Womankind #4: Frida

Cooking as revolution

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by Charlotte Wood on September 3, 2015

I must have been about seven when I asked my mother what communism was. I had no idea, but from the dark mutterings of my friends’ parents and stray outraged references on TV, I knew it must be bad.

I was surprised, then, when my mum turned to me from the sink, soap suds sliding off her pink rubber gloves, and said, “It’s a very good idea – it means sharing everything with each other”.

She went on to explain that the idea was sadly often ruined in the wrong hands – but still, it was a puzzling answer when other people’s mothers said ‘communist’ in the same suspicious, fearful tones they used for ‘germs’ or ‘sin’. Catholic 1970s country housewives were not, it seemed, supposed to sympathise with Commies.

This was the first hint that my seemingly ordinary mother had another, undercover life as a rebel.

This quietly dissident life of hers took various forms. As we grew up I assumed we must be poor: why else would all our furniture be old or hand-made by my father, when my best friend’s house had luscious gold velour couches and Parker sideboards? Why must we suffer the indignity of re-used paper bags for our school lunches when other people had pristine plastic ones! And only dire poverty, surely, could explain growing vegetables in a freezing Cooma winter, when carrots and spuds were perfectly available, chopped and peeled and conveniently frozen in a packet, from the supermarket?

Hippies my parents most certainly were not: my childhood was Mass every Sunday, strict discipline, homework and table manners – and yet there was something subversive about my mum’s daily life. Composting and refusing pesticides, shopping second hand, preserving fruit and making jam from the garden’s apricot gluts, buying direct from orchardists, waging war on plastic in the house – she did all this at least two decades before the phrase ‘global warming’ was ever spoken.

As a teen I found it all horribly déclassé. Now, of course, my middle-aged eyes are seeing my mother afresh, with pride. Along with my siblings, I’ve inherited her anti-consumerist ethos (in spirit at least, if not always in best practice). We all grow vegies, are mindful about plastic and our furniture is old – some was even made by our dad.

But despite my mum never being a very passionate cook, the kitchen is where I find myself most often enacting her subtly revolutionary lessons. So here – in tribute to my mum Felicia, the country town, Catholic, mother-of-five, flower-arranging anarchist – are ten ways to overthrow capitalism from your kitchen bench.

1. Buy less stuff

When you’re a keen cook like me, the consumerist possibilities are endless. From sous vide machines to matching non-stick cookware sets and crème brûlée blow-torches, if you’re not careful it’s easy to convince yourself that this new thing will change your cooking life. I’m a sucker for a cookware sale – but I try to remind myself that the only serious equipment needed for excellent home cooking is one good sharp knife, a decent frying pan, imagination and energy.

2. Buy whole, fresh food

The more ingredients in a product, the more crap will be in it too (would you like tartrazine and nitrate 249 with that?), the more processing involved, the greater the fossil fuel loss. And the more money going into multinational corporate pockets. I’m not as evolved as friends who shop at food co-ops and won’t set foot in a supermarket, but I do feel a sneaking pride when the nearest thing to convenience food in my pantry is a can of borlotti beans. There is something deeply satisfying about looking at a ‘product’- a banana! rice! – and knowing it contains just one ingredient: food.

3. Be prepared

The Scouts’ motto was always way cooler than the Girl Guides’ one (“Lend a hand” – ugh), and I’m stealing it as my capitalism-busting kitchen motto too. From packet mac-and-cheese to the Thermomix cult, we’re constantly told we’re too busy to make stuff from scratch. When you consider how much TV watching or social media scrolling most of us do, the whole ‘time-poor’ scourge is revealed as a crock. But even when we are truly busy, being prepared means we can rebel against the corporate food industry in many glorious ways. Chucking some dried beans in a bowl of water takes about thirty seconds, for example, and boiling them the next day only takes around half an hour (do it while you’re making dinner anyway). Drain and toss them in the freezer and there you have a no-preservative, high-convenience super food.

4. Waste less

This is a version of the above. If I’m thinking ahead, I can make stock from my lovely roast chook bones, combine it with those ageing vegetable nubs in the crisper and a cupful of lentils and bingo: soul-warming soup and my fast food fix for the week. And if you have a worm farm or compost tumbler on the go, those leftovers that might actually give you salmonella if you eat them can still go into making the planet a better place, and save on garden fertilisers into the bargain.

5. Grow food

Growing your own food is both antidepressant and corporate-food-giant destroyer. Conceptually it can seem like a lot of work, but given that my two vegetable plots do their vigorous best when I abandon them for weeks on end, I think the time factor in gardening is overstated. Growing food from seed is even more miraculous – and cheap. Oh, and you get extra environmental-activist, bee-colony-promotion points if you also plant flowers in your veg patch.

6. Buy stuff that lasts

We all know about planned obsolescence. So why do we keep buying into it? I’ve personally turned over enough crappy non-stick frying pans to finance the national debt of a small country. But no more – now, my properly seasoned cast iron pan will still be here long after I’m dead. Since I’ve started seeing discount department stores as little more than monuments to landfill, I try to seek out equipment that will outlast me – or at least endure the next five years. Capitalist running dogs hate that.

7. If it’s advertised, ignore it

A corollary to Michael Pollan’s advice that anything advertised as health food almost certainly ain’t. Let’s subversively ignore advertising altogether, and dream of the day when hipster creatives are no longer paid to convince people to buy junk they don’t need.

8. Swap, give, lend, share, barter

If you love cooking, chances are you have friends or family who do too. One of the pleasures of cooking for me is swapping food with other cooks. I’ve given out a few jars of homemade kasoundi recently and received in return my friend Steph’s salted peanut butter biscuits, Jane’s preserved lemons and gin-soaked cherries, and Vicki has promised me a bag of fresh blue swimmer crabs from her next haul. Another spend-less scheme is to share equipment.

9. Support female producers

You know that the gender pay gap is actually getting bigger, right? I like to think I’m doing my bit to bring down the patriarchy by, among other things, seeking out and supporting excellence whenever I see it among women farmers, cooks, growers, inventors, entrepreneurs, and producers.

10. Be a mindful cook

The biggest obstacle to planet-destroying, misery-making corporate capitalism is an informed consumer with a sharp mind and a generous heart. Educating ourselves about the flow-on effect of what and how we shop, cook and eat – and throw away – is the first step to fixing the planet. We really can cook our way to a better world.

Viva la revolution!

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