Cold Turkey

Mother was a very good cook…in the English tradition.

Her roasts were superb….her Yorkshire puddings rose like fairy castles…..her suet dumplings were light as feathers….and, recognising the innate viciousness of cabbage, she boiled it to death, its spirit haunting the house for an hour before lunch.

She could – and did – make strudel pastry; pulling gently at the ball of dough until it covered the sheet laid out on the dining room table.

Her boiled and baked puddings – spotted dick, jam roly poly, Sussex pond pudding, black cap, Saxon pudding, Bakewell tart – were a sheer delight.

Her cakes equalled those of her mother…her pastry was a dream, from shortcrust, sugar crust, to choux and hot water paste….

And then she discovered convenience foods.

Paradise lost.

It all started with a frozen turkey.

Normally we had had a goose from the farm…but the farm had been sold and mother had been seduced by the promises of the Irish milkman – the curse of Cromwell upon him – that the frozen turkey which he would deliver would be a revelation.

It was.

He delivered it on Christmas Eve in the afternoon – his round, you understand, having taken longer to complete thanks to the kindness of customers wishing to share the Christmas spirit whose aroma was thick about him.
By my reckoning that turkey had been on his milk float for at least ten hours but it showed no sign of defrosting…. on pulling off its coverings it resembled the glass mountain of the fairy tales of Andrew Lang – not just in its glossy appearance, but in its size.

In that period beef brisket joints were referred to as ‘oven buster’ as they tended to break loose from their ties and resume their original shape when cooked.
This was an oven buster of a different kind.
It was massive.

Father was out.
Luckily, as he had been decidedly sceptical about the delights promised by the milkman.

Mother and I looked at each other, at the turkey and at the oven.

Six hours to go until midnight when, by our calculations, the beast should enter the oven.
At all costs a meeting between father and the glass mountain was to be avoided.

We put the beast in the sink in the back kitchen and turned on the tap.
The water, while lapping the draining board, only came up to the turkey’s plimsoll line……this would never do.

The dog, arriving to investigate the turkey wrappings, gave us the inspiration.
Out in the shed we had the tin bath which we used for washing him…it was big enough to cover him once he had been wrestled to a sitting position, so it must be big enough for the turkey.

No sooner said than done.

Out to the shed, grab bath.
Drag bath into the back kitchen
Dog legs it to sanctuary under my bed.
Wash out bath with jugs of water and tip out into sink (turkey having been removed previously to glower from the groaning draining board.
Dump turkey in bath.
Fill bath with jugs of water.

Make cup of tea. Eye turkey.

By turning the thing every half hour we finally managed to extract the plastic bag containing the neck and giblets at a quarter to twelve: the oven was lit, goose pan found and the turkey dumped inside. It filled the oven completely, its parson’s nose touching the door.

Father returned in the early hours of Christmas Day having taken it upon himself to travel to the other side of London with friend to visit said friend’s cousins whom father had not met for years.
Doubtless drink had been taken at some point in his peregrinations.

We knew father had returned because – in an attempt not to raise the household – he entered via the door to the back kitchen and fell over the bath.

Somehow we escaped food poisoning that Christmas, and mother was on a roll.

Vesta dehydrated chow mien made its appearance.

Betty Crocker cake mixes leered from the cupboard.

And then she discovered frozen fish.

And tinned condensed soups.

And how to combine the two.

Supper time would be heralded by the a new aroma: that of a lump of indeterminate fish baked in the oven in a mix of milk and condensed mushroom soup.

Forget Proust and his blasted tisane de tilleul…..for years afterwards the whiff of cooked mushroom would bring back those days when food turned to ashes……

So when moving to France, shopping in the commercial sector of my local town – Chiottes la Gare – would often bring back those days….as there was a large factory on the edge of the sector turning fresh button mushrooms into canned sliced suede and on ‘cooking’ days the air was thick with the smell.

