ovens

alone with a lobster

After I read about Barbara Diggle’s amazing granny, the woman who knew how to use every scrap of a sheep’s head to feed her family (blogged here), I came across another bit of food history that couldn’t have been more of a contrast. We rented a holiday cottage that had an Aga in it and, gloriously, the instruction booklet dated back to at least the early seventies. I know this because at one point it mentions the cost of fuel as being ‘about 3/- or 15 New Pence’ and decimalisation came in in February 1971.

The Aga was introduced to England in 1929 and by the early 1970s it was clearly a considerable status symbol.

This aspirational tone is everywhere in the booklet, but especially in the illustrations. Take this for example:

This lucky lady in her pristine white dress has not only produced meringues, jam tarts and a couple of roast chickens from her spotless, shining Aga, she also has a lobster. A lobster. I asked my mum, who never had an Aga but who was very busy cooking meals for her growing family in the 1970s, if she could remember how common it was for people to eat lobster and she replied tartly that it would have been ‘far too expensive for schoolmasters’, a reference to the job my dad did all his life.

Now I’ve nothing against people who own Agas, although I’ve never had one myself. My point in writing about this gem of a booklet is that I think it contains some important clues as to how and why we severed so many of our connections with that most basic of processes – the journey from plant to plate and all the growing and cooking knowledge that goes along with it. I’m pretty sure many other food-related publications of the time would contain similar messages.

In the world of the Aga catalogue, that most basic of cooking implements – an oven – become a sign of your status, but even worse than that is the insidious suggestion that cooking is all about performance. ‘Why do good cooks love the Aga?’ demands the first page of the booklet. ‘And why do people who thought they weren’t good cooks, suddenly discover that they are?’ The sort of thing a good cook does is, again, suggested by the illustrations. Here’s another Aga lady, dreamily admiring the fruits of her labours.

Elaborate pastry, a whole Dundee cake, more jam tarts, glazed ham, lashings of butter … hang on, this is impossible for one person to do in a day, Aga or no Aga.

And here’s a third picture demonstrating something else that is impossible.

Sorry, but you cannot feed a family on cream-filled meringues and Victoria sponge (not to mention those jam tarts again) and still have hipbones that show through your dress.

These women are so isolated. Apart from the little boy in the last picture, they are always alone in their kitchen. Early in the booklet the reader is told that ‘the slow oven is perfect for keeping plates warm, or meals hot for tardy husbands or football-crazy sons’.  In other words, while the male of the species is out working, socialising or enjoying sport, the female is home alone, sweetly ensuring that he has a hot meal to come back to. And cooking food that she cannot possibly eat herself if she is to keep her Twiggy-style figure.

It all adds up to a grotesque contrast with the memories you can read about on the history section of the Incredible Edible Todmorden website. In these interviews, people celebrate the connections they made around food – the fishmonger who kept a good herring back for granny, the children who spent whole days picking bilberries together – and express a real pride in genuine cooking skills, such as knowing how to turn stale bread into crumbs to make a cake.

I’m really not advocating a return to the days when ordinary people couldn’t even afford meat at Christmas. But I do think a lot of people were robbed when an increasingly affluent and consumerist society made food into something that isolated and excluded, rather than a source of connection and celebration.

And I know I sing the praises of Todmorden a lot on this blog, but the incredible edible project is doing a wonderful job of restoring food to its rightful place as something that builds relationships as well as sustaining our bodies, and of making sure that as many as people as possible can reclaim the satisfaction of growing and cooking their own meals.

The world of the Aga booklet is one of impossible standards and a constant struggle to outdo your neighbours. The ‘fairer, kinder, greener’ world of Todmorden is one of renewed connections, from person to person and between people, the land and the food it produces. I know which one I’d rather live in.