Eating In

The art of fast food

Empty shelves need not mean dreary eating

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Hurrah for food shortages! In my land of abundance on the superior side of the Atlantic I read about beleaguered Britain: empty shelves, bare cupboards and idle HGVs. I start imagining a morally enhanced future, where readers of The Critic tighten belts and restore the spirit of the Blitz, digging for Brexit in vegetable gardens converted from former rose-bowers and ornamental walks, and spreading napkins at Christmas dinners to catch costly fragments of snoek and Woolton Pie.

“Is it really as bad as the media here say?” I ask my wife on a video call.

“It’s dreadful,” she says, threatening me, if I get home to Northamptonshire, with a Christmas bereft of such basic necessities as Carlsbad plums or clementines or such human rights as brandade, fresh pineapple and roscones. She brandishes ads for turkeys at £10 a pound.

“What price humbug?” I enquire, snarling like Scrooge.

Mint humbug teabags in Fortnum’s, she says reassuringly, still cost only about £6 an ounce. “I’m thinking of training as an HGV driver,” she adds.

My imagination starts working again. I see Britain brought, beyond the Blitz, back to the spirit of the General Strike, as the bourgeoisie fill jobs that Covid victims and erstwhile immigrants vacated.

Reality gets its revenge when I reach the end of the lunch-counter queue (or “line” as we say over here). Though in the United States our media like to distract us with British problems, we’re having serious food distribution malfunctions, too. Imports moulder in warehouses and plants wilt in the fields, owing to the labour shortages with which prosperity is cursed.

The canteen manager in my building at the University of Notre Dame furrows his brow as he bends over my roast-beef-on-nine-grain-with-spicy-mayo, slicing an increasingly precious tomato. “We can’t get the ingredients,” he laments. “We’re gonna have to close the sandwich station.”

Among the benefits of a crisis of supply is culinary inventiveness, unleashed when you can’t get what you want

My sandwich teeters while he adds layers of beef, thinly sliced but thickly folded, to lettuce, mayonnaise, onions, tomatoes, peppers, and gherkins. He secures the leaning tower with a long cocktail stick, tufted with a festive finial of red and blue ribbon. His brow unclouds as he wraps his handiwork in chequered greaseproof and rises to hand it to me. I wonder whether shortage isn’t the consequence of profligacy.

Among the benefits of a crisis of supply — along with morally refreshing austerity, the discipline of parsimony, and the check on over-indulgence — is culinary inventiveness, unleashed when you can’t get what you want.

My fear, on the other hand, as I contemplate a deprived festive season, is not of what British households lack but of the Christmas puddings they have all too readily to hand, lingering from last year’s rite of preparation, depressing larder shelves and sensitive appetites. I’d like to send these stolidly indigestible concoctions to the gym to overcome a shortage of medicine balls.

Instead, I advocate Christmas savouries that reflect honourable British traditions while using ingredients that every household, except perhaps in urban food deserts, is likely to have, however much the supply chains rattle.

To evoke a British Christmas, for instance, one might take an intensely spiced and fruited loaf, and cut it lengthwise, using the melba-toast method to make very thin croûtes — browned on one side, and spread with butter on the other. If you layer them with carmelised apple slices, brushed with apple brandy, and rashers of bacon under a film of mild cheese, such as Wensleydale, before grilling, you can pile up two or three decks of perfectly complementary crunch, kick and succulence

I advocate Christmas savouries that reflect honourable British traditions while using ingredients that every household will have

In a development of the famous recipe from the old Locket’s restaurant (for a dish not served, I believe, in the St James’s café that has appropriated the name), similar toasts can accommodate slices of pear — enlivened with Poire Williams or suchlike liquor — walnuts, watercress, and a topping of stilton.

It has to be stilton: no other cheese has enough salt and tang to offset the sweet ingredients while maintaining sufficient structure to give the dish an ideal consistency. Or layers of lean ham work well under sliced and, if obtainable, squashed dates (enhanced by a spell of immersion in whisky) and a tier of cauliflower grated with hard, fat cheese.

In a vegetarian alternative, slices of peppers, piquant or pickled, can underlie the cauliflower mixture. Over a stack of as many croûtes as one wishes, sprinkled parsley and cress will dress the dish with unmistakably British modesty.

Or, if there are real shortages, make virtues of them and seek sanctity through hunger. Should I add, “Merry Christmas!” or “Thank Heaven, fasting”?

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