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NOT CUTTING THE MUSTARD


For years after the Apollo moon landing, articles in the newspaper predicted a time when we would no longer sit down to a meal but pop a range of brightly coloured pills instead. My Mum used to laugh and say she couldn't wait for the day: no more greasy pots and pans to wash, no more heavy baskets of shopping to wrestle home from the shops. This was back when high streets had a greengrocer, a butcher, a baker, and a small general store for dry and tinned goods.

As we pondered space technology and the airborne antics of the American astronauts - their peculiar culinary and toilet routines forced by weightlessness and the confines of the space capsule - Mum would be flipping sausages under the grill, mashing potatoes and carrots and stirring in chopped cabbage, along with milk and a good knob of butter. My brother and I would have been engaged in some tedious small chore, such as shelling peas or slicing onions, and as the inevitable argument erupted over whose turn it was to do the washing up I can recall thinking that those vials of coloured pills might have their merits.

Recently I watched a woman with two young daughters pluck a boxed meal from the chill cabinet in a supermarket and slide the cardboard sleeve aside.

"I wonder if you might like this for tea, Charlotte?"

The children peered through the cellophane, a discussion ensued, and the box was placed in the trolley. Nobody in the immediate vicinity found this shocking and, looking around, it was easy to see why: almost every product passing through the checkouts was processed.

Living here in the middle of the Irish Sea, where rough weather disrupts ferry sailings, it is not unheard of to find a shortage of fresh produce on supermarket shelves. If the shortages were to be widespread and prolonged, I often wonder how long it would be before there were food riots. My family could live for weeks on the contents of our store cupboard. If there was no bread I could knock up a wholemeal loaf, and while the daily porridge, risotto and bowls of lentil soup might become tedious, they would sustain life. Pancakes spread with homemade jam would fill the cracks and keep us cheerful until supplies resumed. I am not saying we could hold out forever. We are not farmers and are therefore dependent on the food chain, yet given the raw materials we can feed ourselves. But will our grandchildren's generation even recognise these materials, let alone know what to do with them?

As working women pack their freezers with convenience meals, the shape and flavour of raw produce could soon become a memory. According to the British government, children cannot cook and many are undernourished. But given the largely processed diet they have been raised on, should we be surprised?

Each summer, at the Isle of Man's Royal Agricultural Show, I linger over the tables of homegrown fruit and vegetables, bundles of rhubarb, chunky beetroot with tiny chinks cut out by the judges and pulsing with the inner ruby light that intensifies with cooking. But in the rush and bustle of a working week, how many of us regularly buy and cook either rhubarb or beetroot? Do our children recognise an aubergine, or a quince? We have never watched more cooking programmes on television, never eaten so much or cooked so little, but it might not be many years before our agricultural shows become a slice of the olden days with quaint exhibits of produce.

If this sounds far-fetched, look how far consumer habits have travelled over the past thirty years. British children are now so familiar with pizza and pasta that they do not think of it as foreign, and even here on the Island supermarkets stock feta and ricotta alongside cheddar, stilton and Wensleydale. Chickpeas, sun-dried tomatoes, tubs of hummus and Greek yogurt: fifteen years ago these were unheard of in our local Safeway. Yet although we have adopted a more Mediterranean menu, we do not share the fervour of the French, the Italians and Greeks, for fresh produce markets. Nor have we assimilated the culinary skills to produce these meals from scratch, so that although we aspire to eat like the French and Italians we are not prepared to shop or cook like them. In short, we want Europe served up in a limitless variety of neat cardboard boxes.

The problem is that this cardboard cuisine habit is slowly conditioning us to far fancier meals than most of us would ever consider cooking after a day at work. Home kitchens are evolving into fast food outlets, where everyone sits down to a different dish and the emphasis is on speed and convenience. Putting fresh food on the table at the end of a working day takes skill and planning. You need to get your head around it and accept that weeknight meals can and should be simpler, accept too that the best home cooking is based around fresh seasonal produce. Although tomatoes and strawberries may be on supermarket shelves all year round, out of season their taste is little more than a rumour of the real thing, just like those Apollo space rations and the promised vials of brightly coloured pills.
At the inspirational end of a cook's repertoire, a meal can be an art form, an act of love, a statement of generosity and sociability. But day-to-day food is about refuelling, while taking care of our health and passing on survival skills to the next generation. We already ingest too many chemicals and there is no knowing what the long-term health consequences might be of children raised on processed food overloaded with salt, sugar, preservatives and colourings.

Although my mother professed to welcome it, from her flippant attitude I am certain she was never convinced that the three-course meal pill would become a reality. Yet here we are, already making a dent in the 21st century and if we carry on the way we're going I'd say the scheme looks like a definite possibility.


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