little more expensive than the mainstream version, which gives you 300g for £1.05. People imagined that a crash, when it came, would act like Occam’s razor, cutting out the hedge funds and leaving the world a little saner, but that’s not what we seem to be seeing. The economy whines and wrinkles, like a washing-up liquid bottle (‘cleans, no added promises’) on a fire. Words rear up and loom enormous – David Cameron, for example, may find this with his plan for ‘thrifty government’ – and fizz and collapse and make a nasty smell.
It is, I take it, obvious that one of the many things no one particularly needs at the moment is a book that tells you how to save money. You are, perhaps, against saving, an adherent of what James Meek has called ‘karaoke Keynesianism’ – a position recently expounded on a Radio Four documentary called The Threat of Thrift. Or you are, maybe, keen to save, but against buying yet more stuff in order to do so: for budgetary reasons (‘don’t forget normal libraries,’ India Knight urges), or maybe environmental ones (all those poor exhausted trees). And yet here the books are, regardless; and of course I’m going to read them. As if life wasn’t already hard enough – having to keep oneself groomed and going, no matter how sad or lonely, how deeply caught in debt – now they’re telling us we’re dealing with a worn-out planet, with people who have nothing, with future generations who will, with good reason, blame it all on us. So yes, I am looking for ideas, thanks, any thoughts at all. You never know when you might come across a tip that makes it all seem worth it.
Never light your oven to cook a single dish; at least stick in a pie for tomorrow, and heat the washing-up water as the oven cools. Lag your hot-water system with ‘thicknesses of newspaper’ or felt. ‘Every woman her own clothes doctor.’ It’s the grubs that do the damage, not the moths you see flying about – ‘Sun, air and cleanliness are your safeguards.’ ‘plan your meals as far ahead as possible … With a little ingenuity you can cook a whole meal … over one ring.’ To read through Make Do and Mend – a great little compilation of facsimiled leaflets from the 1940s Board of Trade – is to understand, finally, why they called this stuff ‘domestic science’. It’s about a basic understanding of and respect for the physical properties of the ordinary things about you: what heat does, and light and moisture; the natural history of insects, and dead plants and flesh; the composition and qualities of dust, grit, scum, slut-wool; acids and alkalis and what happens when you mix them. It’s about cutting through nonsense, and the importance of elbow grease; it’s about accepting and in some way revering the cycle of life and the smallness of one’s place in it; in short, about getting real. (For ages, I used to wonder why my toilet smelled like the Trench Experience at the Imperial War Museum when I cleaned it, which I did by pouring in limescale remover and bleach. Then I found out that I was, in effect, making poison gas whenever I did this. I asked the IWM how they got such an accurate scent of chlorine and they told me they use ‘smells purchased from a specialist company who supply themed aromas’: ‘Dragon’s Breath, Clinic/Hospital and Beef’.)
There are, of course, excellent reasons to encourage a make do and mend revival. The slogans are great, and the typography, and those slender, sweetly smiling housewives: they look so different from the scowling, slouch-shouldered harridans you see in queues in photos of the period. I wonder why? The spot colour is mostly teal and Penguin orange, toning nicely with the Aga and the Smeg fridge. And the advice, for the most part, is sound and clear, as useful now as it ever was, with the exception of the emphasis on solid fuel, and perhaps ‘Mrs Sew-and-Sew’s’ stuff about alterations – patching, reinforcing, letting out a dress with extra side-panels, a bigger yoke or waist. Does anyone even know what a yoke is these days, or a placket? Can’t you just buy a mezzo-boho Hotchpotch Dress from the Boden catalogue?
No one in the 1940s argued about the urgency of such advice, which is one huge rhetorical advantage the Home Front material has over early 21st-century confusion, peak oil awareness and general eco-fear. ‘Of course you like your slice of toast at breakfast. But toast is a dangerous “fuel thief”. You would hardly believe it but if one household gave up toast for a year there would be 2000 extra bullets for the war effort. Makes you think, doesn’t it?’ You’d have to be a right spiv to go on eating toast after that, even though the implied causality has to be nonsense. ‘Get together and combine against Hitler by making one grate serve two families. What hardship is this compared to Russian conditions?’ Well, what can you say? In the propaganda of the time, bullets and Stalingrad could and did belong to the same world, the same bossy Home Service register, as the armchair and the Sunday dinner. Our current predicament is, in the long run, more parlous, but one component of the problem is that people do not feel it, do not see, like Banquo’s ghost, the eventual outcome as they turn up their dials, chuck out their batteries, mislead their children.