Mushrooms were relatively big business in the area, which was rich in the limestone caves ideal for the temperatures required in mushroom cultivation and the roads around were busy with lorries carrying mushrooms for processing and mushroom compost for improving the soil…..so much so in fact that the smell of mushrooms being cooked began to be identified with the town rather than with mother’s latter day cooking epiphany.

But alas….veni, vidi, vale….the mushroom factory is no more.

The parent company – Bonduelle – has shut it down leaving its one hundred and thirty eight employees out of work.

One hundred and thirty eight people – and the families who depend on their earnings – thrown on the heap.

A hard blow for a town which has just lost another major employer.

Jobs were initially offered at a plant in the neighbouring department – quite a commute, and no public transport, but people were willing to take it on. Anything is better than no job in modern day France because there aren’t any other jobs, search how you like.

But the jobs have not materialised, so the one hundred and thirty eight will have to fall back on the generous provision for those made unemployed.

Except it isn’t going to be generous.

The plant was owned by an agricultural co operative – France Champignon – before Bonduelle took a fifty three percent share in the co op and proudly placed a Bonduelle sign on the wall of the factory.

Now, the France Champignon sign is back because Bonduelle claims it is not responsible for the fate of France Champignon (despite its fifty three per cent holding).

What Bonduelle actually means that while compensation for sacked workers is generous in the industrial sector – Bonduelle – it is laughable in the agricultural sector – France Champignon.
Thus the changing of the sign.

A company which can swallow a fine of thirty million euros imposed by the European Union for rigging the mushroom market without blinking is content to fall back on a shabby device to cut compensation for employees sacked through no fault of their own and at the moment that is is refusing negotiations, its publicity air balloon sails over the factory: always a budget for publicity.

But where are the protests? Where the unions filling the streets with their members? Where are the politicians in their tricolour sashes, marching to support their townsmen and women?

Noticeably absent.

There is only a minor union presence in France Champignon/Bonduelle. The mighty CGT doesn’t deign to offer support, local politicians shrug their shoulders.
That’s just the way it is these days.

And the way it is these days goes some way to explaining why ordinary people turn their backs on the traditional power bases in France – venal unions who only represent eight per cent of French workers and couldn’t give two penn’orth of cold gin for the rest: equally venal politicians combining as many elected posts as possible to touch the allowances and pensions which go with them…..is it any wonder people listen to the message of the Front National?

As people in England listened to that of UKIP.

Both parties present themselves as alternatives to the current major parties while in fact they have the same structure, the same fault lines.

But when you feel that the life you knew is going down the drain you don’t look too closely to see whether your lifeline is fraying.

You grab and hope.

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55 thoughts on “Cold Turkey”

        1. She always remembers being told by their instructor in how to fire a rifle…Take one with you!
          She’d gladly do the same to the current brand of domestic politicians who seem to be throwing away everything for which she and her friends fought.

  1. I had the whole story of the turkey pictured in my mind and I giggled all the way through it. When you write your book please let me know I want to buy it.. :-))))

    I hate frozen food though I have to admit to buying it sometimes as a convenience. As for the vegetables they do mostly come from the garden.

    As for politics they now just leave me stone cold. Enough said.

    Hope you are both well. Diane

    1. It was a nightmare….we could only laugh when looking back on it. I shudder to think what my father would have said if he had seen it in all its frozen glory…

      I don’t buy frozen food….but I do freeze our own meat and veg as any bottles I accumulate seem to miraculously be filled with jam!

      Much better now that the heat has broken and the rains have come!

  2. Unfortunately all too true – and all too familiar (on all counts – unions, mushrooms and mothers included).

    The alternative here however was the SNP. Yes – nationalists. But no, not like UKIP or the National Front.

