Thursday, 28 February 2013

Lasagne and a very long rant

"Grandmother, may I have another sausage?" asked Hugh Anthony.
"Certainly not," said Grandmother.
"Why?" asked Hugh Anthony.
"Because you've had two already."
"But why can't I have three?"
"Because three wouldn't be good for you."
"Because they are made of pork, and too much pork is not good for children."
"They aren't made of pork. Sarah says Mr King's sausages are made of horse. So may I have another?" Sister of the Angels Elizabeth Goudge, 1939.

There's horse meat in prepared meals you say? Cue the proliferation of jokes. So very many jokes. Enough that the jokes are reported almost as much as the latest developments. But it isn't very funny really. For one thing, it's not just horse meat of unknown provenance. Pork, prohibited by Muslim and Jewish dietary laws, has also been found in these "beef" products. And there have been suggestions that the horses may actually have been donkeys.

Aside from the jokes, I've seen mainly three categories of responses: serves you right for eating meat, what is wrong with eating horse anyway and what did you expect from value meals?

There's not really much I can say about the first. Some people who choose not to eat meat are very keen to proselytise. They have a point - I'm sure most people would benefit from eating less meat (particularly highly processed meat products) and more vegetables. It probably would benefit the planet, too. But I honestly don't think that many people who do eat meat will stop as a result of this, although sales of frozen beef (or "beef") burgers have fallen.

The "what is wrong with eating horse" school also gets short shrift from me, because it is just fundamentally missing the point. If you choose to eat horse, there is nothing wrong with it. If you don't choose to eat horse and you end up doing it anyway, that is the problem.

It's the "Well what did you expect from value meals" response that has me really wound up.

Where to begin?

Firstly, what I expect is that it "does what it says on the tin". I expect "made in the UK" to be made in the UK. I expect gluten-free bread to be gluten-free. I expect food labelled "suitable for vegans" to be suitable for vegans. And I expect something labelled 100% beef to contain 100% beef, whether it is from an economy range or premium. The problem with horse or pig or donkey or rat being substituted for beef is a matter of fraud. Laws are being broken by selling one foodstuff as another. The Food Labelling Regulations 1996, a bunch of EU regulations and directives, all dealing with maintaining a safe food-chain and ensuring that food is labelled accurately. There are suspicions that some of this is down to organised crime  - it isn't just a mistake or the consumer not being careful.

Secondly, this has opened up a whole nasty can o' worms regarding attitudes to the poor. The snobbery that has been on display is absolutely grotesque. From the smug "I never eat ready meals" to the more vicious pervading messages that you have to be both stupid and lazy to buy cheap meat, the horse meat scandal has led to a lot of victim-blaming. Often prefaced with "why don't they just...".

Why don't they just cook loads of lentils, shop at markets, buy from butchers, buy in bulk? My friend Miss South has eloquent things to say on the subject of food poverty, which are well worth reading as a rebuttal to those.

Cucina povera just isn't enormously suited to urban living. You can probably get chicken carcasses and secondary cuts for pennies and make lots of nourishing dishes from them. If you aren't working all the hours that the butchers are open. If you don't have family members with complex health needs and no respite care. If you have a butcher that actually breaks down whole animals and doesn't buy them in pre-packed. If you aren't reliant on a microwave because the landlord won't fix your cooker. If you can afford the fuel for long slow cooking. If you aren't spending all of your energies trying to get your benefits reinstated while undergoing chemotherapy.

I love the idea of taking my tangier to the local hammam and leaving it to cook all day in the fires underneath the bath house, but Greater London isn't really set up for that. I'd like to see the look on their faces if I rocked up to the local Wenzel's and asked them to stick my lamb boulangère in their oven for the day. I'd probably also get some funny looks if I went cutting firewood in the park in order to fuel my jambalaya-cooking.

Criticising people for buying the cheapest protein they can, when one in five mothers is missing meals so her children can eat, when the UN is investigating UK food poverty, when children are increasingly going to school hungry, is offensive and ignorant. Demonising people who are not in a position to make better choices is not going to help them.

What is the answer? Unfortunately that is where my ranting falls down. I just don't know really. Children are going to be given cooking lessons but since this has been discussed since 2008 I'm not holding my breath. Unless underlying issues of poverty are addressed, knowing how to cook ingredients that people can't afford isn't going to help. It probably won't hurt though.

