Today is the last day of my £1-a-day Food Challenge. Quite a relief to see it arrive, I have to say and even more of a relief to see it finishing! And immediately I think that, or say that to myself, I am reminded of how lucky I am to be able to say that and of how many there have been, and are, in various parts of the world who live within these limits long term, or even permanently. Really sobering and there's no way I would have felt that so intensely without the experiential component of trying this challenge myself. As I said in my earlier post here, it would be both arrogant and rash of me to assume that because I've lived on £1-a-day for six days I know what it is like to live below the line. I don't and actually I have to hope that I never will. It's not something to be wished for, in any shape or form. I have found these six days difficult enough, even with all the extra resources that my context has provided me with.
But do I regret starting on the project? No, I certainly don't. I've learned a huge amount in a way that I neither could, nor would, have done without doing it. It will all need a bit of digesting, (bad pun, sorry!), and reflecting on over the next while. But suffice it to say that I am ending the challenge very consciously grateful for even very ordinary things like the reliability of filled supermarket shelves, the water that gushes cold and clean from my kitchen tap, the fact that my freezer works, that I have a fridge, that tomorrow I do not need to measure and count and scrape every morsel of food I consume, or thin everything with extra water.
|A ration of black bread being weighed for sale during the siege of Leningrad.|
The rations were tiny as well as adulterated - I saw one in the Siege Museum,
in St Petersburg last year, no more than a single 125g slice per person in December 1941.
It's interesting, I think, that in circumstances where people have lived with serious food shortages, their thoughts often drift to better times and meals previously eaten and enjoyed without restraint. And these meals tend not to be special celebration dishes or rare ingredients but everyday things, sometimes very plain things, things that might not sound particularly appetising to someone free from any kind of restriction on the food they can eat. But where hunger is, or has been, a real presence, the wholesome and the everyday become freighted with greatly increased value and are treasured in a new way.
I haven't experienced the acute hunger that many have but I have had more than a few hungry moments in the last six days. Two accounts of situations, where food has been short, have come to my mind in those moments that have immediately made me sit up and slap down any temptation to abandon the challenge or compromise with it, any more than I can absolutely help.
I thought I might share them with you here.
One is the account of Elena Mukhina (Lena) who wrote a diary as a teenager during the siege of Leningrad. You can get it on Amazon here. Lena has been called 'The Anne Frank of Leningrad". She was sixteen when the German army invaded the USSR in 1941. Her diary covers the period May 1941 to May 1942 and includes the appalling winter of starvation Leningraders suffered once the city and its food supplies were cut off. The hunger suffered by the population was terrible. All food became scarce and even the meagre bread ration was adulterated. Up to 40% of the ingredients were substituted with dubious alternatives such as bran, oil cake, (made from the compressed husks of cottonseed, after the oil had been extracted), wallpaper paste and wood cellulose. This alarming concoction was supplemented by crows, pigeons, dogs, cats and even cannibalism. People died in their thousands after lingering months of weakness and gradual organ failure. As one siege-survivor put it simply, "Those who ate more survived, those who ate less died."
|A ration card for bread. Leningrad 1941.|
Alongside the concerns of exam grades, boyfriend troubles and all the other normal concerns of a 16 year old girl, Lena's diary records the growing grip of hunger and her own and her family's desperate attempts to combat it. Inventive, but horrific, dishes of "bouillon made out of skin" (origin of said skin unspecified) p195, the family cat "our cat kept us alive for a whole ten-day period" p207, flour soup "they don't put any salt in it at all - it's just water thickened with flour" p225 and anonymous "meat jelly" and on a lucky day a "horsemeat rissole" p213. She and her mother dream of better days and even though Lena's fantasy meal is very Russian and some of it unappealing - I am not sure, for instance, about the appeal of crumbled black bread and gingerbread soaked in cottonseed oil - I've read and reread her words this last week and have found they have buoyed me up when the going has felt tough and reminded me that actually I have no idea how lucky I am, the food I have eaten on £1-a-day is a feast in comparison to Lena's rations.
