Thursday, 23 December 2010

Gobble, Gobble

T'was the day before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. Not so in towns and cities up and down the UK, where last minute purchases are being exchanged for cash or credit. Like the turkey awaiting the oven and your dinner plate, Christmas is a time for gobbling. A seasonal abundance of food, drink and good cheer.

Image courtesy of Veg Soc
The turkey, the bird to prize. The ace to trump this banquet of gorge. How will it be served? Basted, stuffed and roasted. What with? Cranberry sauce, gravy, roast potatoes and parsnips – all the usual trimmings? Turkey is to Christmas, what chocolate eggs are to Easter. As a veggie, why should I even be contemplating this? Because it seems to me, the carnivore's choice is ill-considered. As delectable as it might sound, yes I see some of you smacking your lips, is it truly scrumptious to sentence an animal to its untimely death? But it's tradition I hear you cry. Christmas isn't Christmas without this meat-feast for the eye. The carver at the head of the table, chest puffed out with pride.

Why does this explanation not lessen my revolt? For the same reason, people displayed disgust at a story I told many years ago. Chosen for its creativeness, this festive fable was read aloud to an assembly of pupils, parents and teachers. The tale of a turkey, prepped for the plate, but still very much alive. The hungry guests surprised as dinner removed itself from the platter to run round the table. Its attempts to flee made futile by a large carving fork pitched in its back. My childish mind amused at the thought of such lively main course entertainment. Pity the audience did not agree, and with no words left to say, a stony silence prevailed. If Queen Victoria had been present, she would have proclaimed, the audience were not amused. Fictional fun so I thought, but perhaps even in my innocence, I had hit a raw nerve.

Partial to a bit of meat and two veg, why the revulsion? Animals are fattened and slaughtered for your gastric enjoyment. I'm sorry if this is news, but “off with your head!” ensues your pound of flesh. There's no disputing that fact – you act as indirect accessories to the crime, including the dismal conditions animals are subjected to prior to the kill. Uneasy with this notion? Take action - learn an animal's fate from birth to plate. This is not an advertisement for vegetarianism, but a recommendation that carnivores have the full gristly details of what they're carrying through. Whether you remain a carnivore or not is up to you, but I'd rather you did so in full possession of the facts, than just because it's “finger lickin' good”.

For carnivores, it's the taste that counts. How to prep and disguise the flesh so that it bears little resemblance to the animal whence it came. Consumption made all the more easier by its presumed absence of thought and feeling. The truth may be harder to swallow for animals are intelligent, sentient beings just like you and I. Worth showing respect with heads bowed and grace said before the big feed. A thought spared for poor fattened up gobble, gobble – the crowning glory of your Winter feast. With knife and fork in hand, we veggies wish you “A Meaty Christmas” indeed.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

At thirty I stood on my own two feet...(Confucius ANA:II,3)

Contained in the Analects of Confucius are many teachings, like the title of this piece. Confucius, a Chinese thinker and social philosopher prized study above everything else, wishing his disciples to think for themselves and stand on their own two feet. The Analects compiled many years after his death apply to the world and its people even today. My own interpretation of this line holding personal significance. A teaching to aspire to and master before this decade passes. From my present position it's very apt for I turn 30 tomorrow.

Am I dreading it? Am I grief-stricken at waving goodbye to my youth? In a nutshell no. Like a relative you can't wait to see the back of, I grimace behind my 20s and look for the first opportunity to push them out. Minutes later, another knock at the door. Well hello 30s, come on in! As a society, we place great emphasis on age. It might be a cliche, but age is just a number. Sour grapes? No, just an observation. Why do we allow time to dictate how we should look? From how we look physically to what we wear – even to govern our interests. Age does not define who you are. All it signifies is a passing of time. Sure you may no longer be the person you were at 20, but is this cause for regret or a reason to celebrate? I take the latter view. I don't want to go back in time to a younger self, to correct misdeeds and misfortunes. I want to go forward. To learn and accept me as I am – not in the past or in the future, but right now.

20s gone, it's not the end of my youth, nor the incoming 30s the beginning of maturity. Somewhere we've been sold the idea that 30s means settling. To be a smug married with a nice car, house and 2.4 kids. I may have chosen differently to my contemporaries, but that doesn't make me a less responsible citizen. I have a job, roof over my head and bills to pay. I'm a contributing member of society, as no doubt we all wish to be. 30s are the middle ground. A time of learning. To be at peace with you are, including all your flaws - to accept them, admonish them and create new ones .

Confucius said, “It's a pleasure to learn and put your learning to its appropriate use...” What I failed to do in my 20s, is what I hope to master in my 30s. I've already begun. Inspired by biographies of those gone before – normal men and women, eons ahead of their time. A poor example are the autobiographical accounts from trendy-somethings. Barely out of nappies, their life half lived. I ask you: is fame more inspirational to others once you're dead? Crudely put, but my answer, I'm sure, would come as no surprise.

With the door to 30 creaking open, I thought I already stood on my own two feet, but maybe, just maybe, I'm still down on my knees...

