Two Recipes for the Impoverished Middle Classes

If, like me, you enjoy cooking and eating well but face severe budgetary constrictions, look no further. I am, I’m afraid to say, too much of aspiring snob to live off tins of baked beans and sweetcorn. And so I’ve had to learn how to be pretentious on a budget — and you can too.

A note: I can’t give you precise measurements. The recipes are very flexible and an extra tomato here or another clove of garlic there doesn’t particularly matter. I personally subscribe to the Keith Floyd method, also known as Organised Chaos, and indeed this laissez-faire attitude is easier with a bottle of something to hand.

Game Sausage Ragu

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Venison ragu, imperfectly presented — my basil arrangement is scandalous — but nevertheless rather delicious

I know what you’re thinking: game’s expensive, is it not? Well, not with this recipe.  5 or 6 portions will only cost you £4.10-£5 in total.

What you’ll need:

  • 6 game sausages £2.50 (I recommend the venison or wild boar sausages that are available at many supermarkets)
  • 1 onion £0.30
  • 2 cloves of garlics £0.30 for the entire bulb
  • 1 whole tin of chopped tomatoes £0.50
  • Tomatoe puree £0.50
  • Few teaspoons of salt
  • (Optional: sweet peppers £0.90)
  • (Optional: parmigiano £2.30, but will keep you going for weeks)
  • (Optional: basil £1 for a pot, and if you look after it expect a month-long lifespan at least)

Method:

  1. Decase all 6 sausages by running a knife through the casing and sliding it off. Then mix the sausage meat together into one big lump.
  2. Add a small bit of oil to a pan and bring to medium heat. While waiting, chop up the onion, garlic and/or peppers.
  3. Fry the sausage meat, onions and/or peppers, stirring and stabbing frequently to make sure the meat breaks up.
  4. When the meat looks about cooked, or nearly there, add the garlic for a minute.
  5. Empty the chopped tomatoes and tomato puree into the pan, along with whatever you happen to be drinking (I recommend a cheap, supermarket-brand rich cream sherry).
  6. Season with salt, turn down to simmer and leave for an hour or two (though checking on the ragu every so often to make sure it doesn’t dry out).
  7. Whenever you’re ready, serve the ragu or separate it out into single portions and freeze in little tuppelware boxes or freezer bags. (Or refridgerate; it will last a few days.)

Polenta

This isn’t a recipe so much as a remarkably cheap (and long-lasting) alternative to potato. Polenta is a cornmeal-like substance originating among the peasants of Italy. But like all peasant food, we middle classes have long since appropriated it. One bag is about £1, and out of it I reckon you can get a dozen meals worth, maybe more.

You boil the polenta until it thickens into a doughy texture, mixing in various ingredients to suit your needs. Then either serve it straight away or let it cool and harden so that you can fry it or even make it into a cake. (It’s also perfectly fine to freeze in batches.)

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A quick polenta snack

You could be rustic and just add butter and salt, then cut it up in chunks and fry them off as polenta ‘chips’. For that extra je ne sais quoi, I like to serve the chips in a separate bowl and delicately sprinkle rosemary and parmigiano on top of them.

(A sidenote: never buy rosemary. You can pinch a spring from virtually anywhere, be it outside a train station or in some poor chap’s front garden.)

A favourite recipe of mine is to mix in butter, dill, thyme, parsley, and whatever else needs using up and serve it straight off of the boil as creamy polenta. There’s no need to be shy in adding ingredients, for the taste of polenta alone is quite unremarkable.

Of course one doesn’t eat polenta by itself. If frying polenta, you could also fry off some sausages, peppers and onions too. Or you could purchase from Iceland their exceptionally good ostrich fillets, priced at only £1.75 a fillet. When particularly desperate, I may just fry off chicken thighs with various vegetables.

You could do something similar with creamy polenta, or you could serve it with the above-described ragu in place of pasta, so long as whatever you’ve put in the polenta compliments the ragu.

And if all else fails, start watching Posh Nosh as soon as possible:

Ted Puffer: An Unsung Hero

Ted Puffer is someone who achieved incredible things, but who always lay on the outskirts of public recognition. He was an American classical singer, the founder of a small but prolific opera company, Nevada Opera, as well as a university professor and even a translator. Yet I doubt the name Ted Puffer is at all familiar to anyone reading this.