    And whilst age has taught me to be cautious where political parties are concerned – and an innate distaste has had me particularly repulsed by nationalist parties, La Sturgeon has wooed me too…

    The Nats have no radical record of government under Salmond. They are managerialism incarnate (and sometimes no too good at that either). That is the highest accolade I can accord them. But they were a) not Labour (oh lost, woeful, once-loved Labour – at least here) and b) sounded like old, beloved Labour.

    Sturgeon has been astonishing. I met her at the STUC congress. I’d avoided the dread cultish ‘introduction’ – only to be captivated by sincerity and passion and intelligence. First time I’ve met a politician I (very surprisingly) believe was actually saying what THEY believed.

    The overwhelming events of the GE are old news. But I can testify to the fact that the political axis has shifted. I predict a bigger shock for Labour in 2016 when the Greens get the list MSP votes.

    The indy ref has politicised Scotland. I’ve even had political discussions in the ladies’ toilets of a Glasgow bar – with two lassies who confessed they had nae a clue aboot politics but they wur seek a bein telt whit take dae bi that **** Cameron.

    Politics here is 71% pro social democratic/left (at least).

    The Scottish Parliament fundamentally changes the political focus – a face that the unionist parties have yet to understand.

    Will it do us any good? Will it demonstrate that there are choices to be made that are not anti-immigrationist/anti-JohnnyForeigner; anti-HRA; anti-public sector and etc? And that Westminster and the political and electoral system that it has spawned can and should be reformed?

    Who knows.

    For this wee sma’ moment there is a palpable plucky hope.

    1. That Indie ref woke Scotland from its slumbers….I was never a fan of Salmond but /sturgeon is another matter.
      Will Scotland serve to pull England and Wales from the slough of despond?
      I would hope so…but it’s an uphill battle against the mainstream media.

  3. What a fine story about the cooking skills of your mother. I really had to laugh with the story of the turkey. Your writing is so lively that I could really see the scene before my eyes and imagine the stress to be ready for the Christmas meal. Lucky you are, as I was, to have a mother who was a good cook and I really would like to follow some master classes in her kitchen.

    I always love stories about good cooks, women and men who can handle ingredients, who – with their hands and their skills – can change a simple vegetable, or flour, or eggs, or chicken legs into a wonderful, tasting, aromatic fingerlicking tasty meal. I do regret that factory prepared food became normal for the family meals.

    In 1969 I worked as an au pair in London (Paul the father of Leo found me a job in an American/Australian family). In that family everything – cakes, soups, mashed potatoes – was brewed from sachets, packages and cans. Sometimes I prepared their dinner in the way my mother did. Simple food of course, I was only 19. They loved it, they absolutely wanted me to return with them to Sydney. I remember that for a sauce Gribiche I needed fresh parsley, it took me hours then to find it. At that moment England was already the country of the ready made meals. And in some way, being young and trendy, I liked that. The cakes the lady of the house produced with sachets of Angel Food (or something like that) were absolutely stunning. They were placed in the middle of the table under a plastic (not glass) bell. Luckily I never went to Australia (although I read that their food is top quality).

    My hart bleeds when I read, or when I see documentaries about how in French restaurants (and not only there) the food is purchased from big companies and arrives in sealed bags. In the kitchen only two Pakistanis and three microwave ovens and an illustrated card with the instructions how to fill the plates.

    1. She was a good cook until she decided to turn her back on it…I had no idea of how to cook as she didn’t like me in the kitchen when she was busy, so I had to learn from scratch when, as a student, I had to leave the cosy hall of residence and go into a flat with other equally clueless friends….the cost of Fray Bentos steak and kidney pies and the dullness of repeated boiled eggs drove us to experiment and students from other countries showed us what they had learned from their mums…and I found that i enjoyed it immensely, conjuring up something edible from what was in the fridge…buying what was cheap on the market stalls…

      Even when I was in France so called classy restaurants were buying in frozen goods…the length of the menu was enough to tell you that no properly staffed kitchen could produce such a variety from scratch.

