welfare state of the nation

Remember the horsemeat scandal? A hurried panictime spread across the news media with more urgency than any usually given to food stories (such as those concerning the world’s population which has no access to regular food, or those nations with an obscene excess of the stuff.) Much to the dismay of Queen of the Gloom Kate Hurley-Burley, nobody died from eating horse DNA, so the heatlamp of scrutiny was slowly dimmed until there was barely a flicker left to read recent stories about dodgy fish. Daily updates from warehouses in Romania to three paragraphs on page twenty, and all because nobody died

In the light of Iain Duncan Smith claiming he could live on £53 a week, and the interconnected April 1 onslaught of welfare changes, the horsemeat scandal comes back to mind. Undercutting the media’s coverage was the inconvenient truth about the types of people who bought frozen ready meals on the cheap. Why do people buy low-cost, big bulk Tesco burgers fleshed out (if that’s the right phrase) with horse, or pile ’em high quid-a-box Lidl lasagna? What are these poor people thinking? Or doing?

Despite the popularity of Great British Menu and Masterchef, the general public are no more able to make confit of duck than they could name Zimbabwe’s highest scoring batsman*.

This is not primarily down to a lack of ingredients in most towns and cities, but their cost. On the now totemic £53 a week figure a Masterchef lunch is out of the question, even within walking/bus distance of the ‘world foods’ aisle at Morrisons. And I did say walk/bus for a reason; there’s a good chance that the economically challenged trying to rustle up something like a good meal every day won’t be able to hop into the car every journey. I should know, I’m one of them.

If you don’t already do so, join me in picking up odds and sods at Iceland every week, with bright £1 and £3 stickers on almost every shelf. Shopping budgets can only stretch so far even here, as IDS would find out if he took up the challenge to reduce his incomings to the bare minimum. It wouldn’t go amiss for David Miliband, able to fly off to a £300,000 job away from his working class constituency, to push his trolley around Iceland or Aldi either, to watch as banknotes become pocket-shrapnel far quicker than you realise. It’s not always possible to store away herbs and spices for future recipes if that week’s budget is taken up on basic ingredients.

The quality of food on a low level budget plunges too, which is both how any why the horsemeat scandal affected families on fixed or battered incomes. The bacon you fancy is far too expensive, that’s why what’s currently sizzling in the pan looks see-through and as though the pig was drowned. Pies are thick with tasteless pastry, chicken inflated with water, pizza barely covered with a shredded substance pretending to be cheese.

General assumptions of modern life are predicated on ideas about earning and spending, rather than saving and making do. It’s the opposite of the post-war generation (and the teaching they received) about the value of money coming in, the depth and breadth of opportunity. I know very well what happens when there’s too much month for the money, having been an office monkey with between 60-75% of my monthly wage taken in bills and private landlord rent. There’s only so often a northerner in a low-paid job can stretch the funds for social events, never mind eating something made from scratch. This is being repeated hundreds of thousands of times across the country, away from the cookbook world and glossy magazine fashion shoots.

How you react to the ready-meal reality of people defines your politics; some will urge people to aim towards better jobs with more pay, others would demand better pay and conditions, or more generous welfare payments. I think our current age is the most politically polarised time for a generation, fuelled by the very opposite of political anger. There has not been an ideology-age since the dual work of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair reshaped political parties as lifestyle management companies, and one consequence of all that is the righteous fury on both sides of the spectrum trying to reclaim their relevance. Somewhere away from all this is a group of ordinary people, millions in number, who couldn’t say with much confidence that they, like a Secretary of State of HM’s Government,  would live on £53 a week without any problems. The lifestyle choices you make now may well be formed by the comfort and complacency of your current surroundings. When these are taken away, even the taste of food changes with it.

The bad taste from all this debate, be it flavoured by welfare reform or Union fears, will rest on the tongue of only a small percentage of the population. Whatever term you use, it’s likely that politician’s won’t be part of them.

 

*Andy Flower, I’m told.

