jam making

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.