(Not) a middle class point of view: Bloke’s Pasta.

Tonight, for dinner, I made a family favorite: a modified version of “Proper blokes’ sausage fusilli”.   My version is an adaptation of a recipe in Jamie Oliver’s “Cook with Jamie“, which he wrote to help people “learn to cook properly and enjoy it (back cover).” I originally purchased the book (cost $16.99–though I think I might have gotten it for less at Cosco) to give to my son so he could feel confident in a kitchen.  This dish is the one thing he has ventured from the book, though I have made many other things from it with good results.  The book was written about the time that Jamie Oliver was beginning to try to have a food revolution in the UK, certainly before he really started talking to people who might consider themselves “ordinary folk”.  As a result, the food, despite the ordinary and everyday language of the book and the best intentions of the author, is really not sympathetic to the economic needs of those “ordinary folk”.  

Although political leaders from both sides have at various times claimed that class is dead in the UK or that we are now all middle class, there is a whole range of labels for people who are not quite affluent: the working poor, the just getting started (young with low wages), those on benefits, the marginalised, the disadvantaged, chavs, the just plain poor, and those living in extreme poverty. On the other hand, most food shopping advertising and cookery books are targeted at the average household (note not the aforementioned ordinary household) who largely share the experiences or at least an approximation of the incomes of the cookbook writers, supermarket advertisers and managers, cookery show presenters and producers, etc.  In short, those with incomes that are sufficient to be able to purchase “good-quality” ingredients and have houses with storage capacity to keep the excess of ingredients that result from the home cooking in Oliver’s book (such as the extra oil, salt, chillies, oregano, butter, parmesan cheese, etc.).  Cooking is aspirational, and if people are saving money they are not spending it.

Blokes’ pasta, the way I make it, consists of a cooked package of fusilli pasta tossed with two good knobs of butter, a good handful of fresh flat leaf parsley and tarragon (finely chopped), and caramelized sausage mixture.  To make the meat mixture, raw sausage meat is browned in a bit of olive oil until just dark then some (2 or so Teaspoons) fennel seed and two crushed chillies are added. This mixture is cooked a further 10 or so minutes until the meat is quite dark.  At this point I add a good glug or two of dry sherry (though the recipe calls for a glass of white wine–about 8-12 oz– thereby invoking the ghost of Julia Child). While the liquid is reducing add the zest of one lemon–a lemon zester helps significantly here–and then the juice of the same lemon.  When stirred into the pasta with the remaining ingredients, a fragrant, though deceptively underdressed looking pasta dish is produced.  When tasted the dish reveals a combination of chilli, lemon, and sausage with undercurrents of the parsley and tarragon and butter, that in concert produce a substantial and very yummy taste sensation. All it really needs is a nice, full bodied glass of wine and maybe some crusty bread.

love Jamie Oliver’s cookbooks because they are kinesthetic. To cook from his books one does not need to be precise, you feel and imagine the food as you cook, putting in what seems like will be enough wine or chilli or parmesan and then modify as needed after looking, smelling, and tasting the food.  This is not science cooking, which is exact and measured; it is instead embodied.  But, to cook this way requires experience and knowledge.  To know what good food should taste like means that one has tasted food that is well made, probably by someone else initially.  It also requires a certain abundance of resources that forgives failures as real learning and experimentation produces inedible food sometimes.  

As such, to cook in an embodied way means that waste may result occasionally.  For most middle class people, this isn’t a real problem. If a dish fails, then, if you are like me and need to have a full panty, you just reach into the cupboard for some other sauce to put on the pasta or some other item purchased earlier. Alternatively, if you are like those who buy for the week (which is, incidentally, a less expensive way to provision) then you order a take-a-way to replace the experiment that turned out to be inedible.  If you are, however, on a very tight budget, failure results in either eating something most would deem inedible or going without. Either way, a not nice experience and reinforcement of the lesson to not to experiment but, instead, stick with what you know.

