I’m fussing, as my kids would tell you I do best. Slightly worried about having the food photographs, I am a home cook!? Judy writes. We’ve spoken on the phone and exchanged a few emails and I’m due to visit her at her home in south Wales with Maria Bell, a photographer friend of mine. We’re going to interview and photograph her as part of our ongoing project; to record the frugal food knowledge and cooking skills of older generations. The ‘real’ zero-waste generation. These are cooks – often women – over about 60 who have cooked from scratch for much of their long lives and who were raised at a time when waste was anathema. We want to interview Judy about how she avoids food waste; a subject that in recent years has become more pertinent than ever.
Judy, like many other women I’ve contacted, say the same thing. “I’m just a home cook you know”. Some have cancelled on me last minute, fretful that I’ve overestimated their abilities, worried that they’d fail to produce something up to standard. “I’m just a home cook”. Each time, I reassure them that they most certainly have something to share, one ounce of knowledge or skill that modern-day cooks have discarded. Often, to no use.
The following week, we visit Judy. Her shyness over email seems to have dissipated. She puts the kettle on, drops teabags into cups and launches into a stream of chatter, regaling her recent experiments to turn off milk into cheese (more on that another time). “Best before dates? Absolute rubbish”, she says. On the windowsill, a bouquet of rainbow chard leaves stands in a glass of water to keep them from wilting. Just-picked cherry tomatoes sit on the countertop ripening in the sunlight that streams in, a tupperware of stale bread ends next to them, a pile of wrinkly apples. Signposts to future meals.
On the menu today is chicken curry. A fall-back leftover recipe that she tells me her kids love. Judy has pulled the meat off a roasted chicken, the carcass is busy boiling itself into stock on the stove while she fries onions and garlic. She removes an ice-cream tub from the fridge. It’s full to the brim with homemade tomato sauce, made from a cheap, ripe haul from the market. The chicken stock, lentils, a few spices and tomato sauce go into the pot and she leaves it to cook.
Judy has brought out a worn recipe book. It has lost its spine and is tied together with brown twine. Her great-grandmother’s cookbook, dated from the 19th century and passed down to Judy’s grandmother and mother who have all added to it, the hand-writing changing through the ages. We read recipes for vegetable stew, apple cake and Grantham gingerbread, cherry pickles and mint jelly, Bengal chutney, Scotch Broth ‘very good’ and a remedy for hooping cough. Countless remedies actually, for sore throats and joint pain, as well as an actual poem for how to cure a pound of beef. Many of the recipes we find cite preservation. Some for marrow or apples, others for cherries or herring.
The precision and skill within these pages is astonishing. Clippings and notes passed from friend to friend, neighbour to neighbour. “I’m just a home cook” these women would have said. Instructions written with such precisely neat handwriting that assume knowledge I just don’t have. “Mum cooked everyday. She was very make-do-and-mend. She had three children during the Second World War so rationing was normal. She didn’t have a freezer, but then most people didn’t”.
What can we learn from these women? Perhaps we don’t want to pickle cherries or herring (neither sound particularly appetising I’ll admit), most of us are fortunate to have freezers in which – with a little foresight – we can stock-pile leftovers and we don’t need to preserve seasonal foods to last the year. But does that make this know-how any less relevant today? I don’t think so.
Reading the instructions within these pages and observing Judy cook – just as she observed and learned from her mum – reveal an attitude to food and cooking that many of us have lost. An inherent resourcefulness, an instinctive knowledge that understands when something is off and what to do with it, an engrained attitude that values the entire cycle of an ingredient – when to buy it, how to cook it and how not to waste it.
The amount of food we waste today is as much a sign of our own disconnect with where our food comes from as it is with a dwindling lack of confidence when it comes to cooking. Quiet knowledge and skills that was once learned and handed down over generations. Knowledge that our western societies no longer value.
To celebrate traditional home-cooking is tricky I realise. It’s something that kept women in the household and out of work and many resented it. Rightly so. But that’s not to say this knowledge isn’t important, and that the people with those skills shouldn’t be applauded for it. Let’s not forget that for centuries women have been the important bearers and tellers of lessons and knowledge that informed younger generations how to cook, eat and glean from the land in a way that was beneficial to the planet and our health. Whether that was knowing how to pick medicinal herbs to help a stomachache, or knowing how to tend a vegetable patch or cooking a simple, frugal curry like Judy here.
As part of our project to record home-cooks’ resourceful knowledge, I hope in some way to give those quiet voices a little recognition. A piece of the pie in an ever louder world. Maybe, along the way, we can learn something too.
If you know of any waste-conscious home-cooks who would like to talk to me, please get in touch via the comments below or my email firstname.lastname@example.org.