Brussels sprouts and Brussels. Neither exactly popular, are they? The first many associate with foul tasting vegetables. The second with the epitome of boring bureaucracy. Brussels sprouts are regularly voted children’s least favourite vegetables whilst many firmly believe the EU’s days are numbered. Few are crazy enough to take on either – yet here am I trying to extoll the virtues of traditional cooking through my site Master in the Kitchen whilst simultaneously endeavouring to convince the mainstream that European integration is the way to go through my other site, EU Perspectives.
Let’s face it if you’re a “Mr Money-Man” neither is exactly where the money lies right now. Trying to sell brussels sprouts and Brussels to the mainstream is a tough sell with few takers. I know. I’ve been doing this for a number of years now. The sceptics and doubters outnumber the fans significantly. Master in the Kitchen and EU Perspectives are about conviction not commerce. Not that I’m above money – if someone wants to discuss a deal contact me! It’s just that I am realistic and know that neither concepts are currently hot bets.
So why even bother? Firstly, I’m convinced that both traditional cooking and the EU are victims of a bad press and just need a bit of spit and polish to brighten up their otherwise tarnished image. Tomorrow is another day and what may seem unappealing today could become common-sense tomorrow. Secondly, I like a challenge – and writing both Master in the Kitchen and EU Perspectives is certainly a challenge. Thirdly, I’m convinced that old recipes are the new “new”.
My background is in politics and law not science and nutrition. Until the arrival of four children in six years put a break to a full time career I worked as a consultant on European affairs. European history and politics has always and continues to interest me. Not surprising really given that I am a creature of the cold war. Were it not for the iron curtain I would probably not be here. A posting to Germany in the mid 1960’s brought my British father and German mother together. My seventies childhood was spent as an itinerant “army brat” drifting between Britain and Germany before being packed off to boarding school in North Wales.
Exposure to both cultures defines who I am today. I can see the best of both worlds whilst choosing to reject the worst. It is my firm conviction, based on years of studying history, politics and law that when societies become insular and inward looking they become arrogant, complacent and nationalistic resulting in mean-spirited attitudes and stagnant economies at best, discrimination, tyranny and genocide at worst. When societies open their minds societies become free, they prosper, become innovative and dynamic.
The reader may accept that my academic studies and professional experience allow me some quarter to comment on European integration – but food? I have no training in nutrition. I am not a dietician. I have never trained as a sous-chef let alone a chef. I accept there are thousands of food bloggers, celebrity chefs, medical doctors, professors and food journalists better qualified than me to set out their views on food and cooking.
My only qualification for wading into this shrill, crowded arena is a lot more mundane (though possibly more common-place?). I’m a parent with a family to feed. Everyday I have to make choices about what food to spend our hard earned cash on. It is, I humbly propose, my observations of feeding a family of six for seventeen years, which allows me to offer my thoughts on food and cooking. On a different level my background in politics, policies and regulatory affairs offers me a grandstand view of the public health disaster unfolding before our eyes as populations switch from a traditional diet of natural food to a modern diet of artifice.
My journey into the world of food began when the children moved beyond breast milk and purees and onto solids. As a child my parents decided what we ate and, bar one or two dishes, I ate most of what they gave me without thinking. That food would materialise everyday was as natural and unremarkable as breathing. As a student and later a “young professional” I only had to think of myself. I rarely cooked. Like many I snacked through life – just enough fuel to satisfy my hunger and propel me forward to the next day.
There’s nothing like having children to change one’s ways. What should I feed them for breakfast? What for lunch? What for supper? What kind of snacks in between? Up until then I had given food and meals so little thought I could barely remember what it was we ate most days as a child. The food at boarding school was horrendous and I still shudder at the food we ate – or didn’t eat because it was, and I exaggerate not, so unappetising and revolting. I remember always being slightly hungry and jealous of the weekly boarders who returned on Sunday evenings with bags full of tuck in the form of sugary breakfast cereals, biscuits, pot-noodles and chocolate bars to see them through the week until they returned home to their parent’s well stocked pantries in time for tea. Full-boarders, like me, were left behind to sup on packaged, warmed-up food in the refectory.
Boarding school aside and casting my mind back to days away from school I remember enjoying many German dishes. Goulashes with a swirl of cream served with spetzel and a green salad, schnitzels with a “Zigeuner” (Gypsy) sauce, dumplings floating in tasty stews, root vegetables swimming in a pleasant, creamy white or cheese sauce. From the English side I remembered eating roasts every Sunday, which came served with roast potatoes, boiled potatoes, gravy and two different vegetable.