And so, without Hitler to use as handy blackmail – now you’re not even allowed to blackmail children into eating vegetables, lest you make them anorexic later on – appeals to a moral basis for the thrifty lifestyle tend to be statistical, and somewhat wishy-washy. ‘I don’t think many of us realise how much food we throw away, but the statistics are astonishing: 6.7 million tonnes a year and rising,’ the journalist and food historian Kate Colquhoun writes at the beginning of her Thrifty Cookbook. ‘That’s a third of all the food we buy, and enough to fill Wembley stadium to the brim eight times a year.’ She doesn’t give a source for her figures, so I’m not exactly sure which ‘we’ she is referring to: the general public? The unco guid? Supporters of the England football team? But we all know the deep truth of her first basic point: ‘We live in a world where half of us are killing ourselves with excess calories while the other half starve.’ Our ‘rotting food, airless in its black bags’, creates methane, ‘a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide’. Though we might question the point of regurgitating these facts to the sort of audience that picks up a book like this.
Most things, however, about The Thrifty Cookbook are clever and pleasingly frugal. It’s well structured, with simple stews, pies, hashes. It has nice advice on portion control for starchy staples (100g pasta ≈ 80g rice ≈ 200g mashed potato), on avoiding reheated-rice-poisoning (cover it, chill it, plunge it in boiling water), and on reviving the art of what it calls ‘the noble soufflé’. It has charming, Muji-ish line drawings on nicely eco-bogroll-like paper, 100 per cent recycled, of course. It uses the phrase ‘stating the bleeding obvious’ in the appropriately self-deprecating way. And the connection finally settled on between one’s own kitchen habits and the horror of that belching landfill is cunningly laconic: thrifty food is, apparently, ‘tasty and infinitely, almost smugly, rewarding’ – that reader-sparing slippage of the smugness from subject to predicate being a staple of the green-consumerist marketing voice, though not often done with such class. ‘And, yes, it could even help change your world’ – apparently.
It’s clearly important to India Knight that she should never be seen to be guilty or anxious or apologetic or sentimental: ‘I have no guilt about the number of handbags I own’; ‘I’m not into self-flagellation’; ‘I’m so over having to apologise for being middle-class.’ So it’s in character that she should refuse the wasted food/starving millions matrix – ‘I knew the starving children of the world wouldn’t starve any less because I was binning sprouty potatoes or stale bread’ – and yet when you think about it, you realise that her formulation makes no sense. Shouldn’t that ‘less’ be a ‘more’, or is she somehow saying that binning is good, because she isn’t forcing the children to eat those sprouty spuds? Or is this merely a mangled expression of regret at having wasted the food? It’s typical, though – and not Knight’s fault – that it’s the potatoes we like to think about, so full of sprouty life, whereas the starving children are, as usual, a mere abstraction.
Knight’s in-your-faceness works well in the introduction to The Thrift Book, which describes the big-spender mindset in Pucci-print swirls: ‘Just as I used to see being fat as being indicative of having a wonderful appetite for life (as well as buns), I think I subconsciously saw my financial idiocy as a sign of a rather charmingly bohemian easy-come-easy-go approach to life in general’; ‘I’ve got over lying in the bath pretending to be Ophelia’ – so it wasn’t just me, then? – ‘but, clearly, not over thinking money is, like, really, really square.’ Some of the advice in The Thrift Book is sensible and boring: shop locally and daily, and/or online, but always with a ‘properly compiled list’. Buy orange-label, go to Lidl instead of Waitrose, avoid ready meals, BOGOF, nasty things like economy mince (even the Sainsbury’s copywriters couldn’t think of a nice thing to say about theirs). Eat seasonally: ‘it’s fashionable, it’s thrifty.’ ‘Bottled water has had its day.’ Other bits are sensible and quite interesting: if you get a Liberty’s storecard, even if you don’t use it, you’ll be invited to previews of their sales. ‘Old-fashioned girdles’ are ‘much cheaper than miracle pants and just as effective.’ ‘Dry-cleaning is mostly a myth … The truth of the matter is … anything that has a label saying “Dry Clean” can be washed by hand.’ I liked the parsimony – in both senses – of a recipe to make an exfoliating face mask out of ground-up aspirin: aspirin is salicylic acid, which is apparently the active ingredient of commercially available face masks. And the idea of a Bonfire Night picnic on a hill, with hot dogs wrapped in foil and hot apple juice in flasks.
