Every Monday morning at Southampton City Mission’s food bank is a surprise; we never have any idea who or how many people will walk through our door. The biggest unknown is what will arrive in the way of fresh ‘waste’ food from local supermarkets. More often than not, we get potatoes and a generous donation of bread in various forms (tiger bread, aka giraffe bread is quite popular with clients), but what gets delivered beyond the carbs is anyone’s guess. I’ve seen blueberries, asparagus, green tomatoes, ginger, aubergines, swede, raspberries, cabbage… We’ve had watermelons (which we cut up into chunks and distributed) and a gigantic pumpkin (we didn’t even attempt to hack into that!). One week we had some weird variety of lettuce that nobody had ever really encountered before.
Although our supplies of fruit and vegetables do run out or are sometimes sparse, it’s great being able to give clients fresh as well as tinned food, particularly as fruit and veg can be prohibitively expensive to those on a tight budget. But I often wonder whether people know how to make the best of the assortment of vegetables we give them. Take lettuce, say. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty certain there are heaps of things you can do with a lettuce, apart from just using it in a salad. (I do know my mum makes a mean lettuce soup; sounds awful, tastes amazing!)
I’m not suggesting that people who use food banks don’t know how to cook; far from it. Just the other week I had a conversation with a gentleman where we swapped sprout recipes, and I’ve met clients who are trained or training as chefs. However, my feeling is that a large number of people we give food to must go home and look at their fine green beans or shallots or whatever with gratitude, but slight bewilderment. When many people have for one reason or another never learnt to cook, this wouldn’t be surprising.
According to this article, Brits are now spending more time watching the many cookery based programmes on TV than actually cooking. That statistic begs all manner of questions about our food culture, but what actually frustrates me is that cookery shows on TV are almost exclusively aimed at middle class viewers. ‘Food and Drink’, for example, gives advice on which wines best complement which dishes. ‘Masterchef’ focuses on meeting the exacting demands of chefs who run Michelin starred restaurants. Channel 4’s latest offering, ‘Cooks’ Questions’, has featured foods such as pig’s liver and artichokes. Even the likes of ‘Come Dine With Me’ sneers at simplistic menus and ridicules anyone who fails to turn out a flawless three course dinner party meal. TV seems to be determined to give us the message that making good food is technically complicated, takes hours, requires expensive ingredients, an innate knowledge of flavour combinations and ninja knife skills.
Nobody seems to have worked out that one reason people spend so much time watching professionals cooking rather than doing it themselves might be because few TV chefs produce recipes aimed at ordinary people. Where are the programmes for those who have little money to spend on their weekly shop, or limited cooking facilities or who lack confidence in the kitchen? Where are the alternative recipes for people who can’t afford duck breast, avocado or goat’s cheese? It’s all very well for the media to lament the nation’s lack of culinary skills but is it actually doing anything to encourage us to have a go at making something from scratch?
I enjoy watching ‘The Great British Bake Off’, ‘Great British Menu’ and the like as much as anyone. But I’m starting to think TV chefs and those involved in producing food shows should be taking more responsibility for trying to get the public off their sofas and back into their kitchens. Britain doesn’t need more Masterchefs. Britain needs more people who can cook basic, cost effective and nutritious meals for themselves and their families.