Despite the fact that I think Blokes’ pasta is pretty easy and straightforward, we did not have it in Hong Kong. We didn’t have it because the very able person we had who cooked for us, struggled with the dish even after she was shown. She struggled because she did not have the experience and knowledge of what a British/Italian pasta dish should look or taste like and she was deeply uncomfortable cooking in an embodied way as required by the book.   What is more, in the HK context, the high cost of western ingredients made it a very expensive dish to make and it was, in our mind, ordinary food, which should not be overly expensive.  That was us in a particular context.  I made the dish tonight, in the UK, because I am again British middle class, I have room to store excess ingredients, I can grow the parsley and tarragon, I am doing the cooking for myself and my family, and the cost is within what I would consider the reasonable-range-for-what-it-is. It was wonderful, but I am aware that it is a dish that many would not, even in the UK, entertain. 

It isn’t that the ordinary British person wouldn’t like it, indeed most would.  It is because, despite the name, it is still a relatively expensive dish to make.  I worked it out.  If you start with an empty cupboard the trip to the store will cost about £18. This is the minimum cost, buying value rather than best quality anything. It also assumes that you have a hob with at least 2 burners, a large pan to cook the pasta in, wooden spoons, knives, a large frying pan for the meat mixture, and a large bowl to put it together in (though I suppose one could use the same pan that the pasta was cooked in after the water was drained off). Once made, the dish will serve probably six people. So leftovers, if you are single, also means the dish requires a refrigerator.  You also need a place to store the unused excess of ingredients purchased (e.g., oil, salt, etc.), which you may or may not use depending upon your normal diet.

IMG_1383Eighteen Pounds (about $200 HK or $25 US) for a dish is well over, even when shared across six people, the £1 a day that UNICEF asks people to work toward in their “live below the line” campaign.  Even in the UK, Oxfam estimates that one in 5 people live at below poverty levels, making this dish out of reach and especially so when you consider it needs a side salad or some other veg and a glass of nice wine, and maybe some crunchy bread to round it out. Indeed, when considered at the dish level, £18 compared to the cost of a ready made lasagna, with its high fat and sodium content and possible dubious meat (i.e. horse meat, though see this geofoodie post about horse meat) puts Blokes’ pasta well beyond the means those who are less than affluent, even in affluent societies such as the UK or the US.

While Jamie has refined his message to better speak to the requirements of the less-than-affluent (as a result of considerable criticism), he is just part of a small group of voices. Much of the cookery media, which is global, is oriented toward a population that has space for excess and income to afford this sort of cookery. What is hidden under the media representations is a structure of provision that designs certain buying norms into the system (e.g., the weekly shop, the need for a freezer and cupboard space for 2 for 1 and BOGOF deals).

Unlike places such as HK, where provisioning is so much more oriented toward a buy-as-you-use approach, in the UK one is hit with an overwhelming push to over-consume by the supermarkets.  It seems cheaper to buy 8 lemons for £4 than 4 for £2.50, though in reality unless you are making lemonade, it is likely that 8 will be too many so some will go off and have to be thrown away. Contrary to calculation, in the supermarket I must remind myself of how much I will actually use, not what I save by buying more.  The strain of this must be exacerbated for those whose view of the household food budget as one of absolute maximums set at below poverty level rates.


The blog a-girl-called-Jack is written by Jack Monroe and documents life, among other things, trying to cook variety and quality on a below the poverty line budget–about £10 per week for two.  Jack has recently received a lot of press for her blog and demonstrates not just the difficulty of cooking on less, but the immense skill and effort required to be able to produce variety and quality on an extremely limited budget.  Off the back of this she has been offered a job and a book contract. Her book will be available in February 2014.

Polly Toynbee has also offered a viewpoint regarding the persistence of class in the UK.  You can find her post on the BBC here.

This post is part of the WordPress Weekly photo Challenge.  The theme this week is an Unusual Point of Vue. You can find the challenge here.

You can get Jamie’s Cook with Jamie from Amazon.co.uk here or from Amazon.com here.