On Horse Lasagne And Being Poor

There’s an awful lot of self-righteousness buoying up the internet at the moment. And it’s all to do with the revelation that some meals from a handful of supermarkets, namely ready meals, contain horse meat instead of the labelled beef.

The latest to own up is Tesco, with its Value Spaghetti Bolognaise (though this is only 60% horse – or maybe donkey – as opposed to 100% in Findus burgers).

Of course, if everyone simply bought locally-reared meat from cows named Bluebell and a picture of a smiling red-cheeked owner at their friendly neighbourhood farmer’s market and cooked their own damn dinner instead of buying ready meals then this either wouldn’t have happened, or it wouldn’t matter – I’m not clear on the ramifications of all the condemnation going on. The words ‘you chavscum’ at the end of most of these claims are unspoken.

Lots of people claim that it’s cheaper to buy fresh stuff and cook proper meals and I’m not going to try and deny that because often it is. But the clue here is in the name ‘convenience foods’. Eating a ready meal at the end of a long, hard day doesn’t make you a bad person. I do it now and again when I simply can’t be arsed to faff about with cooking except the difference is that being in receipt of a reasonable salary, I get posh ready meals on my way home which are about twice as expensive as normal ones but made from local and organic ingredients.

I didn’t always do that. When I first left home at the age of 19, I was dirt poor. I worked part time, I had a partner who was unemployed and I got housing benefit. He didn’t get unemployment benefit because I worked two hours too many. He didn’t cook. I didn’t know how to cook and we had no money. I remember bursting into tears one day and crying hopelessly on the sofa because all we had was bread and baked beans and we’d eaten that for the last week. Sometimes I’d buy a packet of dried soup and eat half for lunch one day and half the next day.

When we could afford to do a shop at the local Tesco, we generally bought ready meals and processed stuff because we didn’t know what else to buy and being on a very limited budget it was easier to add up the total as we went around the supermarket. When my mum came over for dinner, I proudly served a disgusting concoction of rice, tinned tomatoes and tinned mushrooms thinking it was a proper meal rather than a frozen lasagne.

I’ve learned to cook since then. But it’s easy to say to people with no money that they ‘should’ know how to cook real food. That they ‘should’ buy fresh veg and meat to cook with. What, but no-one ever taught you? Your mum fed you spaghetti hoops and Findus Crispy Pancakes (oh, the irony, god only knows what was in those)? If no-one ever taught you to cook, if you don’t own the latest Jamie Oliver 15 Minute Meals book (just £11.98 from Amazon, poor people) how do you know what to cook? How do you know whether to buy minced beef or sirloin? I certainly never did and it wasn’t that I was a moron either. Oh yes, lecturing people with no money is really easy, isn’t it, when you’re slapping together a lovely dinner of free-range chicken with chard, fresh thyme, lemon and minted cous cous. Bish bash bosh. Done.

I get pretty tired of this sermonising about what people with low incomes should and shouldn’t spend their money on. It’s none of our fucking business. Would you expect to justify every film you bought on Sky Box Office or every bottle of Waitrose Sancerre, even if it wasn’t on special offer? No, of course not. Claiming some sort of moral and judgmental high ground as either a taxpayer or someone on a higher income just makes you look like a mean-spirited dick.

But back to cooking. How do we fix this? Get supermarkets to stop driving down prices with suppliers and source locally where possible, teach cooking properly for all children in schools (and by that I mean nutrition, cooking balanced meals on a budget and actually looking for the ingredients) and make buying fresh cheaper than buying the cheapest ready meals. And try to stop being so self-righteous because you cook your own food.

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