Food is where the generation gap is widest

The number of times you have to explain to your children what a boomer is, before they stop saying “OK, boomer” is … well, I do not know the answer to this. I have to assume it is infinite, and they will never stop. Anyway, I am not a boomer, as I was born long after the mid-60s, and nor are/were my parents, who fall into what went before – the silent or beat generation. These distinctions are important when it comes to cooking, because boomers cook one way (the women can’t cook at all, because of feminism, and they vie with each other to see who can do the most disgusting thing to an aubergine; the men all cook like Keith Floyd), Generation X cooks another way and the beat generation does things that must be recorded now, because once they have passed out of fashion, they will never be discovered again.

They have weird skills, derived from scarcity in their early years. They keep their spices in brown glass because they last longer. For practical purposes, this means everything is in an old Calpol bottle with “sumac” scrawled over it. It doesn’t necessarily make them thrifty. Some of them are, and will fish an empty packet of sugar out of the bin, shake a quarter-teaspoon of sugar from it and put it back; my stepmother still insists that you shouldn’t use fat when you’re frying bacon, because it already has fat. Others are wildly profligate, especially with fat, as if living a lifetime of astonishment that the 50s are over, and you’re now allowed to fry bread in dripping, and then put butter on it. They all love dripping; they all love black pudding. Actually, so do I, so this isn’t really a generational thing.

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They can often make a cake by eye, without weighing anything, which I find incredible, and they know what to do with leaf gelatine, which is great until it isn’t. My mother once made avocado in jelly and then said: “I don’t know, the proportions may have been slightly off.” I said, recklessly: “Don’t worry – I’m sure I’ll choke it down,” but when it came to it, my cutlery bounced off it, like a prank played on a very hungry person in a cartoon.

The beat generation canon is Meat at Any Price and Fish at Any Price (both by Ninette Lyon) and anything to do with mince (the mince bible is Marvellous Meals with Mince, by Jocelyn Dimbleby). The descent of mince from a sacred food to a bolognese-only staple is one of the great mysteries of progress, because it is delicious even when you don’t shove a load of tomato in it. But you have to treat it with respect – you can’t just shove cheap meat in a pan and watch while it sweats out watery grey juice. This seems to be something that only wartime generations understand.

How you treat a vegetable works in a generational pendulum; it’s a bit like the “cycles of violence” explanation of history, only all the violence is unleashed upon the vegetable. Hip parents in the 70s, or regular parents in the 80s, or quite trad parents in the 90s had a horror of overcooked carrots and waterlogged cabbage. The very smell of cooked vegetables evoked for them every bad memory of British cuisine, before anchovies and Italians and radicchio arrived, when all dinner was a school dinner. So they would all just tease their vegetables with a hint of boiling water, before turning them out, still basically a salad, only a bit warmer. Then you, their offspring, would leave home, and accidentally encounter a vegetable that had been cooked, and realise how delicious it was – especially a steamed parsnip, which is sometimes called poor man’s lobster, for no good reason, as it tastes nothing like lobster – and now you probably overcook your vegetables a bit, and your children will go the other way.

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Just as it’s amazing how many tunes you can make with only eight notes, it is amazing how few decent things you can do to a cauliflower. Everyone over 60 puts cheese on it; everyone under 60 roasts it. Those are the only two things you can do. So sue me.

My dad had amazing butchery skills, could bone a quail in five minutes and would always look nonplussed if he bought a chicken in a supermarket but couldn’t find its spleen when he looked inside, like his Kinder egg was missing its toy. Knife skills definitely affect the way you cook, nudging you away from fillets of things and towards whole things, so that nothing ever takes 30 minutes, but everything tastes better. Unfortunately, you inherit a preference for whole beasts but cannot inherit the skills, so you’re constantly trying to spatchcock with just a pair of blunt scissors and a variable amount of enthusiasm.


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