So, Lena's fantasy meal...
"When the war ends and everything's back to normal and we can buy things again, I'm going to buy a kilo of black bread, a kilo of gingerbread and half a litre of cottonseed oil. I'll crumble the bread and the gingerbread, and then pour plenty of oil over the top and mash it all together, then I'll fetch a tablespoon and take great pleasure in eating my fill. Then Mama and I will bake all kinds of pies - with meat, with potato, with cabbage, with grated carrot. And then Mama and I will fry potatoes and will eat them golden and sizzling, straight from the pan. We will eat noodles with smetana [sour cream], pelmeni [the Russian equivalent of tortellini], macaroni with tomato sauce and fried onions, and warm crusty white bread with butter and salami or cheese. The salami will have to be thick enough to really sink your teeth into it when you take a bite. Mama and I will eat buckwheat kasha [porridge] with cold milk, and then the same kasha fried in a pan with onion so that it shines with butter. Finally we will eat hot buttery blinchiki [sweet pancakes] with jam and fat, fluffy olady [puffy buttermilk pancakes]. Dear God, we're going to eat so much we'll frighten ourselves." p154
Lena survives the siege - she manages to get evacuated in the summer of 1942 - but Mama and Aka the elderly family friend they live with are, by then, both dead.
The other account is not in a book. For Holocaust Memorial Day at the end of January this year the BBC's Antiques Roadshow did a special edition centred around objects of significance saved by survivors of concentration camps. You may have seen it. It was incredibly moving. Most moving of all, I found, was a tiny, shabby teddy bear packed by the mother of a small boy in his suitcase before he boarded one of the Kindertransport trains from Germany to England. The small boy never saw his parents again - they committed suicide rather than face deportation to Auschwitz. The boy and his bear survived however and to see Axel, now nearly ninety, holding this small toy his mother had packed for him nearly eighty years ago and hear him tell the story was one of the most moving things I've encountered in a long time.
But the account of Axel's teddy bear is not what I am referring to. What I am referring to pertains to one of the survivors who was not individually featured on the programme itself but who was interviewed in a BBC Radio 4 interview on the Today programme beforehand - Gabor Lacko, born in Hungary into a Jewish family, aged thirteen at the time of the Nazi occupation of Hungary in 1944 and forced to wear the yellow star proclaiming his forbidden status. Through a series of fortuitous coincidences, divine providence, or both, he and his family survived the war although his father became separated from the rest of them. Holding the yellow star his mother fashioned for him all those years ago, out of a scrap of cloth in her sewing box, he told the story of the family's reunion in Budapest. The culmination of the reunion was what to most of us is a very prosaic, very ordinary event, "We went to buy some bread, proper bread, nice, fresh, warm bread which we hadn't seen for almost a year. And it was served to us by a man in a white coat and not thrown at us by a Ukrainian servant of the Soviet Reich, made of sawdust." There is a pause in the interview and John Humphreys, audibly touched, comments, "And you smile as you tell me that story!" There is another pause and you can hear Gabor's warm smile in the silence, then he replies, "I smile every time I think of that story! It was great!"
Good bread made with proper flour, not sawdust, wallpaper paste, or cattle food husks; simple vegetables, pasta; milk; jam - things we take for granted as a matter of course in less straitened times, are actually as precious as anything and this challenge has really made me sit up and think about that and as for wasting them, well, forget it.
Homemade pasta is very easy to make. Especially if you have a food processor with a dough hook.
This quantity seems rather small to me - I would normally make quite a bit more for two people but greed has had to take a back seat pro tem.
