In Defence of the Council Tea
If you follow some of the same people I do on Twitter, you’ll have recently spotted the #councilteathursday hashtag, pioneered by “friend of the mag” @barcajim. In general, people have jumped on the idea like Latics fans on a slightly off form performance, but amongst all the potato waffles, fried eggs and ‘things’ in tomato sauce from a tin, there’s been criticism too.
Apparently #councilteathursday is a snobby sneer at poor people’s eating habits. To be honest, references to “pov food” and “pover teas” give that some credence, but there are idiots in every movement. Anyone thinking that #councilteathursday is the chance to poke fun at people who shop at Heron Foods is missing the point as widely as anyone who went out to buy some Smiley Faces and luncheon meat especially to run through their favourite Instagram filters, just for the numbers.
And if you don’t believe me, then let’s have a look at the way I used to eat…
“NO, NO, NO, EFF OFF KAY YOU UNFUNNNY BOLTON B…”
If you’re wondering why I’m starting the week at the end, not only are you lucky enough to never have seen Peter Kay’s “big shop” routine, you might also be too young to remember much of what I’m about to go on about. It might be hard to believe, in these days when even benefits are paid monthly and “too much month at the end of your money” is politico-speak for “vote for me, normal person, I understand your plight” but people used to get their pay packet once a week, usually on a Friday.
As for tea? Well Asda and Morrison’s didn’t open 24 hours a day, we didn’t even have a Tesco and the butcher, baker and the can.. errr, greengrocer were probably in the pub with your dad after they’d taken an early dart after deciding rushing round trying to do the shopping in an hour wasn’t the best way to end the working week. So what better to do with brown paper envelope burning a hole in your pocket?
Yep, “we’ll get a chippy tea Betty”.
We’ve already established whether you’ll remember this or not, but a chippy tea didn’t used to cost anywhere near as much as they do these days. It was still a treat, fair enough, but before Thatcher forced VAT onto them, they were an affordable treat. I remember being able to get a bag of chips for less than a quarter of sweets. Then I again, I remember when… NO, NO, NO, EFF OFF KAY YOU UNFUNNNY BOLTON B…
I used to think that the Friday chippy tea had religious undertows (and made a point of having pudding and chips because of that) but looking back from the experience of schlepping to work all week for all those years, I can see them for what they really were. A way of avoiding the supermarket rush and making the gap between after work pint and getting out for the night as short as possible.
No shopping, no preparation and those Pyrex dishes don’t half wash up easily.
My stylised misty-eyed memories of childhood have me sat at home on a Saturday dinner time waiting for Mum and Dad to get back from doing the shopping before I could go out and watch the football. Absolute rubbish mind, because in reality I’d have binned off Saturday Superstore halfway through and gone messing about with my mates, forgetting my dinner and kick off before wandering onto Springfield Park when they opened the gates at halftime.
I’d slope back in about half five to the guaranteed cry of “where’ve you been?”, “playing out” was the standard response (I’d didn’t want my mum knowing I’d been watching the popular side scrapping with… god knows who, themselves most weeks, I’d guess, even if it was from a relatively safe position on the other side of the ground). “What’s for tea?” would come next, hoping that the answer wasn’t some shrivelled, dried up mess left in the oven because everyone else had eaten an hour ago.
To be fair, it usually wasn’t, my mum was good like that and being Saturday we were usually having meat. No, that’s not as stupid as it sounds. I mean an actual piece of meat, like those things you see in the butcher’s window. Hopefully, it would be steak (rump for me, sirloin for my dad), but it would definitely be something like that.
As the years went on and life became more cosmopolitan, this might become a curry, beef bourguignon, coq-au-vin or the like. But it was still real meat.
Not just because we were still flush from payday, but because you wanted to get the good stuff out of the way whilst it was fresh. Freezers? Well, there’s more on that later.
It’s boring, but a roast dinner is a roast dinner, meat, spuds, veg and gravy. Some people do it well, some don’t and back then we didn’t really have the choice of nipping out for a carvery so we had to suffer either way. For us it was nearly always chicken. Possibly because it was cheaper but more likely because my mum was never that big on red meat, so lamb or beef were out unless my dad was left in charge of the shop.
