Jam in the laptop

March 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

While there are statistics telling us that time spent cooking is in decline, I am cooking more. A new flat with a nice kitchen is one reason, but more important is an interest in making food, an interest which is new to me, and growing. Put simply, I have always avoided learning to cook. Why? That’s not so simple.

My thinking contains two main ingredients, connected and in need of some examination: feminism and a horror of ‘food neurosis’. I had time to think about both when, last week, I decided to make marmalade.

Seville oranges in the sink

Seville oranges in the sink

BBC radio still devotes an hour of every weekday to Women’s Hour, an institution which has been challenged recently by equality campaigners suggesting that it should be paralleled by a ‘Men’s Hour’. I have some sympathy with the annoyance it causes, and am certainly not in the habit of listening to women’s radio and noting down recipes. But a segment of this programme caught my attention. The discussion was of oranges, specifically the Seville orange.[1]

Barney Desmazery, food editor of BBC Good Food Magazine, explained that “the season is from December to February and then you don’t see them again. In this day and age of globalization, when you can get things all year round that still taste good, there are a few gems that are still seasonal. The Seville orange is one of them.”

The idea of seasonality was once as obvious a fact as the seasons themselves, but has been transformed – in the West – by refrigeration, new growing techniques and cheap imports. Seville oranges are the fruit used to make marmalade. I liked the idea that, if I wanted to make it, it had to be now.

Finding the elusive fruit, however, was not the only obstacle to overcome. I like making jam and have done so before, but the process is not psychologically simple, for a woman used to a diet of career-focused ambition and ‘serious’ work. There are many arenas in which cooking is no longer associated with ‘femininity’: TV chefs are often men, barbequing has become a national sport. In my own friendship group many of the ‘good cooks’ (including both my brothers) are male. Still, jam-making holds connotations of the housewife spending long days over the stove. It is not a sexy, knife-wielding style of cookery but slow, contemplative, homely. It is the kind of activity from which Betty Friedan sought to emancipate me in her 1963 The Feminine Mystique. My great-grandmother had to make preserves, but I – with the proceeds of my job, in a land of equality – can buy them.

Constituent parts of marmalade

Peeling, pithing, squeezing

These thoughts had not crystallised, however, when the idea of Seville oranges was planted in my mind. At a local and expensive greengrocer, I spotted a box of unfamiliar-looking oranges. They were of various sizes, rough-skinned, grazed and greenish. They were Sevilles, and for £5.90 I bought them all.

Making marmalade has several fairly lengthy stages. In a week when I was working from home, I started it on a Thursday evening. Thus began an twenty-hour process (ok, with a night’s sleep in the middle) during which I divided my time between the stove and the laptop – and had a lot of time to think about what ‘time spent cooking’ really meant.

In a 2009 article for the New York Times Magazine, Michael Pollan describes many of the changing trends in American’s relationship with food. Discussing whether an increase in the number of working women has contributed to a decline in time spent cooking, he finds that in fact:

“The amount of time spent on food preparation in America has fallen at the same precipitous rate among women who don’t work outside the home as it has among women who do: in both cases, a decline of about 40 percent since 1965. (Though for married women who don’t have jobs, the amount of time spent cooking remains greater: 58 minutes a day, as compared with 36 for married women who do have jobs.)”

Compared to my own experience, this is a still a long time; and I’d love to see comparable statistics for men. Citing another part of the article, Anna Clark is critical of Pollan’s allusion to the role of feminism in loss of cooking time:

“Blaming feminism for luring women out of the kitchen, stealing the ritual of the family meal, and thereby diminishing “one of the nurseries of democracy” is both simplistic and ridiculous. It’s true that shared meals are powerful spaces for building relationships and “the habits of civility.” But if we’re going to talk about who’s to blame for our current culture of processed food, why not blame untold generations of men for not getting into the kitchen…If it’s so important, why is their absence excusable?”

Clark has a good point. But I, as a child of the emancipated generation, want to make another – feminism has influenced me to the extent that I have avoided kitchens thus far. Is there a way to explore them without giving up the freedom of the non-cook?