  4. From fairy castles to glass mountains, you’ve written a marvelous piece, Helen. My turkey story involves an ill-fated attempt to fry the bird. I’ll leave that story for another day. Anyway, I am plotting and scheming a post about writing to be published sometime after I finish this wretched five-day challenge which I accepted in a moment of extreme weakness. I will be quoting a few of your gems. C’est OK? Surging majestically, I am forever yours!! (Sliced suede. You are brilliant.)

    1. Surge on through that challenge…you can beat it!
      Now a fried turkey tale is one I would like to read…I have visions of nuclear powered fryers….

      Quote away by all means…..you’re most welcome.

  5. Paradise lost indeed. Milton must have been envisioning this future when he wrote… oh never mind that. Wonderfully written and so appreciated in this time when food, real food, is making it to the movies, television, and finding its way back to our tables.

    I have my own turkey story, so bad, that our dogs wouldn’t eat it. Truth be told it was tofurky: tofu turkey. That was more than enough to turn us off from our feeble attempt at becoming vegetarian.

    Hope all’s well with you and your hubby. 🙂

    1. When you go in for something you go in for it all the way….a tofu turkey is enough to strike chill into the most Christmassy heart…
      Thank you for the kind wishes…we are better now that the rains have come and it is cooler.

  6. Is your mother named Lenore? I know my mother and my aunts fell under the spell of post war marketing. I almost said “were seduced,” but that’s too harsh a judgement on women and their mothers and grandmothers who worked from dawn to dusk to keep a family fed and clothed.
    What has happened since the end of the era of the middle class is a crime.

    1. I don’t know what made her change…perhaps she was just fed up with the way her life had turned out, perhaps she had decided that she had other things to do….but it is true that any new product she saw had to be tried.

      She still turns up her nose at my gravy when I cook for us both when I visit her and demands Bisto granules…….

  7. Having worked long hours when I lived in the UK I was glad of ready meals but cooked decent meals from scratch at every opportunity. Turkey has been slower than most countries to introduce convenience foods but it is happening. I have got used to cooking from scratch now and bulk cook and freeze my own “ready meals”. I think the younger generation of mums in the UK (my daughter for example) are rebelling against all the preservatives and E numbers these days and cooking healthier meals which is good to see.

    1. When I was working i used to prepare stews and leave them on the back of the Franco Belge to cook all day…fine in winter, but not when the stove was out for summer!

      I’m glad younger people are returning to cooking food as opposed to buying packets of chemicals.

  8. ‘Live long and prosper!’ – Mr Spock. So, it’s my guess that Vulcans never discovered the joys of frozen, mass-produced ‘food’!

    1. I once bought a ready made pizza in a French supermarket….it took me longer to heat the oven and cook the damned thing than it would to have made a pizza topping on a baguette…so that was a first and last time.

  9. It appears that Bonduelle have acted shamefully. Mind you, they must have been allowed to slide out from under by the government.

    Never mind. That nice Mr Sarkozy is busy reinventing himself as a French nationalist and republican, to take all the votes of people still unconvinced by the FN.

    1. I was really surprised not to have had more input from the deputy – Grellier – who by all accounts is a good constituency man….

      I just wonder, when Sarko (whom I always see in my mind’s eye as the Le Monde cartoon of Iznogood) calls his party Republican…does he mean French Republican…or American?

  10. I started off laughing and ended up crying!
    There was a question re the milkman seducing mother but I will not go there and leaving the bath for dad to fall over sounds OK to me. I know he saw he funny side!

    Ah big business, how they treat employees. Cameron will investigate and see what he can copy next week.

    1. Why is there this male myth that women are always seduced by low pay grade men – milkmen, etc. while men are seduced by wealthy attractive (and younger) women?

      It wasn’t so much that we knew father had returned because he fell over the bath…it was because we heard the language!

