It was the maple syrup that did it in the end.
Only yesterday, my daughter asked me where it was. I couldn’t find it. But I did today, when I dug a pot of cream cheese out of the fridge and discovered that the lid was covered in a sticky brown goo.
The maple syrup had ended up right at the back of the dreaded top shelf of the fridge. It doesn’t help that ever since our last kitchen revamp, when due to a misunderstanding that involved our already-large fridge being built into a unit and further raised off the floor, that the top shelf has been impossible to reach without steps.
Devoting it to condiments and preserves only partly solved the problem. The same few favourites – Tiptree thick-cut marmalade, Geeta’s mango chutney and Branston pickle, stayed within relatively easy reach while their more obscure neighbours were shoved into oblivion until something tipped over and made a thorough clear-out impossible to put off any longer.
I like to pride myself on my foodiness. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve been inclined to read Jack Monroe’s austerity recipes and think, “But it would be so much nicer with top-notch ingredients. I might try that with smoked salmon, or whatever…” I know this makes me sound obnoxious and that’s fair comment. I have my garden of herbs, a comfortable income and ethnic grocery stores within easy reach. I also have a shelf of glossy cookery books, many of them proclaiming the joys of getting back to “real food”, whatever that is. River Cottage may talk about back to basics, but they’re the first to say how desirable it would be to use a certain, exclusive ingredient like cider brandy if you just happen to have it in. And when I didn’t, there was always internet shopping.
If you’re wondering who Jack Monroe is, well she’s becoming quite well-known as a thrifty cook and austerity blogger. Her account of hitting rock bottom and having nothing to feed herself or her two-year-old son with is the best description of contemporary poverty I’ve read in a long while. Because there were similar experiences in my childhood memories (though admittedly less severe) I’ve been suffering from food anxiety ever since. I’m always terrified of running out of food. And it has to be perfect food. If an obscure ingredient will make all the difference, then I have to have it. No tinned spuds or salmon paste for me.
Jack’s story and her cost-effective solutions to it have been working their way into my conscience for a good while now, just waiting for the right moment to take root. And with the spilt maple syrup, it came.
I cleared the dreaded top shelf and the contents filled my worktops. I’d forgotten ever buying many of them, and they weren’t cheap. Some were worthy attempts at preserving the fruits of my japonica and windfall apples. Others were trophies from gorgeous farmers’ markets – like the coconut chutney that only really goes with one sort of cheese, which I might eat twice a year. But most were the direct result of slavishly-followed fashionable recipes.
Do I really need three different types of mayo? Four mustards? Six chutneys? Redcurrant and cranberry jellies? All the ingredients to make my own tartare sauce, plus three versions of the ready-made variety (which I secretly prefer)? Isn’t all this getting rather silly – not to mention immoral, in an age of burgeoning food banks?
There’s a wise old saying; the best is the enemy of the good. It is important to eat healthily every day, and to avoid industrially processed food if you possibly can. But frankly, it isn’t going to kill you if you have to chuck tinned veg into a curry or flavour a sauce with a bit of Heinz tomato ketchup. I hate waste, and that’s why it goes against all my instincts to throw away even food that’s long past it’s best-by date. But I really seem to have a blind spot when it comes to buying food I didn’t really need in the first place.
When I stop to think about it, it does me no credit to be fussing over balsamic vinegar when so many people are living on 6p tins of baked beans. In future, I’m going to avoid buying expensive condiments for specific recipes unless I plan menus around using them up – possibly in meals for the freezer. And I apologise to Jack Monroe. Her little boy seems to be doing pretty well on tinned potatoes to me, and it’s downright hypocritical of me to say how wonderful she is and then turn my snooty middle-class nose up at her recipes.