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Masterchefs need to apply

It’s a Sunday morning, and not for the first/last time I’m staring across a pub table at a friend who looks as though their internal organs have pins-and-needles. We’re getting older now, though the booze intake has not slowed down, leaving the recovery mode to kick in with all the pace and success of an ancient laptop, creaking and crunching its way through start-ups and breakdowns. We’re not ‘surrounded’ as such, though this is a Wetherspoons, so there’s an atmosphere all the same. Overly cheerful bar staff discuss the weekend’s football – “I like Brendan Rodgers, he’s got things right every time” – and a smattering of other similarly hungover folk are peppered around on tables all hunched over smartphones or newspapers. Not one of them is drinking alcohol, though it’s possible to buy drink from the moment the doors open at 9am, which is one of those New Labour licencing law legacies which hangs around unchecked. I note that some of the heavier drinkers at Wetherspoons are similarly prone to hanging around, unchecked.

A lone woman sits near by, her face one which has won arguments and weathered storms, a matriarch whose expression tells of penny jars and a dutiful marriage. She knows, as we know, that life was not supposed to direct her to a chain pub, on a Sunday morning, politely accepting the reheated food offered by nonetheless happy and polite men in branded shirts.

Within the context of “horsemeatscandalDRAMA” it’s worth remembering that Wetherspoons hasn’t been implicated. The world’s worst kept secret is the company’s reliance on microwaves and flash-frying, making their “curry club” nights identical to the rapid response seen in countless curry houses across the country. That said, what curries they do provide aren’t particularly bad, even if you don’t start at a round 100 before taking off points for soggy rice, cardboard-like poppadoms, a mango chutney with an apple-pie like consistency.

Their biggest failing and the source of my greatest food related angst since…well last week to be honest (post-ale festival ‘stodge’ of a Mattinsons sausage and a pint of lemonade)…has to be their ‘breakfasts’. It’s perhaps little surprise that there seems to be a single sort of man (and always men) who are spotted at early doors ordering a ‘spoons breakfast. Men who still have booze on their breath, or still have booze swirling around the brain, or who’ve been in need of proper munchies having eaten their entire kitchen stock of Battenburg cake and sour sweets. With warped tastebuds sleeping alongside most other vital organs – some more vital than others at such an early hour – it’s to be expected that the quality control is so low, but the wide acceptance of their early meals as adequate is a particularly British failing which brings to mind the oft-repeated maxim from a former line manager; “When you’re consistently below average, you bring the average down.”

The breakfast presented to me and countless friends over many hangover Sundays has always been below par, ‘acceptable’ because the hour is early, the head is sore and the tongue wants something other than real ale to taste. It is always lukewarm, because like my late-grandmother’s Christmas meals, they’re microwaved. Individual items congeal and wrinkle, sausages the colour of a baking dish, a single egg with a ripped underskirt for its white, toast which would be recognised as “warm, floppy bread” by Alan Partridge. It’s a plate which would embarrass most traditional ‘caffs’, and whilst a few cost cuttings are acceptable for the mass catering of evening meals, the state of breakfast at a company in rude health should be a point of some serious shame.

My friend and I carve our way through the barely heated food, little pats of butter secreted between the “toast” to assist with making malleable a hard, processed flower. What shadowy ghost of heat might have stuck around at the start has now floated away completely; we’re essentially eating cold food. And we don’t complain, not out loud, because this is accepted as what hungover people do between the hours of waking up and falling back to sleep. We’re guilt-filled and regretful, as any teenage masturbater caught by a family relative might be, at the satisfaction we nonetheless feel at consuming something, anything, to battle against the booze headache.

Our tepid plate, not so much fry-up as faux-up, can be placed anywhere in the current argument about lowering food standards, the increasing gap between those who can afford fresh ingredients and those who can only afford prepared ready meals. The complacency and acceptance is our own failing. The food industry hides its use of horse DNA as well as any businessman obscures his tax-evading savings, and in so many ways they’re choking us all. The horsemeat scandal engages producer and consumer with choices which must be made. It seems a long way from a reheated handgrab of reheated breakfast staples, and I suppose in the most basic way there is a distance, but the bad taste remains in the mouth all the same.