      That apart…you think Cameron needs inspiration? He seems to be doing quite well on his own so far…

      1. As an ex postman and ex delivery driver I am all in favour of seducing attractive young housewives!
        Sadly however there was one problem here…..

        1. You should have been a delivery driver for frozen food companies in France…..the amount of time some of those Argel vans were parked in front of certain houses made you wonder how long it took the driver to.discuss the delights of cuisses de nymphe….

  11. Your mother’s inexplicable turn from traditional well-made dishes to convenience foods (frozen, canned) made me think of my mother, although the circumstances were a little different. She had never been especially interested in cooking, and became even less so after she was stricken with polio, and it had the inexplicable effect of leaving her sound of limb but removing her sense of smell. She married in 1950, stopping her academic studies when the children started arriving. When, at about the same time, frozen foods became common fare, to her it seemed a form of liberation. Less time that she had to spend cooking! Of course the polio effect was an unusual thing that contributed to this. I grew up on frozen fish, instant mashed potatoes, and such. I am always hearing people talk about what great cooks their moms were, but mine was a different situation, and it has never bothered me. I enjoy good, traditionally made food but am not especially obsessed about it.

    1. I can imagine that if you lost your sense of smell then food – and food prep – would lose any attraction it had ever had.
      And it wouldn’t bother you…you grew up with it and there was nothing wrong with it….
      When was in England i bought in ready meals from Marks and Spencer for my mother – they looked quite appetising and for someone on their own were ideal as you wouldn’t necessarily have all those fresh ingredients to hand.

  12. Your Turkey story made me laugh out loud during a mug of earl grey (not a pretty combination). How sad that your Mother deserted her culinary skills. My own mother has gone down the M&S meals route since my father died but in her case, she’s done herself a favour as she was never a kitchen Queen. It must be hard to motivate yourself to cook for one. I’ll choose not to enter any detailed discussion re the SNP in fear of upsetting other readers. Lets just say that I’m a proud Scot and Brit and a unionist and as long as a certain party is determined to press ahead at some point with separation, I can’t possibly support them. No doubt M. Sturgeon is miles better than that horror Salmond but she’s a pretty slippery customer. Of course she is, she’s a politician.

    1. Mother has a lunch delivered every day and usually cooks herself a supper, but the ready meals make a change for her.

      I can’t pinpoint any great change that brought about her conversion to convenience food…..

      I wasn’t fond of Salmond – to say the least…from what I’ve seen of Sturgeon she seems to be a great deal better – agreed that that is not difficult!

      I’m a separatist myself….but not in the least upset if others hold different views and from what I see of those kind enough to comment on this blog all are civilised enough to agree to differ.

      I just wish that separation didn’t seem to go hand in hand with continued membership of the EU….

  13. “Covenience” food should be renamed “inconvenience transferred elsewhere” food. And it sums up how the world turns at the moment. We are so used to having things presented to us without effort or an act of striving or struggle that we have forgotten how to fight for anything worthwhile. And thus value nothing but the transient. No wonder every snide, self serving politico the world over thinks he is at a bun fight.

    1. How right you are…we want everything on a plate…and when that’s what we’re given we don’t notice that it is taking away everything of value that we had…health, security…education…justice…

  14. I remember Birdseye chicken pie being a treat on break-up day.This was mid=50s in rural NZ.Just a few years later those hideous factory farms meant people could buy chicken whenever they wanted it.
    There is a family story about Mother’s episode with a swan which “kicked open the oven door.”

    1. That is a story which needs to be told! The mind runs riot…was it dead when it went it…was it a Lazarus job….?

      Chicken rarely appeared on the table when I was young…it was a real luxury….

  15. Oh, my comment seems to have been eaten by WordPress. I can’t remember what I said now either.

    I feel for those poor Bonduelle workers. I never buy tinned veg anyway, and certainly won’t buy anything Bonduelle again.

    1. No….it’s the only answer to these people: don’t buy their products.
      Sorry about WP….it seems to have its collective knickers in a twist again where comments are concerned.

