Journalism

Essay On Food For Nigella Issue Of Stylist Magazine – December 2011

January 5th, 2012

jw_food

Food is all the love you can eat.
Real food, like love, takes time, imagination, passion, good humour, a willingness to learn, and not too much distress over upsets. Things go wrong. Things go right. Sometimes all you need is a soft goat’s cheese and a sharp apple. Other days, six Whitstable oysters and a Manzanilla sherry are just the start of dinner. Food is a discovery not a recipe. Like love.
I loved discovering A Guide for the Greedy by a Greedy Woman, AKA Elizabeth Robins Pennell. Written in the 1890’s as a series of essays and later collected in book form, the clues are in the title: Guide. Greedy. Woman.
The guide part is like a recipe – or what a real recipe is – a guide. At some moment every person who loves food chucks the measuring spoon into the street and cooks with their hands, nose and tongue. I do it the same way that I dig up my potatoes in the garden; start with a spade, end up on all fours, my hands pushing the soil sideways like a mole, lifting the scuffed brown or tan-pink potatoes out of their sleep and into my pan.
Greedy is what we all are when not ruined by diets, disgusting food, air-brushed models, and no time. Greedy is not the same as self-stuffed, which is just as bad as self-starved. You have to love food in all its glory to be greedy. And that means that some days you might not eat at all if what is on offer is horrible. I have travelled and preferred to go hungry for a day, knowing I could get home and slept a short night in the certainty of a home-cooked breakfast of my own eggs, and bacon from a pig I used to know.
Greed is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, but as Elizabeth Robins Pennell notes: Gaiety was one of the Virtues – now forgotten.
In fact, it’s gluttony that’s the sin. Greed can be forgiven because it has at its heart, or maybe its stomach, a roué’s search for the beauty of the season. Wild salmon. Truffles. Red currents. Grouse. Chanterelles. English pears with skin as green and firm as a pond-frog. Sprouts after the first fright of frost.

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Here she is in her chapter The Magnificent Mushroom:
‘What could be simpler than the common mushroom grilled, so self-sufficient in its chaste severity that it allows but salt and pepper and butter to approach it? If you have happiness at heart, secure a quart of fresh mushrooms. Clean them with hands as tender as bathing a new-born babe….. To say that you do not like them is confession of your own philistinism. Learn to like them; will to like them, or else your sojourn on this earth will be a wretched waste. You will have lived your life in vain, if at its close, you have missed one of its finest emotions.’
As you can see, ERP does not believe in relative values. Live food or die miserable is the short-form of this book. Living food is just that; both food that is exuberantly alive and food as the centre of life itself.
Here is no Heston armed with thermometers and liquid nitrogen. No Jamie either, knocking up laddish meals from the back of a scooter. We love them both, but ERP is nearer in spirit to Alice B Toklas and Nigella. I think it is likely that Alice Toklas read ERP, either in magazine form or in her later collections. The same excess and recklessness is present in the food writing of both of them, combined with a ruthless pursuit of perfection. Neither would describe perfection as flawlessness – rather, as ERP puts it, the pursuit is ‘the beauty, the poetry, that exists in the perfect dish.’
And the perfect dish can be a simple plate of grilled mushrooms picked that morning, with autumn’s vigour and regret in the dew on their stems.
‘Experiment! For even where failure follows, will not a new sensation have been secured? The failure need never be repeated. But to each success will be awarded eternal life.’
EPR was a late nineteenth century woman, writing at her best in the opulent hypocritical 1890’s, the fin de siecle that lasted until the First World War. She dined with Oscar Wilde, and Wilde’s style and sensibility is evident in her writing. Like Wilde, EPR adores a cucumber sandwich.
An American by birth, EPR was living in London when she wrote these essays for the Pall Mall magazine. She travelled widely in Europe, generally by bicycle, and championed cycling and cooking as necessary for the soul as well as the body – and especially for women.
At a time when women were expected to be delicate and dainty in their appetites both sexual and gourmand, EPR was trying to bring women in corsets to their senses – and literally – not with smelling salts but with the aromas of the stove.
She wants women to enjoy coffee, cigarettes, cognac, fois gras, kippers, geese, gravy and sauces. But these are epicurean enjoyments to be chosen with care. Coffee in the morning should be mellow and taken with milk. After dinner it must be hot and thick and Turkish. A cigarette after breakfast should be cool Virginian tobacco. After dinner, short strong Egyptian cigarettes are called for ‘with the suspicion of opium lurking in their fragrant recess.’
Wine may be drunk after a late breakfast but the kind depends on the time of year and the food served. As with everything, she says, ‘Have it of the best or not at all.’ That is the sign of true greed.
EPR was not a feminist or even a Suffragist. The year after her greedy book was published in 1896, Millicent Fawcett founded The National Union of Women’s Suffrage – the battle for the Vote. EPR did not join. She was of the kind who believes that women are better off attending to their own world than bothering too much with what men have to offer. She exalts the making and eating of food as a daily work of art – and she is right about that, but she misunderstood the miseries of women allowed nothing other than domestic matters. And she had no idea of class politics. That a woman might have to manage with a pound of mince and five pounds of potatoes did not occur to her. Or if it did, she did not want to write about it.
But when I read her, loving food, cooking food, eating food, I remember Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (1928) lamenting the terrible dinner served to women students in Cambridge compared to the luxurious fare offered to the men. ‘One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes.’
EPR would have agreed with that simple statement while ignoring the complex economic relationship between what a woman can earn and what she may eat. Now, women have much of the financial independence, (if not the parity), that Woolf was writing about, but too fat or too thin, food is still a feminist issue.
Radical in her own way about food as pleasure, EPR was radical too in her belief that women should get in the kitchen and enjoy cooking. She was writing for a class of women who could afford a cook – not nearly as expensive in real terms as it would be today – but a matter of snobbery not to cook DIY. To campaign for eating as the natural result of cooking, repairs a badly damaged link in the female psyche – one that goes on needing to be repaired.
While celebrity chefs do their best to seduce us into home cooking, the pinging microwave and the ready-meal chops up the sensual connection between preparation, anticipation, and the well-earned leisure of sitting down to a lovely meal you have made.
The idea of a TV dinner would have been reason for EPR to build with her own hands an eighth circle of Dante’s damned. Those who choose not to cook and eat with proper pleasure, doubtless deserve an eternity of supermarket lasagne in front of the X-Factor.
A sandwich though, prepared and eaten with imagination, is EPR’s fast-food alternative to the stove. Her essay, The Subtle Sandwich, with its dreams of wrapped paper packages and snow-chilled Alsace, would make anyone set out for the Alps at once. ‘Between slices of good bread place thick uncompromising pieces of beef or mutton… lettuce, celery, watercress, radishes, not one may you not test to your own higher happiness… and your art may be measured by your success in proving the onion to be the poetic soul of the sandwich as it is of the salad bowl.’
Sandwiches have souls… who knew?
But she says, ‘Many are the men who have painted pictures. Few who have composed a new and perfect sandwich.’
Reading EPR on food is absurd and uplifting. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and she returns to cooking and eating the one ingredient that is more expensive than truffles or caviar: Time.
How did we get here? Foodstuffs everywhere, more than at any other moment in history, and no time to cook or to eat.
I think I’ll make a sardine sandwich on thin brown bread with wafers of pink radish peeping out. I’ll sit down and eat it with a cold Prosecco and a good book. And I’ll garnish with plenty of unchopped time.

Published in Stylist Magazine – December 2011