I am not a professional chef and that is the point

This post from the Zero-Waste Chef really resonated with me, as I’m a big believer in the need to get people back into their kitchens and cooking from scratch. It’s healthier, it’s cheaper and it actually doesn’t need a lot of time or much effort. As I wrote in a previous post, I enjoy watching the likes of Masterchef as much as the next person, but this isn’t what a nation that’s spending ever decreasing amounts of time preparing their own food should be aspiring to.

How the internet has changed the way we eat

Like me, if you saw a video with the title above, you’d probably expect it to discuss online grocery shopping. Actually, this video introduces two American companies, Blue Apron and The League of Kitchens, who have used the internet to develop businesses that tap into the growing number of people who are interested in food and cooking.

I think the concept behind The League of Kitchens is fabulous, because of the opportunity you to get learn first hand about the food culture of another country in an informal setting, which is very different to going to a regular cookery class. I’m not sure if anyone is doing anything similar in the UK as well, but if not, somebody should!

My immediate thought about Blue Apron was that cooking in this way – with the ingredients already carefully measured out for you – must help prevent food waste. However, I’m curious to know what type of packaging the company uses for their food. Companies like Abel & Cole, for example, who deliver veg boxes in the UK, try to avoid plastic packaging and reuse/recycle their cardboard boxes and punnets.

Are there any American readers who’ve heard of or tried Blue Apron or The League of Kitchens? Do you think getting all the ingredients you need to cook a meal delivered to your home is lazy, or a good way of encouraging people to cook from scratch?

Why we shouldn’t be aiming for Masterchef

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.

Eating Alcatraz style

Years ago whilst visiting friends in California, I travelled to San Francisco. I had to go to Alcatraz while I was there, of course, and it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable tourist attractions I’ve ever visited. So much so, I even contemplated returning for one of prison’s famous night tours but – ahem – I was too chicken!

The rules the inmates were made to follow during their stay in Alcatraz are displayed on various walls around the prison. Even though these regulations were set for a purpose, taken out of context many of them can be quite amusing. For example:

29. BATH ROOM RULES: When you go to the bathroom you will display all items of soiled clothing before the inspecting Officer. You are expected to bathe in a reasonable length of time.

30. CELLHOUSE RULES: Loud talking, shouting, whistling, singing or other unnecessary noises are not permitted. Keep your property neatly arranged on your shelves, as shown in the cell diagram.

34. HAIRCUTS AND SHAVES: Haircuts will be of regulation type. No special beards, mustaches or goatees are allowed.

40. AUDITORIUM RULES: When preparing to attend religious services or movies, you must remove everything from your pockets except your handkerchief and eyeglasses and eyeglass case.

I’m very curious to know what a ‘special beard’ is exactly! But here’s the section of the rule book that grabbed my attention when reading the rules again online today:

33. DINING ROOM RULES: Meals are served three times a day in the dining room. Do not exceed the ration. Do not waste food. Do not carry food from the dining room. Observe the ration posted on the menu board and take all that you wish to eat within the allotted amounts, but you must eat all that you take. When all inmates on a table have finished eating, the inspecting Officer will give the signal to rise and leave the dining room.

I’m not sure about Alcatraz’s facial hair policies, but their food regulations are spot on: only take as much food as you can eat, sit down at the table to eat it, eat it with other people, and don’t leave the table until everyone has finished. The regulations sound uncannily like the type of straight-talking advice Michael Pollan includes in his Food Rules book, (which is based on In Defense of Food, one of my non-fiction favourites).

With today’s British food culture of munching on the move and chomping while flicking through TV channels, alongside the demise of family dining and the proliferation of all you can eat buffets, I reckon we could learn some lessons in how to eat sensibly and minimise food waste from the unlikely source of Alcatraz’s simple dining room rules.

No such thing as a free lunch?

As children went back to school after the Summer holidays last week, media attention turned to the government’s new initiative to provide five to seven years olds with a free hot meal at lunch time. This seems like a great idea, and when the scheme was piloted, it was found that children who had received a free school dinner were

academically months ahead of their peers elsewhere and more likely to eat vegetables at lunchtime instead of less healthy food like crisps

Given the average family spends around £400 on lunch money per child per year, free school meals could also mean substantial savings for parents. So in a nutshell, parents save money, children eat more healthily and are better able to concentrate in lessons. Everyone’s a winner.

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Or are they? The £600 million investment aside, I think there may be more to this particular free lunch than first meets the eye.

School dinners have apparently come on in leaps and bounds since Jamie Oliver’s exposure of the type of food typically served up at school dinners in 2005, and his resulting Feed Me Better campaign. But I think schools providing healthy meals based on fresh produce, rather than the processed fare most of us grew up with, are still an exception rather than the norm. It’s one thing for kids to be getting a free meal at school, but another thing for the government to claim that this food is definitely better for pupils than bringing in a packed lunch. Nick Clegg clearly never saw the contents of my lunch boxes. I still vividly remember those mini packets of Sun-Maid raisins I got lumbered with while my friends munched on Viscount biscuits at break time.

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Quality and healthiness of school lunches aside, something rather fundamental seems to have been overlooked in the government’s bid to help save families (particularly those on a low income) money. Namely the thirteen or so weeks of school holidays that children have where they aren’t getting any free food.

In terms of budgeting, I suspect this is going to present the average family with a challenge. Along comes half term and suddenly parents have to find additional money to feed their kids (and possibly their kids’ friends) for a week. When people are living close to the bread line to begin with, this is likely to be the kind of situation that leaves parents needing to rely on food banks to feed their family, or going hungry themselves to make sure their children eat.

I partly admire what the government is trying to achieve with their free meals policy. Certainly, I’d rather see children sitting down at a table at lunch time than going to Tesco Express for a chocolate, fizzy drink and bag of crisps. And of course I’d rather see kids from low income families being provided with lunch, rather than not eating. But as ever, no initiative – even one that seems positive – is without its problems.

Free or otherwise, school lunches should have to meet minimum standards in terms of how fresh and healthy they are. Special dietary requirements need to be properly thought out (as a vegetarian I know from experience how often veggie food involves pastry, cheese or, more often than not, cheesy pastry). Beyond the lunches themselves, children and their parents need to be better educated as to what constitutes a nutritionally balanced meal and how to go about making one.

I fear we’ll never attain the amazing standards of the French when it comes to school lunches, but really, hot dinners are only one small piece in a complex food culture puzzle that Britain will no doubt continue to grapple with for decades to come.