lost arts

There’s a lovely corner of the  Incredible Edible Todmorden website that’s given over to interviews with older residents of the town. In it they reminisce about the role of food and growing in their lives. There are memories of being in the Land Army, of brewing wine from potatoes, and even of keeping fish in huge printers’ ink tins in the cellar.

WW1 Land Girl with a pig. Picture from The National Archives UK

Barbara Diggle’s interview contains an astonishing account of how her granny used to buy a sheep’s head from the butcher every week and use every single part of it to feed the family. To me it almost sounds that something that took place on another planet.

If there was an invalid in the family or anybody just weak, we used to poach the brains … in milk and butter and they were served on toast and that was a delicacy. Now the tongue was cooked slowly in the side oven over the coal fire, no gas used, and it would be cooked slow over night and if it took a bit longer it didn’t matter, it was in another half day until it was cooked and then we would skin it whilst it was still warm because you can’t skin a tongue when it has gone cold; it sticks like glue. Then of course we would round it and put its head to a saucer with a plate on the top and a flat iron on top of that and that would shape it and it would press it overnight. Then if anybody came to tea we could slice it off and put it between thin bread and butter. The meat dropped off the bones then and there was plenty of tender meat on the face. She put the bones into another big pan that sat on the fire and she put onions, carrots, that she had grown in the garden, swede or something like that, turnip if we had it but she always had plenty of pulses. The fat that she had rendered off the joint as well or off the heads or anything, feet, you know would be clarified and that was used to seal the pots of the fruit.

I was stunned by the image of this woman labouring to make the most of every scrap of the sheep’s head, a part of the animal that I think most of us would struggle to have in our kitchens at all today. It seems this granny never wasted a single thing. She could make puddings from dock leaves, and her delicious Christmas lunch appears to have been conjured from little more than some breadcrumbs, dripping and root vegetables.

It would be silly to romanticise the kind of poverty that gave rise to such frugality but it isn’t just this woman’s economies that are striking, it’s also her consummate skill as a cook and a grower. I found myself asking what had happened to the arts that Barbara’s granny knew, arts of pickling, preserving and being able to create a meal out of whatever foodstuffs were to hand.

The history section of Todmorden’s website paints a picture of interaction across the generations that ensured skills were handed down almost unconsciously. There are memories of helping dad on the allotment, gathering watercress from the streams for mum, and of whole families working together to slaughter a pig and preserve the meat.

It’s all such a contrast with today. If you talk to people involved in Incredible Edible Todmorden now, they will often comment on how people simply don’t have the skills their recent forbears took for granted. Obviously this is not a problem that’s confined to Todmorden. Activities that were once second nature, such as making jams and pickles, are now shrouded in mystery everywhere. It’s common to talk of a ‘lost generation’, a group who somehow never acquired the skills of feeding themselves by growing veg or cooking from scratch.

Nobody seems able to explain quite how we got to this position. Just how and why were these essential skills lost? When did we decide to place some of the most important decisions we ever make – what to put on our plates – in the hands of a few multinational corporations?

I’ve had various suggestions made to me. It was the supermarkets – they  brainwashed us into thinking that everything can be available all the time for everyone. It was US television suggesting fridge grazing is better than shared mealtimes. It was the convenience foods of the seventies, when nobody understood the dangers of additives. Each of these might be a contributing factor, but none really seems to explain the whole of it.

I’d love to hear what others think. Do you also notice a loss of cooking and growing skills? And if so, how do you explain it? Did your parents teach you about food and gardening? Did your grandparents? Do leave your thoughts in the comments.

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10 comments

  1. I watched Food Inc. yesterday (an American documentary about where the food we eat comes from), and it’s a gloomy picture. When convenience becomes a factor, people don’t need to learn how to cook from scratch, or even at all, and the multinationals you mention can make the decision on our behalf to sacrifice ethics for profits. It happens from ‘seed to supermarket’ and corners are cut every step of the way to ensure bigger profits. Awful.

    People should definitely be taught to rethink what they eat, to cook from scratch, and to not waste food.

    1. Hi Chris – thanks so much for your comment. Food Inc is on my list to watch too, although I know it will be really depressing. You might enjoy a look around the Incredible Edible Todmorden website – a different way of doing food that is causing ripples across the world.

  2. Thanks Jo – Very Interesting
    My theory is that because of high property costs and mortgages and the (very good) empowerment of Women most people work long hours away from the home and cooking and housework etc is seen as subservient and menial rather than a real Skill. Its a real shame and just another example of the life giving experiences that have been lost to us.

    1. Yup, I’m with you there. I think everyone who does work, works far too many hours, while others are struggling to get any work at all. If only we could all work, say, a 20-hour week and use the rest of the time for creative, constructive and genuinely refreshing activities.

  3. One of my favourite food books is Food in England by Dorothy Hartley written in 1954. It is absolutely stuffed full of information such as Barbara Diggle gives. A really interesting and practical read.

  4. My grandmother died several years ago at the age of 97. She lived in a small apartment and continued to do what she had always done – through the depression era, and with five children growing up on a farm – she canned fruits and vegetables, and made jams and jellies, and made bread and pies from scratch. It was a way of life, and in some ways, I think my parents were glad to move toward more convenient food preparation, in part because they both had jobs and were tired at the end of the day. Today I plant a very small garden with a few select items, and I laugh at it every time I think of the garden my grandparents had, filled with everything under the sun, on a garden plot about the size of our house’s whole lot. I don’t know the “why” of any of this, but I sense (and hope) that some attitudes and lifestyles are beginning to change as people look for more local ingredients and start to think of new strategies for feeding their families.

    1. I share your sense of optimism. What I hope is that we can discover a ‘middle way’ of feeding our families that is kind to the planet and fair to the people who produce our food, but which avoids the sometimes all-consuming nature of the labour that your grandmother and Barbara Diggle’s obviously knew only too well.

  5. What an interesting question. My mother was the youngest of nine, and her mother died when she was seven. The role of housekeeper was taken over by her eldest spinster sister, who also looked after me when my mother worked. I was not taught to cook by either mother or aunt, although I often accompanied them to the shops. They both had a very limited repertoire of dishes. However, food was important. Local shops were visited daily. Quality was key whether best cuts of beef, offal or veg, noses were turned up at anything considered under par. Home baking – cakes, biscuits, etc – was rare apart from bread pudding. By the time I had I went away to university I had never done as much as boil an egg. All of this I put down to expediency – working physically all day and cooking in a tiny kitchen too small to house a table, you probably are disinclined to teach a child. So I taught myself, from books. Similarly, brought up in a council flat in the centre of Londoron, there was no scope for gardening. But here I am living less than 3 miles from where was raised, having had allotments for over 30 years, with shelves full of cookery books, batch baker of cakes, preserver and forager. Why? I put it down to education, a willingness to read and find out how to do things, an innate feeling for “nature” perhaps, leaving home in the 70s when the wholefood movement was spreading more widely (think Cranks!). It all takes time though, and that is part of the trade-off that is challenging for those tied to demanding jobs. or consumption of “stuff”.

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