150g strong white flour (Waitrose Extra Strong Canadian on special offer a few weeks back at £1.26 per 1.5kg) 13p
1 tsp olive oil (Aldi) 1p
½ tsp salt
3 bantam eggs (about 1½ large ordinary hens' eggs)
Fit the dough hook into your food processor and whizz the flour and salt to aerate it. Whisk the eggs in a jug and with the motor running, pour the beaten egg in a thin steady stream onto the flour. The mixture will go a bit like breadcrumbs and then bind together in a smooth lump of stretchy dough. You shouldn't need to add any water but you can add a drop or two if you really feel it needs it.
Remove the dough from the food processor and roll out. I have a pasta rolling machine that I was given for my birthday about 25 years ago which makes this an easy and enjoyable job but you can just roll the dough out thinly by hand. The egg in the dough makes it very well behaved and you shouldn't need much flour, if any, to ease the rolling. Once you've rolled out the dough into sheets - roll out about ¼ of the dough at a time - you can cut it into whatever shapes you want. I like a basic tagliatelle for pesto but you can cut thinner tagliolini, linguini or wider pappardelle, if you prefer. What you must do is hang your cut strips up to dry before storing, otherwise the strips have a nasty habit of clumping irrevocably together. I have a pasta-drying rack gizmo which works very well but you can improvise using a (wiped clean) radiator rack or a piece of washing line over which you can hang your beautiful handmade tagliatelle. Admire your handiwork for a while(!) and then either cook the pasta or I find it best to freeze it, if I am not going to use it straight away.
Total cost 14p. Enough (just about) for two people at 7p each.
I love pesto but sadly I can't make the entirely authentic version as garlic really does not agree with me any more. I love it enough to make it without the garlic and it's still pretty good. This version is not just missing the garlic, it's missing one or two other fundamentals as well. There is some basil in it but not nearly as much as there should be. My annual basil forest in the greenhouse is doing well but it's nowhere near harvesting in pesto quantity yet. There is some Parmesan - the real stuff too, grated from a hunk, but not as much as there should be and I've had to substitute toasted breadcrumbs for the pinenuts. That being said, spooned on top of homemade pasta, it's extremely good. I shall be making it again, food challenge, or no food challenge.
Thrifty wild herb pesto
a big bunch (56g to be precise is what I used here) of greens and herbs from the garden, whatever you can find basically. I used some spinach, some dandelion leaves, oregano, parsley as well as as much basil as I could cut from my very frugal basil plant and the baby basil seedlings in the greenhouse without damaging the plants irrevocably.
1 tsp salt 1p
20g freshly grated Parmesan (Aldi) 26p
1 slice thrifty homemade wholemeal bread* baked at 170 C for about 30-40 mins until crisp and dark brown but not burnt, whizzed to crumbs 1p
* This is basically my thrifty seeded roll recipe without the seeds and only a teaspoon of milk powder, baked in a loaf tin and sliced into 15 slices.
Put the greens and herbs with the salt in the food processor and blitz to a thick green purée. With the motor running pour in the oil in a thin steady stream. Add the Parmesan, toasted crumbs and whizz briefly to incorporate. Spoon the pesto out into a clean jar and refrigerate if not using immediately. Get it out of the fridge in plenty of time before serving. Pesto is better not served fridge cold - the flavours become muted once chilled and it chills the pasta down too. Obviously, if garlic agrees with you, include a clove, peeled and roughly chopped along with the greens.
Total cost 92p. Judiciously spooned out, it makes 6 portions, each costing 15p.
Away from constraints of the challenge I would serve this more generously in which case it might serve 4 rather than 6.
Total cost for today only 90p.
So the totals for the six days of the challenge from beginning to end are as follows:
And in addition to all my personal reflections and ramblings, I have today sent the biggest donation I can muster to The Hunger Project UK because, after all, just changing my own mindset won't feed those who tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after, will still only have £1 or the equivalent to live on for all their food and drink.
Thank you so very much for your company and encouragement this last week - it's made the world of difference. There will be no more long posts for a while (you may be relieved to hear!) but I may post a single pic tomorrow. I'll leave you to guess what it might be!
Sending a hug to all of you who have been so kind as to read and / or comment here in the last little while.