Orange peel on chopping board

By Friday morning I had peeled and pithed the oranges, squeezing the juice into one receptacle and retaining the pulp and pips (the seeds contain the pectin which helps the preserve to set, and must be boiled to extract it). The skin was sliced and had soaked overnight. I poured the juice-and-water mixture into a large (borrowed) pan, together with the peel. I added the bag (made of a old pair of tights) of pith and other leftovers. I turned on the heat, and went back to my computer where, via a remote desktop connection and online collaboration tools, I was testing software for a tech start-up.

Wrinkled hands

My hands after hours of juicing

The other origin of my distant relationship with cooking is the idea of food neurosis. This is also a ‘feminist’ question since – in my anecdotal experience – more women friends of mine have complicated relationships with food than do the men. This is not universal. But while it is usual and acceptable for a man to eat what he wants when he wants, it seems as usual and as acceptable for a woman not to. Women are often on diets, are often ‘not hungry’, or not eating certain foods. Constantly during my growing up I saw and heard patterns being perpetuated: “I shouldn’t, but I will”; “I just can’t help it”; “I can’t believe I ate x”; “I’m so naughty”.

What I couldn’t bare was the fact that the women who were most often made angry, upset and disgusted by food were also the most fascinated by it. They would often be the people to suggest an ‘indulgence’ (“shall we share a slice?”), soon after to be regretted. I felt that my friends’ relationship with food, cooking and eating had been fatally wounded by the bombardment of diet ideas, fashion magazines, thin celebrities and – the worst culprit – TV dramas like Sex and the City which perpetuate an image of women as kooky, neurotic beings whose interest swings wildly between desperation to be thin, desperation to eat cake and desperation to do both on their own, perfect wedding day.

I would combat this, I had decided. I would be ‘normal’ about food. I would eat what I liked when I liked, and spend absolutely no extra time thinking about it. Until the last couple of years, therefore, I had barely ever planned a meal (the strategy worked fine when eating alone, less well when cooking for others. I have created some infamous meals for boyfriends including one consisting of broccoli, cheese and a sort of pasta which turned to dough on contact with water; and cold smoked mackerel served with hot french fries bought at different stages of the home-from-work journey).


Marmalade boiling stage one

Marmalade boiling stage one

I have one cookery book. It is A Book of Mediterranean Food by Elizabeth David, first published in 1950. I was given it as a present several years ago, and have just begun glancing into it, almost guiltily, enjoying the curt descriptions, the lists of ingredients. I like it much more than the unwieldy, glossy books full of pictures which almost ooze off the page towards you. On opening the book today to check the publication date I realised it was a present from the same friend who gave me the ‘I heart sex’ mug which I am drinking tea from at the time of writing.

David’s book contains no recipe for marmalade (too English, or too pedestrian?), so I followed Nigel Slater’s method online. The jam was reaching slowly towards a rolling boil.  Back to the stove, I systematically completed web queries, as my small studio filled with steam. Over the course of about five hours, the preserve changed from a bright liquid to a thick, dark treacle. I began to check the set. Periodically I’d finish writing up a software bug, take a saucer from the freezer and drizzle a spoonful of the mixture onto it. This went in the fridge for a few minutes – another bug write-up – before I checked it, looking for the formation of a thick skin.

Marmalade boiling stage two

Marmalade boiling stage two

Fearful of letting the marmalade burn and ruining the entire batch, I checked it often and listened carefully to its hisses and murmurs. After maybe 90 minutes of testing at intervals, the skin appeared. I switched off the pan, and spooned the boiling gold into jars pre-sterilised in the oven. It was 6pm on Friday evening. I felt both proud – of having made something, followed a process from start to finish – and slightly ashamed: I’d spent a whole day making jam.

Neither the software testing nor the jam-making required much brain power, but while the first had all the trappings of ‘serious work’ – paid, technology-based, business-focused – the second tugged at my conscience – potentially frivolous, unnecessary, girly. And if I were to be paid for making the marmalade? Maybe that would make a difference; but before it could happen I’d have to reconcile myself to being thought of as a cook.

I’m glad I made that sweet and bitter substance. I’m also grateful that I didn’t have to. Getting more relaxed with ‘time spent cooking’ is opening up a lot of areas of tension between food – as cookery, as nourishment, as fat, as fate – and being female. Maybe next I’ll learn to bake.

Pots of marmalade

Marmalade complete

[1] For oranges, ‘Seville’ is stressed on the first syllable, unlike the Spanish town. It rhymes closer with ‘bevel’ than with ‘the bill’. There is still no word that rhymes with ‘orange’.

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