85293634_132987596931Born in 1928, Merle E. ‘Ted’ Puffer was a man clearly phenomenal in his musical talents, but also evangelical in his belief in classical music’s universal accessibility. Under his leadership Nevada Opera performed many operas with English translations, adamantly opposing the cultural elitism he thought too prevalent. Indeed, opera companies throughout the Untied States have used the English translations Puffer and his wife made. I think he was onto something, understanding that opera’s roots were not in elitism but in populism. ‘For too long, opera has been a status event where patrons could sleep’, he said. ‘I want people to come to the opera because they like it’. He apparently liked to tell his audiences this: ‘Leave the costumes to us. You don’t have to dress up.’ Puffer exemplified the best of egalitarianism.

His legacy lives on through the Nevada Opera, which is still active, as well as through those he mentored, notably Dolora Zajick. She is a mezzo famed for her Verdi performances and as someone who has sung many times for the Metropolitan Opera. She described him as ‘a quirky influence’, but ‘an excellent voice teacher ‘who proved crucial in her learning’. He taught me how to sing’, she said in 1991, while Puffer was still alive. ‘I’m still working with him. The more I got out in the wide world, the more I’ve learned and have to compare with, the more I appreciate what he has to offer. I had no concept in the beginning the level he was at.’

On 23 October 2003 Puffer died after a year-long fight with cancer. He is survived by his daughter Monica Harte, a successful musician in her own right. News of his death spread fast, she recalls. ‘[From] all over the world we’re getting calls … A couple of different people have said, “You know, I have the life I have because of your parents and because of the opera or because your dad taught me how to sing”.’

There is one other area through which Puffer is immortalised, and this is how I discovered him. In 1965 he recorded two volumes of Charles Ives’ songs. These are the only two recordings he ever made, and they are astonishingly unique. They sound ‘American’ — authentically down-to-earth and sung without European affectations. Of all those who have recorded Ives’ songs, Puffer is the one who comes closest to understanding that Ivesian blend of a free, humble, but proud America combined with the artistic complexity and expressiveness of classical music. Unusually for those singing Ives, he is a tenor, and his voice has clarity and a character you’ll find nowhere else.

Included below is Puffer’s version of Ives’ song West London, the first Ives piece I ever heard. (Feel free to skip ahead and listen if you don’t want the blurb.) Originally a sonnet by Matthew Arnold, West London depicts a tramp with her baby and young daughter begging on the streets of London. Ives sets this to music in ingenious ways. The song travels from the musical anxiety of the young daughter begging for money, to more confident chords when she comes back satisfied, money in hand. But then there’s a frosty chromatic descent sung by Puffer as the tramp follows the rich passers-by with a ‘frozen stare’; she knows that the rich men will not give her money as they do not empathise with her the way that working men do. ‘She will not ask of aliens [the rich], but of friends [the working men], Of sharers in a common human fate.’ Though not too long after, the song passes back into optimism, with these majestic chords  — almost anthemic — while the vocalist sings triumphantly, ‘And points us to a better time than ours’. That same chord sequence is then repeated at a whisper, and in a higher key, until ending on a plagal half-cadence — the opposite of the ‘Amen’ cadence, as it’s more commonly known. I’m not exactly sure what Ives meant in this musical addendum to the text, but it’s certainly evocative.

And Ted Puffer’s version is masterly — dare I say the definitive version. Please do listen (underneath are the words):

Crouch’d on the pavement close by Belgrave Square
A tramp I saw, ill, moody, and tongue-tied;
A babe was in her arms, and at her side
A girl; their clothes were rags, their feet were bare.
Some labouring men, whose work lay somewhere there,
Pass’d opposite; she touch’d her girl, who hied
Across, and begg’d and came back satisfied.
The rich she had let pass with frozen stare.
Thought I: Above her state this spirit towers;
She will not ask of aliens, but of friends,
Of sharers in a common human fate.
She turns from that cold succour, which attends
The unknown little from the unknowing great,
And points us to a better time than ours.

The Sad Decline of Public Libraries

Public libraries haven’t existed for that long. They began opening in the 17th century, though seldom let you borrow books and were not ‘public’ in the modern, democratic sense. Well into the 19th century Britain had only one open, free library, Chetham Library in Manchester, which today claims to be the ‘the oldest public library in the English-speaking world’.

