Rules rule ok

Previously published in the Northern Echo

Our lives are governed by rules: rules for driving on the road; rules for how we should dress for work, interviews and appearing in court; rules for queuing at the post office; rules for writing emails and letters; rules for eating food. Who invents all these rules?

Obviously we need the ones for the road or there’d be carnage. It’s just unfortunate that they’re often used as revenue generators with the accompanying threat of a suspended licence.

But all those other rules? Well, I guess they’re actually etiquette rather than rules but you’d not believe that if you were brought up in the house I was. Meal times were strictly regulated. Talking with your mouth full was a definite no no and putting your elbows on the table resulted in a fate I daren’t relate for fear of a belated visit from social services.

But who decided where the sideplate sits or the order of the knives and forks or where you should put your wine glass? Maybe Mrs Beeton’s got a lot to answer for. It’s over 150 years since the first publication of her Household Management book where strict rules regarding the way we serve and eat food was seemingly carved in stone. Before that, I guess it was chicken bones over the shoulder and a general scrabble for whatever was thrown on the table.

But it was the likes of Mrs Beeton’s recipes followed by that meddling Frenchman August Escoffier who defined the rules as to how things should be cooked. I despair when I hear Michel Roux on Masterchef tell us that such and such a dish has to be cooked in a way that was defined 100 years ago. And I never cease to be amused by the arguments from contributors on recipe websites about whether this, that or some other ingredient is the right one for the dish.

The recipe for cottage pie that’s on this site is a good case in point. Should a Cottage pie be made with lamb or beef? Would you be brave enough to put HP sauce or even tomato ketchup in it? I’ve used Worcester sauce but could equally have added a little mushroom ketchup or, dare I suggest, a little Branston pickle. Some people can’t even seem to work out if there’s a difference between cottage and shepherd’s pie.

Apart from the alchemy-based magic of baking, there should be few rules when it comes to cooking. Guidelines yes but rules we don’t need. This means that dishes can continuously evolve, not unlike language. If the latter hadn’t evolved we’d still be like newly-arrived man on the planet, saying ugg to each other rather than using words such as misanthrope. And if the former hadn’t evolved, we wouldn’t be able to order clothes so we’d all be walking around naked and living on a diet of just apples.


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