Like most parents “the healthiest diet” loomed large in my thinking process. An inkling inside of me suggested that my previous habits of “snacking” was not exactly optimal for my dearly beloved off-spring. Alternating between frozen pizza and spaghetti bolognaise everyday regardless of how easy or how happy the kids would have been was, perhaps, not the best way to go.
Nor significantly was our traditional western diet. With no background in nutrition I relied on the advice of “experts”, whose snippets I read in the paper. I’d read enough to be convinced that the traditional “western diet” was the worst of all possible options. If I was going to feed the children a “healthy” diet then the diet of my northern European ancestors based on butter, lard, fatty meats, roasts, dumplings and spuds was out. Obesity, heart-disease, hypertension and some food cancers, we were assured, could be attributed to all of these evil foods. All those tasty German dishes and British roasts would have to go. They were the worst offenders of the notoriously debased traditional western diet.
I resolved to be strong for the sake of my children’s health and feed them on what my understanding of a “healthy” diet should be. No fat. No fatty meats. No cream. Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson sold us the dream of eating a Mediterranean diet which reminded us of relaxing, sunny holidays and fresh eating. Sun, relaxation and fresh food – all so lacking in the drudgery of our daily lives in northern Europe. Our traditional diet, in comparison to the fabled Mediterranean diet, was not only as dull as our weather, it was debased and potentially deadly … even if one secretly yearned to tuck into it!
My meals were pretty flavourless. The kids rejected my soups since they tasted only of vegetable and missed the savoury punch required of a good soup. My steamed broccoli was spurned since it rarely came adorned with a pat of animal fat and tasted of metallic, steamed broccoli. The cheese was always “low-fat” unless it was a special occasion. The lean meat, cooked straight from the fridge, was typically tough and lacked flavour. No wonder my home-made food was spurned by the children. Just about the only thing my kids – for whom all this effort was being made – would eat was spaghetti bolognaise, frozen pizza and sugary breakfast cereals! Pfff…
There were often moments on our weekly shopping trip to the big supermarkets as my toddler children ran wild up and down the aisles when I looked at the “healthy”, “low-fat” store-bought food we purchased and wondered if it was all as healthy as we were told. Something inside of me nagged. It didn’t exactly look fresh or wholesome. It looked highly processed. How exactly did Kellogg’s make those dry looking flakes of Special K grains? Why was it that I never really liked low-fat yoghurt as much as I wanted to? Why did the packaged stock cube bother me on the few occasions I decided to add it to my soup to give it more flavour? What exactly was the vegetable in the “vegetable oil” that I read on all the labels of the packaged biscuits I bought the children for snack at school? Was this mayonnaise really free from “all additives and artificial flavourings”? Why was it that my family always loved store-bought sauces and food and not my home-made attempts? Was I such a lousy cook that the food industry could always beat me on flavour?
As I meandered through life I felt that my background did not allow me to judge or answer these questions. The scientists and food experts knew better than me. Old people who swore by butter and pork drippings were clearly out of touch with current thinking and science. Everyone around us was growing fatter and more obese by the day. I dreaded joining their ranks.
Then one day, five years ago in 2010, when my eldest child was 12 years old and the youngest five, out of the blue, I received an Amazon package. Inside was a book entitled “Nourishing Traditions: The Cook Book that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats” By Sally Fallon and Mary Enig. I’d never heard of this book. I hadn’t ordered anything on Amazon. The cover design suggested it was some kind of niche, new-age, hippie cook book dating to circa 1985. The pages inside looked like a cheap print-out from the local photo-copy shop with sketches hastily put together by a retired primary school teacher.
The recipes listed confusing options such a kvass, sauerkraut, raw liver juice ?!, boiled brains and sprouted flour pancakes. I tossed the book to one side and forgot about it. A couple of days later I discovered it was my sister who had sent this peculiar cook book to me as a present. I thought it was sweet of her – but really kvass? Raw liver juice? Home made buttermilk? I cooked in a pretty basic IKEA kitchen not a DANONE factory! In my piece “Author’s Note”, if you’re still interested and you’ve managed to read this far! – you can read about why I picked up Nourishing Traditions around six months after it first landed on my door-step. For this piece, suffice it to say that the efforts of Sally Fallon and Mary Enig changed the way I go food shopping, how I cook and how we eat. For that I am immensely grateful to the two authors of Nourishing Traditions. Plenty of people have labelled them crazy. Quacks. Charlatans. When it comes to their food expertise I’m not one of them though I have to confess that the style, lay-out and recipes listed in Nourishing Traditions continues to attract only the most ardent of foodies. I’ve tried to share the book with many within my circle but few have been as inspired as me to try out some of the more traditional recipes.
