Food in in a Time of Lockdown - by Alex Marchant

I’ve never been a ‘foodie’, defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as ‘a person who loves food and is very interested in different types of food’, let alone any type of gourmet or epicure. I once traumatized my closest friend in my early teens by saying I’d be happy enough to live on food pills. I had read and watched a lot of science fiction in which the shiny folk of the future (this was the 1970s and 1980s when the iconic year 2000 was still a long way off) wouldn’t waste precious leisure time cooking and would simply knock back a couple of pills to keep themselves going while conquering new worlds. (Soylent Green hadn’t penetrated my consciousness at that point.)
My friend recently reminded me of that – in her eyes – faux pas. Food had always been important to her and her family, whereas I was brought up on a typical British working-class family diet for that time: meat and two veg, always potatoes, a roast on Sunday, cold meat on Monday. International food was seldom encountered. My first experience of spaghetti Bolognese was at that same friend’s house one evening after school, and I’ll never forget the trepidation with which I approached this strange, slippery meal. Everything changed over the next few years as I grew older and travelled more outside the UK, then met and moved in with the son of a consummate cook, brought up on country classics and an early adopter of continental cuisine as pioneered by the likes of Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson.

Lads and lobsters – John Minton's food illustrations | Apollo Magazine

To his horror (and probably that of his mother – but she was too polite to say), the day we moved into a shared house together was the day I became a vegetarian. It had been brewing for a while – as a result of a combination of environmental, health and animal welfare concerns – but it was finally brought about by the fact that our housemate was a vegetarian cook as well as a fellow archaeologist. She said she wasn’t bothered at all, but not wanting to inflict meaty smells and debris on her was the final push I needed.
Over the following years, travel in central America, Asia, north Africa and across Europe expanded my interest in food as an essential part of culture and also my repertoire of dishes (albeit always limited by non-use of meat). I’ll never be a great cook, but it has become a more important part of my life. (How amazing is it to see tortillas patted out by hand by a Zapotec woman, then be presented with them as part of a traditional Mexican breakfast – or simply to sit watching an Umbrian sunset while eating cannellini beans in olive oil, garlic and sage with a glass of crisp white wine alongside?)

When our children arrived, they were brought up as ‘pesky vegetarians’ – including some fish in their diet. This was partly through (needless) concern to ensure the right nutrients, and partly so as not to freak out their grandparents – who all voiced said concern and also found it easier to serve fish to guests than work out what else would be suitable. Both daughters gave up fish altogether in their early teens when they began to think more about what they were eating – and when both grandmas had had a little longer to get used to the whole thing. As someone who was never a fan of fish myself (cooking and eating them, that is – I rather like them in their natural habitat), I wasn’t sad to leave them off the menu – especially now my offspring had both grown into well-nourished young people.
Then came 2020 – and the latest chapter in our food journey as a family. Our younger daughter set off to university last autumn with plans to follow a vegan diet while there (clutching parental-supplied bottles of vitamins and mineral supplements – just in case…) She was doing really well – all those new skills to learn at uni, plus a whole new way of cooking. And she’d even set up her own Instagram account to show off her meals – with far more followers than my own weedy attempt … But with the new term came distant rumblings on the horizon… the approach of Covid-19 and imminent lockdown…
I think my main positive memories of the Coronavirus crisis and these three months (and counting) at home will revolve around food. (The negative ones will be mainly to do with anger at politicians and also the sadness of others – we’ve been fortunate (so far) not to be personally badly affected by the tragedy that’s unfolded for so many people.) Once my small family were all safely gathered home in the middle of March – from my furloughed partner’s workplace and from both daughters’ universities – we settled down to a life largely revolving around food and dogwalks.

Lockdown dogwalk...

One rule I made when all returned to the fold was that we would take relatively equal turns to cook, and to a set meal plan each week to I could shop just the once: venturing out to the local supermarket has felt a little like venturing out as a Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer – but alone rather than in a social group, and facing this unseen predator equipped with only hand sanitizer (once available) and mask (ditto). And the main outcome has been fantastic: a varied, healthy diet full of interesting flavours, with only a couple of repeated meals so far in twelve weeks of lockdown (because the first occasion was enjoyed so much a repeat was soon requested). It’s been enhanced because one daughter’s boyfriend has been staying with us as he couldn’t get back to his parents’ home in France – and his particular speciality is south-east Asian cuisine – which is hardly on my radar. His presence has also been a solace for my partner – otherwise the only meat eater in the family: I’ve made sure that at least one meal a week has involved meat for them both, with a vegetarian alternative of some sort for the rest of us, such as quorn vs chicken in fajitas or veggie sausages vs pork in the classic toad-in-the-hole. I think perhaps my partner has eaten more meat as a result on average in twelve weeks than the previous twelve years.


I’ve kept all the, rather scruffy, meal plans as a small memento of these strange times and how food brought us together as a family – and perhaps as a reminder of some of the meals we enjoyed during them. That way we might not relapse into the same old cooking routine as before lockdown, in which the usual suspects of old favourite meals were constantly trotted out because it was easier than thinking about new ones. Another small memento is currently sitting in our fridge: yes, we also succumbed to the sourdough fever that’s swept the UK, although, as a regular baker, I had plenty of yeast in stock and didn’t actually need (sorry, unnecessary pun) the constantly renewing starter. But more than enough has been said by others about this strange infectious social media plague, so I shall end with just a single picture… and yes, I’m afraid I did Instagram it...

The best sourdough loaf achieved so far...

...even better, sourdough starter discard makes a fab chocolate cake!

Alex Marchant is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, The Order of the White Boar and The King’s Man, and editor of Grant Me the Carving of My Name and Right Trusty and Well Beloved…, two anthologies of short fiction inspired by the king, sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK). 

Alex’s books can be found on Amazon at:
Instagram: AlexMarchantAuthor


Jan Needle said…
My first British working class foodie tragedy was when me and my girlfriend ventured up to London and decided to try this Italian food that everyone was raving about. We'd heard of spaghetti, but the menu offered three versions - Bolognese, Milanese, and 'nature'. As this was by far the cheapest, we (I - more sexist days!) plumped for it, and we were confronted with two plates of boiled spaghetti. We piled some cheese on it, ate it, and left feeling contented and rather sophisticated. The Italian waiters never said a word, and being working class as well as skint, I left a good tip.

As to 'this strange infectious social media plague', I've been there too in the last few weeks. Good, innit!

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