For me, this lasagne was a very frugal dish. I didn't have any pasta in the cupboard but I did have eggs, flour and the equipment and know-how to make them into pasta. I have a large and well-stocked freezer, so was in the luxurious position of having organic British minced beef and pork, bought when they were on special offer. And I have time on my hands and a paid-up electricity bill so was able to give the sauce a nice long simmer. For the price of some spinach and milk, I was able to produce six hearty portions of food. In short, this is the sort of food people on a budget should be eating, if we ignore what real life can be like. But it actually didn't taste as good as Findus.

Spinach lasagne sheets made according to this recipe
Thin layers of ragu and bechamel
Warming, comforting lasagne


Mary Bergfeld said...

Rant on! What you have to say is important and if enough people say it more will eventually get the message. The lasagna sounds perfect. It is the kind of dish my family would love. I know I would. Have a wonderful day. Blessings...Mary

Adam Jacobs said...

OK, I guess I'm one of the offensive and ignorant people then, because I'm afraid I am going to criticise consumers.

I do appreciate that not everyone can afford fillet steak from a posh butcher. I really do. Although I can afford to buy nice food these days, that wasn't always true in the past, so I do know what it's like to have to eat on a tight budget. And yes, I know that not everyone has access to a butcher that's going to sell them some beef rib trim or some other tasty but cheap cut.

But here's the thing. I really don't think having a tight budget means you don't have to think about what you're eating.

I really think this problem is only going to be solved when consumers take responsibility for their own choices. Can't afford decent meat? Well, eat vegetarian then. I'm not saying that people need to be completely vegetarian, just that they don't need to eat meat every day. It's perfectly possible to eat very cheaply if you don't eat meat (and, of course, even if you do eat meat if you're lucky enough to have a local butcher). Save the meat for a special occasion if you can't afford it every day.

The problem is that people just expect food to be cheap, and don't ask questions about where it comes from as long as the price is right. Until that attitude changes, there are going to be things in our food that we didn't expect to be there. The pressure to cut costs is just too great.

Joanne said...

I may not eat meat but I'm totally not into proselytizing. Though I do believe that everyone should eat more veggies and at the least cook their own meals instead of doing take-out! Your lasagna looks absolutely wonderful!

Barbara said...

Rant on. I agree with you. This horsemeat/donkeymeat (first time I've heard that one) is all over the net. Today, it's Taco Bell.

But...and there's always a but...real life comes into the picture. Until I'm in those shoes, I really don't feel I have the right to advise what someone else buys or eats. I do expect labels to be correct and there certainly is something we can do about that.
What we should eat and we can afford to eat are a long way apart.
(Your spinach lasagna sheets look wonderful, BTW.)

Alicia Foodycat said...

Mary - thank you!

Adam - the people who bought those meals were victims of fraud. Educate them, encourage them to ask questions but don't vilify them for trusting that labelling was accurate.

Joanne - I know you don't! Not all veggies do. I still make better vegetarian lasagne than meat though.

Barbara - very well said.

grace said...

what a mess this has turned out to be, but my hope is that it will make everyone more aware of what they should be eating as well as what they're actually eating.
LOVE lasagna. your spinach sheets look so cool and tasty!

mscrankypants said...

I'm horrified by the 'you get what you deserve' brigage. Incorrect labelling can cost lives in the case of extreme allergy. Fair enough, I doubt most people are allergic to horse meat, but everyone deserves proper labelling and buying food without deception.

Caroline said...

Well said. I haven't come across many negative reactions, but then I've been avoiding social media recently too...

There are only so many hours and so much effort to put into each day and everyone is different. Not everyone wants to think about their food, but everyone deserves to make their own choices. Choices require accurate information.

Nice lasagne too...

Adam Jacobs said...

I wouldn't say I'm vilifying people for trusting that the labelling was accurate, just observing that they were being a little naive.

Sure, they were the victims of fraud, and I'm certainly not making any excuses for the fraudsters. The fraudsters absolutely deserve to face serious consequences for their actions. I would apply that both to whoever it was that knowingly passed off horse meat as beef, and also to the people further up the supply chain who didn't ask the questions they should. I'm certainly not trying to excuse negligent and criminal behaviour on the part of retailers.

All I'm saying is that people need to take a little more responsibility for their actions. After all, if you received an email telling you that you'd just won the Nigerian lottery and all you had to do was supply your bank details to claim your prize, would you be surprised if you ended up being the victim of fraud? A more extreme example, perhaps, but I don't think the principle is all that different.

If you buy cheap processed food from big multinational companies whose main concern is to make profits and who have extensive supply chains involving many other companies, is it really a surprise that things are less than completely wholesome?


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