Knight is a comic writer, happiest amid the farce and absurdity of consumerism, with its daydreams and its get-rich-quick schemes, its binges and its splurges and its doomed, spasmodic efforts to hold its tummy in. The science bits in the book do not give the impression of systematic thinking: ‘Chemical-laden cleaning products’ are better replaced with substances such as borax (Na2B4O7.10H2O) and bicarbonate of soda (NaHCO3); the ‘waxes, oils, chemicals’ of ordinary make-up can be replaced by ‘natural’ mineral make-up, ‘basically … titanium and zinc oxide’. She refuses even to think about energy-saving light bulbs (‘hideous’), and likes veg boxes only if they’re the sort that can be customised week by week, and though she is willing to concede the excellence of the Mooncup, a washable vessel for collecting menstrual fluid, is too ‘repulsed’ to try it out. Instead, she invests her energy in a section entitled ‘How to Look Expensive’: a matter mainly of ‘good skin’, and therefore of using ‘a dab of illuminating cream on your cheekbones’ in order to look ‘quite shiny’, because ‘matt looks poor rather than luxey’. ‘I’ve been interested in this since I was about 12,’ she writes – what, not in international relations, or the physics of global warming? But which would you rather read about? And which says more about the way people in the rich world actually live today?
The other interesting thing about Knight’s book is how modern and unretro it is, how uninterested in being sentimental about the thrifty past. The quilting bit talks about the Aids quilt in San Francisco. The knitting bit is largely about blogs and YouTube, the ‘new’ craft being, in this respect, a bit like gonzo pornography, something people have always done in private but only recently started posting on the net. Even her local WI branch is ‘a hotbed of hip, successful women’ and involves ‘an awful lot of A-list London networking’. This cosmopolitanism may be because Knight, as related in her 2003 book The Shops (a copy of which, I’m proud to say, I got for 50p from a charity shop in Peckham), is of Indian and Belgian parentage and lived in Brussels as a child, so freeing her from that awful habit the British have of pinging straight back to Second World War nostalgia. Item: the Weekend Guardian’s spring fashion issue, with Alexa Chung, the nut-brown-haired television presenter, posed to look like a figure from 1940s propaganda posters – Women of Britain, Go to the Shops. Item: those creepy Home Office billboards – ‘You Have The Right NOT To Remain Silent’ – copied from that ubiquitous ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ graphic, designed in 1939 for use in the event of a Nazi invasion, now much seen on the nation’s mugs and cufflinks. A while ago, I visited the wonderful Forties House at the Imperial War Museum with a friend from Poland, ready to emote in the usual British way about the Morrison shelter in my grandma’s kitchen; but my Polish friend had no cosy feelings about a time of terror. Most people, in most countries, see things her way, not mine.
Now everybody’s favourite millionaire tellygarch has been at it too, in Jamie’s Ministry of Food. ‘During and after the First World War terrible food shortages meant many people were malnourished. So when the Second World War broke out the government knew they’d have to do something pretty clever to stop this happening again,’ Oliver writes, introducing what he describes as a ‘modern-day war … over the epidemic of bad health and the rise of obesity’. His book has sprigged wallpaper on the cover, with ceramic ducks on the endpapers, red Gill Sans lettering and a full-page dedication, with period photo, to Marguerite Patten, ‘one of the original Ministry of Food girls and, since those days, a national treasure … Lots of love, Jamie x’. Like Colquhoun with her black rubbish-bags, Oliver has a vision of ‘filling Wembley Stadium’ – only this time with people cooking recipes from this cookbook. ‘Just imagine the swell of fun … If we, the public, can show the government we really care, then a load of other stuff will start to fall into place.’
Now I love Jamie as much as anyone; his apology to Julie Critchlow for calling her an old scrubber was one of the best things I’ve ever seen on TV. But what is this missionary malarkey about Jamie going out to teach cookery to the benighted folk of Rotherham? Could his research team not have found at least a couple of people who manage to feed their families well on low incomes, and got them to share their tips? Allotments, for example, have been around for generations, and have only recently become a trendy posh-people thing. Dishes traditionally cooked by people of African and Asian origin are generally as cheap, tasty and nutritious as anyone could wish; indeed, Jamie’s Ministry of Food includes a chapter on ‘easy curries’ among the ‘comforting stews’ and ‘kick-start breakfasts’.