Woe betide I should criticise my mum’s cooking, but if the measure of a good roast is how your potatoes turn out then writing this has made me realise that her chip pan was like a seventies version of the microwave oven. There’ll be more of that later in the week, but on Sunday it meant dropping par-boiled spuds in the fat and calling them roast potatoes.
I’d never even dream of trying to pull that off myself, but don’t mock them if you’ve never tried them, just don’t call them roasties if you have.
If Sunday’s tea was a fait accomplis, the fact that we’d had chicken made any questions about what we were having on Monday just as pointless. Whatever it was it was going to involve what bits of chicken could be salvaged from the carcass. I don’t want to say leftovers because this was carefully planned, not least as the seventies turned to the eighties, the world grew pretentions and our scraps of chicken with chips became “chicken risotto”.
As I type, I can see the Pathetic Casuals rubbing their hands at the
thought of Arborio rice, mixed with sweated onions and garlic. Turned into a lovely, gloopy mess by slowly adding white wine and homemade chicken stock throughout the cooking process. Finished with the roast chicken, some basil oil and a hefty portion of freshly grated parmesan.
I’m salivating myself, but our Monday chicken risotto was nothing like. It was a one-pot stop as the chicken carcass was bunged into the pressure cooker with uncle bens, some mushrooms (especially if we’d had steak on Saturday), onions and (get us) peppers an Oxo cube, if anyone had remembered to buy them, the lid sealed and the whole damn lot cooked within an inch of its life.
I’m not complaining, you could guarantee at least one bit of bone, three pieces of gristle/cartilage and one in three weeks the rice would be undercooked because it needed more water, but I’ve definitely had worse and… well… it’s an interesting and quirkier take on the hot-pot, lobbies, scouse, stoavies or whatever; that will dominate other people’s memories of the council tea cycle.
“evils like mushroom crispy pancakes or boil in the bag cod in butter sauce
For us, Tuesday was the last flourish of Friday’s pay packet. There might be meat, but if there was it would be something you knew would keep, more often than not gammon or chops. I hated Tuesday’s tea, because whatever we had was always grilled and tough and quite often accompanied by cauliflower cheese. I’m sure there are good cauliflower cheese’s out there, but my mum’s managed the mean feat of putting me off gammon, cauliflower and Lancashire cheese for the next twenty odd years of my life.
I can manage them now, but only separately. The thought of any two of those things in the same shopping trolley puts my hackles up, never mind having them on the same plate.
As time went on, and our freezer grew from one of those little compartments inside the top of your fridge, to a standalone entity with its own door and everything, names like Findus and Birds Eye came into play. The knowledge that you can buy something on Friday and cook it on Tuesday, straight from the freezer opened up a whole world of possibilities. A whole word of possibilities that in the Perm household, usually meant Dale Steaks.
Which were alright, but not enough to end my aversion to Tuesday tea, not least because lurking in the wings were evils like mushroom crispy pancakes or boil in the bag cod in butter sauce; a dish that makes me retch to this day.
Food can be confusing. For years, I thought the day after Pancake Day bore connections to cubed potatoes boiled up with Argentinian tinned beef. I must have been in my mid-teens before I realised that Ash Wednesday and Corned Beef Hash were spelt differently. But, if you’ve never seen it written down and the dish featured as your mid-week tea half of the time then it’s a natural assumption.
Or at least that’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it.
I’ll not say we were skint, we were lucky enough to never be anywhere near on the bones of our backside, but by Wednesday the food budget was definitely running out and whatever was being dished out was likely to have two key features. One, it would feature potatoes quite high up the ingredients list. Two it would have been boiled, boiled and then boiled some more.
There are obvious traditional reasons for this. Potatoes weren’t just cheap, they were hardy and you could trust them to last the week. Secondly, any meat that you had left at this stage wasn’t going to be either sparse or a less than prime cut, boiling made sure everyone got some of the flavour and, if you were lucky enough to get any meat, you weren’t eating shoe leather.