In the latter half the 19th century, genuinely public libraries began opening across Britain. This new type of library was closer to our understanding of the word: free to all members of the public who passed through its doors. They were one of the great Enlightenment projects. It was the desire, as expressed by Kant in his essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’, to give everyone the freedom to learn and use their reason and thus to enter an enlightened age.

However, this project only lasted about 150 years. Over the last decade, library use in Britain has fallen by 30% and nearly 350 libraries have shut since 2010, with many more soon to follow. It is undoubtedly the end for libraries. For a time, volunteers will keep them afloat, but only the smallest and least demanding of libraries can survive on volunteers alone.

Some argue this decline is a period of transition to the age of Information Technology. It’s true that if somebody wants to know something particular, or wants to keep track of the news, we live in no better age. But information isn’t the same as enlightenment. Libraries never just dealt in information; they dealt primarily with books. Books are part of culture, they are laborious compositions of facts and opinions and imagination that improve our understanding of the world. What we are seeing today is an increase of information, but a decline in books and learning.

It is not that this is a period of transition, then, but a period of displacement. People have access to an infinite wealth of information, but they only ever receive in it snippets mostly isolated from wider context and culture. Indeed, everyone has easy access to great works, but for some reason few choose to explore them. (And neither am I entirely innocent here.) The same phenomenon is evident with classical music: why is it when classical music has never been more accessible, has it seemingly reached peak levels of unpopularity?

Part of this is education. I couldn’t quote you a line of Shakespeare, but if I ask my mother to do so, she could automatically recite parts of Macbeth, despite having left school at 16. I know she didn’t enjoy learning it, but she’s nevertheless at a great cultural advantage for knowing it.

This is probably why libraries’ attempts to attract people has been so unsuccessful; culture has changed, and ‘traditional’ reading has been displaced by modern media. Mobile libraries are one such attempt, and have seen a sharp decline. The mobile library vans go round the county with an on-board selection of books and media, and will deliver requests to you. I occasionally see them around here still, especially in the poorer neighbourhoods. But in most areas they have long disappeared.

Libraries do also offer ebook lending, but this is not an especially popular service either. The big issue with ebook lending is that it’s only compatible with tablets and not e-readers. We see Amazon instead offering its own subscription-only lending service for the Kindle e-reader, a step back into the 18th century when many libraries were not open and free to the public but rather subscription-based.

And when it comes to technology moreover, libraries are caricatures of themselves. The search engine system is cumbersome and uninviting to the public, looking about as complex as a university library system. Spydus, while sounding like a computer virus, is actually just a dull, aesthetically-Soviet piece of computer software that every library I’ve come across uses. Here is my search result page for for ‘Charles Dickens’:

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If you click on an item, the overwhelming level of technical detail beats even university libraries:

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In light of all this, I signed up with my local library this week — and it wasn’t simple. I went onto the council site and clumsily navigated my way to the libraries section. Then I scanned the screen for the ‘join’ link. My first mistake was to start registering with the council instead of the library services. (Note the ‘Register’ link at the top and the ‘Join the library’ link at the bottom.)liblar.PNG

I was then instructed to fill out a form with 42 fields. Most are optional, but one look at the intimating page and I immediately poured out a gin and tonic. Once done, I was taken to a confirmation page and given an account number and so on.

The next day I thought I’d log back in and browse through the library catalogue. It asked for my library catalogue number and pin. So I opened up my emails. Nothing. I checked my junk mail. Nothing. I checked my phone for text messages. Nothing. Absurdly, they gave me no confirmation email or text.

A week later a brown envelope came through the door with the address handwritten. It was the library service with my flimsy new library card and a welcome leaflet. Now finally I could log in online.

The library’s chief demographic is not like me. It will be older people, and maybe poorer people; in other words, people who would be much more confused and infuriated by the process than me. This is emblematic of the bigger problem. Libraries are institutions suffering at the hands of same processes of modernity that were their creation. People are freer than they ever were before to enjoy the the benefits of public libraries, but this freedom, contrary to Kant’s expectations, does not mean that public’s enlightenment is ‘almost inevitable’. Indeed, quite the opposite. It means the freedom to ignore, to explore other, lesser things. And it means that in a consumer-driven market society, public libraries cannot compete.