‘Everyone loves a good curry. Most Brits need to get their weekly fix, and I’m no different!’ Jamie writes. ‘So, when putting this chapter together, I started to think about the most common and best-loved curries, the ones we buy every week, whether from restaurants or ready-made from the supermarket.’ So here we have recipes for veggie jalfrezi and chicken tikka masala, simplified to make them easy to cook at home, copied by a celebrity chef from ready meals in supermarkets, which copied them from restaurants, which presumably started off by scaling up the sorts of food they saw being cooked at home … Or you could just fry up a bunch of veg with spices and tinned tomatoes, only where would all the superstar chefs go if people were allowed to be content with that?
Eating for Victory is a companion volume to Make Do and Mend, and is less useful since pretty well all the recipes in it are completely disgusting. And yet, as documentary evidence, it illustrates unpalatable truths not really confronted in any of the other books. As the food writer Jill Norman explains in her excellent introduction, people could not have been fed as nutritiously and relatively equitably had ‘food preparation, preservation, storage and transport’ not been industrialised: flesh compressed and tinned in the forms of Spam and snoek, protein isolated and packaged as powdered eggs and milk; gum-soothing white bread replaced with the B-complexified National Loaf (‘many people did not find its greyish colour appetising’), and lovely natural butter with nasty chemical-ridden margarine, fortified with the vital amines studied by Jack Drummond, Lord Woolton’s scientific adviser, in his prewar research. ‘Drummond’s organisational flair, together with Woolton’s determination … led to a national food policy that promoted adequate nourishment and the economical use of foodstuffs,’ Norman adds – a policy enforced by undercover inspectors and ministry snoopers, nearly 900 of whom, according to Angus Calder, were working by 1944 in the Ministry of Food.
And there’s even worse. If you are genuinely committed to being thrifty, to aiming, even, at something like food justice, you’re going to have to stint, I’m afraid, and to eat things that simply aren’t very nice. ‘Butter Extender No 2 – Melt margarine and add it to an equal quantity of mashed potato. Mix and use cold.’ Orange Whip is made from flour, cornflour, sugar and orange squash. Or what about Fish and Cabbage Spread, Cabbage and Mince Scramble, Fortified Sugar, Mock Cream? The Vitamin ABCD is nutritionally impeccable, but depressing: ‘Every day you need two or three tablespoonsful of lightly cooked green vegetables; or swedes when green vegetables are unobtainable.’ Well, I get a weekly veg box from Riverford Farm, with India-unfriendly non-negotiable contents; every winter, I notice, neeps (aka swedes, or, in the US, rutabaga – and thus the ‘craggy wad’ with ‘the texture … of wet dog crap’ that sparks the terrible primal scene in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections) turn up much more than anyone could want. I imagine, as I search stoically for the masher, that this is because during the winter, in the British climate, sometimes there is nothing but neeps to offer. So why doesn’t Jamie mention this essential component of the greener British diet? The Thrifty Cookbook at least uses up one or two, in a beef hash and grated into a rösti with other leftover roots.
It is easy to despair when you start to think properly about food and sustainability and the future, without the moral luck of hindsight or other comfort. Thanks be, then, for Real Simple magazine, with its upscale American versions of those Top Tips you get in Viz. Inundated with those tiny plastic bags you get spare buttons in when you buy new clothes? Repurpose them as vitamin pill containers, and take a full-page photograph, with some pretty blue and green buttons on a plate nearby. Bored with paper coffee filters? Use one to line your mixing bowl when baking, ‘then simply trash it when you’re done’. ‘Aha!’ use for a plastic soap container: ‘Housing a camera’. For a turkey baster, ‘bailing out a waterlogged plant pot’. Style these items also in pretty hues of green and blue. ‘I don’t know about you, but I’m having a really hard time figuring out how or when to spend money these days,’ claims the editor, a pretty blonde woman in an ugly jumper. ‘If only we could go back to the good old days … Not possible, I know.’ Yet, the magazine promises, ‘for those of you who kind of liked the way things were before, we have cooked up a cover package that offers this benefit: your life, just cheaper.’ Swap your latte for a misto. Negotiate lower fees with your healthcare providers. Dust off your library card. ‘Your life, just cheaper. Yet somehow richer too.’