Things had moved on a bit by my youth, and although cost was still the first consideration, we have got something specific in for tea. Corned beef hash, bacon scallops or pea soup were heavy on both rotation and our stomachs and the Pyrex dishes usually got another airing (and the day I graduated to the second biggest in the stack was probably as big a rite of passage as the day my Mum had to buy another “big plate” for me at the Christmas table).
Wednesday meant hearty comfort food, cheap and cheerful stuff but stuff that I still love to this day. Without any snobbery, ironic pretentions or modern twists.
So we’re here, the day that’s caused all the fuss. The last of the budget has gone on yesterday’s tea and all across the country people are having to make do and mend. On the way home from school, there’s only one answer to “what’s for tea?” and that’s “I don’t know, we’ll have to see what we’ve got in”. As the freezer became more prevalent it could mean four people having four different teas, probably picking out selections from what wasn’t eaten on the last few Tuesdays, combined with whatever potato products there were (oven chips, waffles, smiley faces) and beans but before all that there were usually only two things left.
And what can you do with potatoes and egg?
I know I mentioned risotto before but that was a pretence. You can still count the number of people in Wigan who know what a frittata is on one hand and calling it a Spanish omelette back then would have had people telling you to get your lumps checked for having liquorish for tea. No, potato and egg meant one thing; there might have been a spare sausage, mum might have saved a bit of gammon from earlier in the week, but in our house, Thursdays meant egg and chips, like it or lump it.
But there’s a twist to this tale. I’m not sure we had a frying pan back then, I certainly don’t remember one and eggs only came in three forms, boiled, poached or chip pan.
I mentioned before how my Mum’s chip pan pre-dated our microwave as the “cook everything” utensil of choice. It will definitely have come into play four or five times across the week (yes mostly for chips, but you’re just trying to ruin my narrative again), but the piece-de-resistance was definitely managing to cook eggs in it. You see them now on Masterchef, slow cooking a duck egg in fat and calling it “confit”? This was nothing like that, the fat was boiling and the cooking was quick and violent.
Your egg would jump, bubble up and explode, spitting hot chip fat everywhere. It served the double purpose of cleaning the pan, inexplicably sucking up all the black crusty bits that congregated on the bottom of the pan over the course of the week. It would also, inevitably, be either under or over cooked because it was impossible to tell what was going on amongst all the jumping and bubbling and spitting. Even if it was cooked right, you still ran the risk of the yolk popping on the way out of the pan, giving its yellow goodness up to get “cleaned up” by the next egg.
It was illogical, it shouldn’t work and often didn’t, but I wouldn’t swap it, or any of those childhood teas for a Michelin star. Well, apart from the cauliflower cheese, mushroom crispy pancakes, grilled pork chops and especially the cod in butter sauce; apart from the Tuesday stuff.
And you know what, we didn’t.
When my dad went to monthly pay, when the overtime rolled in, when we got a bigger fridge and a better cooker, when our tastes became more varied and more exotic, when my mum went to work and it became easier and possible to get a take-away or grab something from the freezer every night, when we moved out and moved back in, when we went our separate ways, these things still formed a major part of our family’s week.
I’ve not had tea at my mum’s for ages, but I can guess what she’s having on the Monday after a roast chicken and I’m not likely to turn up there on a Tuesday, if can help it.
And that is, I guess, what #councilteathursday is really about, a celebration of “the way we were”; indeed “the way some people are now” with meals dictated to by the proximity to payday, through necessity, circumstance and the lack of credit cards, 24-hour shopping, Deliveroo and a massive freezer where you can store your artisan “home cooked” ready meals.
And if you think that’s snobby, if you think we’re taking the mick, well, “no, you eff off”
The above article first appeared in Issue 65 of the Mudhutter Football Express, available from all the usual places, now including Wigan Central and from their website by clicking here. It’s better than Cod in Butter sauce, so get your copy now and support your club’s fanzine.