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Mucky Hands, Sticky Fingers

Mucky pup”, is what my Mum and Nan would say to me while wiping my hands, fingers, face, and anywhere else I'd managed to smear my latest creation. A pet name I've thankfully outgrown, but back then getting dirty was a creative triumph. Painting, felt tips, papier-mache and glue were a few of my artistic pursuits. Fortunately, adults had the sense to roll up my sleeves and swaddle me in, bibs, aprons and old shirts like an Egyptian mummy. Playing kitchen helper was when I was happiest however. Even from my highchair I realised food made a great playmate. Mum's spag bol would be flung at the walls and on the floor. My hands, face and hair a squishy mess of pasta, mince, and tomato sauce.

Outdoors, the back garden was my second kitchen. Famous for my mud pies and afternoon tea, complete with plastic teapot, plates and cups. Etiquette was essential – any adult who failed to make the appropriate “nom-nom” noises was unlikely to be invited again. Rolling pastry and sieving jam through an old pair of tights for Nan's yummy jam tarts was another specialty. Years of practice making a floury mess and inedible mixtures thrown out to the birds, and what have I gained? Basic cookery skills and a lifelong love of food. The fun is in the preparation and getting your hands sticky, gooey and caked in crumbs. The programming of a microwave and its finished ping, a poor substitute in execution, taste and quality.

A simple home cook, I cheat and use shortcuts, but prefer to cook from scratch. There's no satisfaction to be found from a ready meal and less so if you're a veggie. At best, bite-sized, bland and calorific – the veg meal, not the veg human. Why then have these cellophane covered, plastic cartons with their small portions grown in popularity? Convenience and pressed for time are the usual response. Could it be we now lack the basic culinary know-how? The latter is closer to the truth. McDonald's is a cut of meat, potatoes are tomatoes, and chopping onions is way too difficult. The kitchen, a room to commence battle or exhibit as decorative art.

The uneducated masses is our plight. How do we make cooking fun and practical to those who have never been taught? To get across the message that cooking is an essential life skill? Education is the answer, the earlier the better. The early bird catches the worm as they say. While this is true, food tech in schools is not enough. Parents, public health bodies and big business need to get involved too. Changes are afoot, but in essence, if the parents feign interest and lack cookery confidence, the kids will too. The elephant in the kitchen, figuratively speaking, is the adult. A safe place to learn and get hands on is the cooking school. Home to great chefs who share their knowledge and passion for food. A winning combination if you can spare the expense, but neglects those who stand the most to gain.

Cooking is child's play. You're never too young or too old to get stuck in and shake those pots and pans. Make like Jamie Oliver and pass it on!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

The White Stuff

My craving for the white stuff began from a tender age. 3 months old, lips prematurely clamped to the bottle noisily devouring the creamy content within. The other white stuff currently blanketing the UK and holding us all hostage bears no comparison. This was liquid goodness, otherwise known as milk.

This was however only the beginning of an addiction that eventually became harder to tame. The bottle prised from my vice-like grip, (the dummy was not so easy to relinquish!), play school became my new looked-forward-to feeding ground with its daily bottle of milk and straw. Bedtime was another boon - almost picture perfect to behold. A little girl in a nightdress trying to imitate her father with a glass of milk in one hand and a couple of McVities plain chocolate digestives in the other. My milk addiction followed me everywhere or maybe I followed it – a modern equivalent to the pied piper with a large milk bottle at the head of the queue. Milk was the river of choice to quench my thirst – milk on its own or with and in everything. Flavoured milk, hot chocolate, sweet milky tea, and liberally poured over Coco Pops to turn the milk chocolaty. Any product made from or with milk became an obsession, not to be sated. This included cheese. I loved my cheddar - it was perfection with everything, in sandwiches, on toast, with crackers, on pasta... A dairy and sugar fiend always craving more - it must have been like living with Jekyll and Hyde.

This was the slippery slope to intolerance and discipline, accompanied by the harsh realities of dairy farming. Lactose and yeast intolerant after years of dairy abuse, my vegetarianism was pushed to new boundaries and not through choice. Forced to seek out alternatives for the sake of my health and consider my diet from a different perspective, it was at first a bitter pill to swallow. With persistence and a diet more varied than before, I came out the other side transformed by the lonely experience. It would be hypocritical of me to paint milk as the enemy, but past weaning our need is unnatural. Breast is best so we're told – liquid to nurture the young, not those all grown up, and certainly not from another mammal. Are we too late in realising the folly of our ways? Intolerance increases, but compulsion to drink the good stuff does not decline, despite the many tasty alternatives.

Make Mine Milk”, the latest campaign expounds milk as a great source of calcium – the soft drink found only in nature. A mythical virtue, which unpaid experts fail to discredit. True, milk is a source, but there are others far richer and better for you. What of these? They hushed up by the industry in a bid to protect sales and condone cruel practices. A precious liquid commodity for calves, but one which we continue to exploit for ourselves. Yes, make mine milk, but only if it's as nature intended: dairy-free.