Food and the middle class

Boulder Beer

When I was a nipper, my parents had the good sense to utilise my siblings and I as kitchen hands. My Da’ was a chef, back in the day when culinary training meant being taught to cook like the French. He was a pastry king, a seafood creative, and a master of invention. Essentially though, he was also a fisherman, and he knew that the best way to eat crayfish was on a fire on the beach, an hour after you caught it. No fooking about. And us kids learnt to appreciate how simple it could be to craft tasty food.

Food was pretty simple when I was growing up. There were two varieties of baked beans, one type of pasta, and the butcher gave you a free sausage piece of luncheon (sausage meat) when your Mum popped in to pick up lamb chops. When my olds were low on cash it was inventive ways with mincemeat, and we wouldn’t get fish and chips on a Friday night. Which as an eight year old meant the world had tipped on its axis. Whether food was bad for you was determined by whether it was a Brussels sprout (my opinion) or whether it was made of sugar (my Mum’s opinion thanks to my dentist). Simple.

As the years have charged on past me, I’ve found a number of food attitudes to rant at.

Ooh, sidetrack, if you ever feel you need to work in a great ranting environment, try working in a kitchen. When I spent time learning to bake in Cambridge I gained access to the “chef’s rant”. These were an early morning special, fuelled by triple lattes, a wall of knives and kick starting the day with an hour of heavy metal. Chris (hilarious lanky dreadlocked Essex hero) and Lownes (talented ginger Welsh head chef) were frequently on fine, vocal, spatula-wielding form. It was like a one-sided talkback radio version of karaoke.

Anyway, there’s one area that I’d like to set up a soap box for today, the deification of foodstuffs, aka what the feck’s the deal with Sea Salt Tastings? Olive oil debates, hummus festivals, coffee beans harvested from a toddycat’s faeces…I searched google for “exclusive sea salts” and found a forum where someone had posted a question titled “Potentially embarrassing question: Kosher salt vs Sea salt”. Embarrassing? Gak, what a petrifying potential social faux pas! There was me getting all anxious about whether my writing might be a positive way to help build understanding for the visually impaired. I realise now I should have been stressing about whether I should pickle my prosthetic-limb-harvested South East Nigerian kumquat with aged, long handle raked black lava Cypriot sea salt. And the social ramifications if a dinner guest called me up on it.

My rally against middle class angst began when I was in my twenties. At this time my Ma and Pa made a decision to set up a vineyard in a sunny chunk of New Zealand known as Marlborough. It is important to note at this point, that they’d raised my brother, sister and I in a wee suburb in Wellington called Newlands, and that as a results we were bogans. For those not familiar with the term, it indicates that we were all about Metallica, dressing from black wardrobes, and drinking bourbon. Or “bogan and coke”. But I’m proud to tell you that we were nothing if not flexible in our approach to new taste sensations. Or free piss. Our parents shift into wine making circles meant we understood what was involved in crafting bottles of Sauvignon Bonk, and just as importantly we knew that in the end it was just piss. After all the pontificating, swirling, deep snorts and staring at the ceiling (and that’s just the inelegant old school process of removal the cork), it was designed to get us drunk. I thought I’d undone the mystery behind the world’s only serious middle class focus point for consumption snobbery. How naive I was. Somehow the wealthy masses have managed to push this ridiculous social ranking scheme into whole new realms, even lowly condiments. And beer. Gulp.

And here I will outline my own near-miss, my almost-tumble into an obsession with a hand crafted product. For many years, beer was the drink of the hard workers who built my tiny home nation. It was a brilliant social equaliser, barristers drank next to labourers, bankers with harlots (no change there, then). The beers were dull, but they were cheap. But things changed. Just over two years ago I headed back to New Zealand from Cambridge, England, a cider drinking, real ale swilling paradise. I was heading back via the beer halls of Oktoberfest, and I feared the taste-free homogenised beer scene I would be returning to. But Lo! A scattering of people had woken up and smelt the hops. America’s successful rejuvenation of small batch brewing had inspired a new generation of beer lovers in Aotearoa. I dove into Earl Grey Tea beers, chilli beers, and Hop Zombies. I was impressed by the small community feel of the brewing community, most growing beer producers were constantly helping each other get established rather than protecting their fledgling business’. It was a cute, collaborative cottage industry. But the beer prices crept ever upward, and between tiny kiwi “pints” I started to notice a snobbery that many denied, but few actually avoided. A train-spotterish obsession with hop varieties, a curl of the lip at anyone enjoying a cold commercial lager, and far too many beards. Shudder. And hipsters. One bar in particular, Hashigo Zake, was like a dungeon of pseudo elitists, and it represented so much that I had always rallied against. I broke. It. Is. Just. Beer. It was a close call. I don’t have the stomach, nor the budget, for snobbery.

So here’s a call to all those of you with lots of free time, and only first world worries and concerns. Maybe it is time to start putting a chunk of that time and a wad of cash into setting up a community garden, or running classes teaching people to cook healthy meals on a budget. Surely more rewarding than blood pressure raising arguments with dinner guests over the origin of the hand stroked ginger in your “deconstructed Moscow Mule”.

I still love a good beer though…

 
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