  16. Unfortunately just another shabby story of a company that closes a factory to increase its profits and doesn’t give a toss about the employees who are dumped in the process. And as you say, unions pick and choose their battles and one group of workers is supported while another is ignored. In any case, most attempts to stop capitalist employers in their tracks are slickly out-maneouvred by the employers and their armies of HR staff and lawyers. One can only hope the scrapped workers find some other job or income.

    I know several oldies who have discovered convenience foods (mostly of dubious nutritional value) and given up proper cooking – even something as simple as an omelette. My mother, for one. A most regrettable trend.

    1. Mother still makes herself a breakfast and cooks a light supper on most evenings…but the ready made stuff gives her a stand by if she is not feeling on top form.

      I date the downfall of the social welfare state from the time that Personnel departments became Human Resources management.

  17. Helen, you really should write a book. It could be about any subject under the sun and I would find it an enjoyable read. Sadly, I fear your mother wasn’t alone in her discovery of convenience food. As for the unfortunate former employees at the mushroom plant, there soon has to come a tipping point where there are too many similar stories and change will happen. The scary part is thinking about how that change could come about. Hopefully not through violence, but I fear that might be the route that is taken.

    1. I too wonder about the future….with trepidation.

      The inevitable reaction to continued injustice will certainly be met with violence..just look a the way that police forces are tooling up…

  18. I left a long comment on my iphone but then WordPress wouldn’t accept who I was. So I have forgotten what I was going to say, except that it is very sad how so many women of a certain generation did eagerly embrace the charms of Vesta curry, etc. As for big business…. I suppose it has always been the same, yet it is always dismaying to hear about the latest thing.

    1. So sorry about the WP problem….I have no idea what is happening or how to solve it.
      Between mother deciding not to cook and havin to learnm to cook myself they were some lean years!

  19. Your wonderful turkey anecdote had m,e laughing out loud, Helen, and brought back to mind more than one horrendous/humorous memory of culinary near-misses. My mother, like hers before her, was a good plain cool who went in the reverse direction from your mother and made cooking her job once all her children were at school. She became a school cook, went on several training courses and became quite adventurous in the kitchen in her later years, more adventurous than my father’s rather conventional tastes approved of. 🙂

    Sadly the cynical and devious behaviour of Bonduelle doesn’t surprise me in the slightest, neither does the lack of protest from other sections of society. I don’t know whether it’s apathy, fear or a case of I’m alright, Jack, but solidarity doesn’t seem to be a concept much in vogue at the moment.

    1. I can still remember the shock of finding that the brute was still frozen solid….and defrosting it against the clock!
      I’m glad that your mother enjoyed and expanded her cookery skills…was it that she was working and thus, to some extent, independent of family demands?

      How right you are about the lack of solidarity, alas. When will people realise that we are all in the same boat …the one marked ‘not to be rescued’…

      1. It might well have been, Helen. I know that when she was promoted to be in charge of a big secondary school kitchen, she found herself enjoying the menu planning and stores ordering as much as the cooking. It was a job that used all her abilities – a kind of late flowering which she found very satisfying.

  20. Nice to read the story and all the sensible replies here. Without spelling mistakes or using F words as verbs and even noun just a time frame back to my youth with all the trimmings that came with war. We had no sugar no eggs and no horror stories. Meat was rare we made our own bread and bought hens for meat and eggs. Then the bombing took half the house the hens too. Now they have it so well yet they still cry.I read this story and laughed at the way you took me back to basics and the best days when love was warm and the faces happy.We had no choice as we expected death at every hour we existed. Yet to war a smile cost nothing. I went to school every day and walked home six miles in the dark knowing my dad was far away thinking of me as i thought always of him. Turkey came at a cost when the home made incubator exploded and gave us scrambled egg.From then on we became farmers and I still am. Thank you all and happy Christmas as we are all of us Gods children too.

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