"We have enough masterpieces, what we need is a better standard of ordinariness." Jane Grigson
I've been feeling a bit uninspired when it comes to this blog this week. Every day I agonise over what to write about that will be even vaguely interesting. It's a week of feeling very ordinary, so I decided to write about ordinary food.
So first define ordinary. It's a moveable feast isn't it? On the left is a fairly randomly picked recipe from February's Woolworths Fresh Ideas magazine - a magazine aimed at the ordinary millions, not the accomplished chefs of this world. It's Sriracha chicken wings with charred corn. Now I haven't checked out how you actually make it, but I'm guessing you get a bottle of sriracha sauce, soak the chicken wings with it and then grill it in one of the three ways you can grill these days - oven, griddle pan or BBQ. Serve it with limes and doesn't it look great? Almost a masterpiece. Indeed it is a little masterpiece really.
Now Jane Grigson was certainly not ordinary. She was a student of food who wrote about it in a learned but entertaining way, and provided oodles of non-ordinary recipes along the way. No I guess that's probably not quite right as a very large proportion of her recipes are gleaned from ordinary people, not chefs. Yes her food was not fancy, but it sure was/is delicious. I regard her as the queen of tarts for example. If you want to make something into a tart, she will be sure to have a recipe for it somewhere.
I guess the 'better standard of ordinariness' she was talking about was indeed the kind of thing represented by that dish above. Or this one - Charred corn with avocado dip from the same magazine. I don't know the statistics on how many people eat avocados these days, but I'm pretty sure it would be a high proportion of the population. And corn is currently in season. Charred again - indeed in the little section on corn in the magazine it was almost always charred. Which makes charred ordinary don't you think? In my youth we would have called it burnt and rejected it. Now it is charred and crusty and toasty and delicious.
What is ordinary changes through history and across continents. What is ordinary to a Japanese person is definitely not ordinary to an American. Although these days sushi is definitely ordinary - almost to the whole world. It's food court fare. As are dim sums, samosas and tacos. And maybe, like those rice paper rolls I spoke of yesterday in the move to ordinariness they are dumbed down and changed to suit the economics of commerce and the tastes of a new audience. But at the same time, with the move to a new audience the original is adapted to different tastes, sometimes badly but sometimes quite excitingly.
Jane Grigson was writing at a time when rationing was a recent memory and the English were just beginning to travel overseas. They were still cooking ordinary food like roast beef, Irish stew, and Cornish pasties, but not very well perhaps. There's nothing wrong with these basic, ordinary foods. What Jane Grigson wanted us to do was to take more care, to make simple and basic delicious. Which it can be.
I shall never be the kind of cook who could win Michelin stars. I am an ordinary cook cooking ordinary everyday food for just two people. But it is so much less ordinary than the food my mother was cooking. My mother was an excellent cook and I learnt a lot from her but her repertoire was limited, because the cookbook market had not really developed when she was young and she had never been out of England. She did encourage us, as teenagers, to experiment though and occasionally joined in the experiments. But I don't remember her experimenting much on her own.
Cooking can sometimes be boring. As uninspired as this blog. Cooking is most often ordinary. Which is why it is such a treat to go out to a restaurant and eat something that you could not possibly have made yourself. And for ordinary people like me that means it doesn't have to be a restaurant with Michelin stars. I just have to have something a bit different cooked perfectly.
But we can increase our standards of ordinariness. We can all do it as the supermarket magazines show us. Look at these three examples - crumbed calamari with miso mayonnaise - calamari is one of those dishes you will find on almost every café menu these days - so very ordinary, and yet so very exotic in my youth - and it has a 'today' twist in miso mayonnaise. A yellow prawn curry - it looks gorgeous, and curry is everywhere. This one is probably made with a shop bought curry powder - and why not? And last of all - even fish and chips doesn't have to be ordinary if it's done properly. Definitely a 'better standard of ordinariness.' Miraculous really.
"if you don't believe in miracles, perhaps you have forgotten you are one." Anon
Yes we are all miracles. And there's no reason why our ordinary efforts at cooking can't also be miracles. Now I'm going to go and do miraculous things with a chicken, Mediterranean vegetables and leftover meatball sauce. I wonder how that will turn out.