Two years ago one of my daughters said – well, if none of your friends are interested in traditional cooking, why don’t you try to write a book on traditional recipes and change the look and feel of the concept. Clueless to the task she had set me I picked up my pen and began to write. I imagined it would be just about cobbling a few traditional recipes together, taking some pretty pictures and posting them on-line.
Two years on and I am still struggling with how to write it all down and still keep my audience interested! I’ve read some brilliant books on food along the way – Michael Pollan, Sandor Katz, Robert Capon Farar, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Harold McGee to name a few of the usual suspects. All of them, in their own way, have contributed enormously to our current understanding of how modern societies purchase, eat, prepare and cook food.
Yet, the confusion remains. What was once clear water has now been muddied as scientists, NGO’s, food experts, food gurus and dieticians argue amongst each other over what to eat and when. The battle between those who yearn for a return to a more natural, traditional food and a powerful food industry whose very survival depends on us purchasing their fakes needs to be concluded. It is how our generation will be defined. With regulatory oversight and approval, innovation in the food sector continues apace. GMO’s are beginning to spread like a rash all over the globe and it appears their rapid creep can not be halted. When I began work on Master in the Kitchen only two years ago most convenience foods in Europe used common table-sugar. Now they all use isoglucose (high-fructose corn syrup). Every day universities, research departments and the food industry are filing patents for “new” foods they claim are going to cure our chronic diseases.
More and more traditional recipes and methods are being lost forever as the older generation dies and with them their centuries old knowledge on best practice. Our rejection of traditional cooking has failed to beckon in a new ear of good health and satisfaction. Rather, the slow creep of weight-gain, obesity, diabetes and food cancers continues to rise. Unhinging ourself from traditional practice has left us floating aimlessly from one food fad to the next unsure of what to eat, when and how. As we drift we fail to find the all important balance so necessary to our overall well being. The food and cooking that grounded us through the centuries is vanishing before our very eyes leaving us drifting this way and that unsure of where we are heading.
Having lost our sense of tradition it is now incredibly hard to try and reintroduce it to those who have lost touch with it all together. It requires us to rediscover long lost dishes and recipes we are no longer familiar with. It requires us to familiarise ourselves with flavours many of us will have never tasted. It requires us to let go of ideas drummed into our generation since childhood. Above all it requires us to suspend our trust in food science in favour of the wisdom of our ancestors. The later is, perhaps, one of the hardest challenges of all for many of my generation.
Writing “About Kathleen Garnett” has been equally challenging. When I began I vowed to keep it short. I hate reading long posts on-line – it hurts the eyes. Clearly, I have failed in this task. Mush as I admire the laconic KISS “keep it simple stupid” I find it incredibly hard to achieve in practice! So my apologies for this rather wordy piece.
As for the children – for whom all this effort is intended – how do they enjoy my new found cooking? Five years ago they were not exactly thrilled about the changes introduced. For a long time they were still convinced that store-bought food tastes better. To their minds buying processed foods in a supermarket is “normal” food. My traditional cooking, on the other hand is the cooking and baking of an over-zealous, slightly nutty, mother. They continue to reject buttermilk, sauerkraut or my home-made fermented onions. They still hanker after the quick-rise, white bread prepared by a huge faceless industrial baker. Bottled sauces and condiments made from fake oils and synthetic flavourings still appear on the supper table – much to my disgust. On the plus side they now eat my bone-broth soups with relish, they eat liver in an onion sauce and kidneys in a creamy, mustard sauce. Three out of the four have come round to eating my sourdough bread.
Their biggest frustration these days is hearing over and over again the same conversation on food whenever we have family, visitors or friends over. They know by now that whenever a convivial conversation turns to food it triggers a certain, predictable reaction in their mother. Uh oh they note, look at her bristle – oh yes, and she’s off on her usual diatribe against the evils of processed food and the virtues of traditional cooking! For my part, I notice them sigh in despair. I see them roll their eyes to heaven and slink off somewhere else – to a place where no one is going to talk about FOOD!
They have lots of things on their mind – none of them in the least bit related to food and cooking. Of course not – they’re teen-agers! One day, though, they too might become parents and if and when they do then perhaps, just perhaps they might be interested in turning to Master in the Kitchen to help guide them in their choices, to find inspiration and hopefully learn how to cook a tasty dish for their family, friends and any random visitor who happens to be passing through.