Book Review: Season to Taste

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Season to Taste, by Natalie Young, has the byline ‘How to Eat Your Husband’, which is pretty much what the plot of the book is based around.

Lizzie, who has been with her husband for more than thirty years, hits him over the head with a spade one Monday morning in March. She is then left with the problem of how to dispose of his body. Unwilling to spend the rest of her life in prison she decides that it must vanish without trace, and decides that the best way to accomplish this is to eat it. How she proceeds with her plan is described in stomach churning detail, alongside a dissection of their marriage.

No aspects of Lizzie’s actions are glossed over. In grotesque detail the author describes the means by which the body is bled, cut up into manageable chunks, and frozen. Over time each piece is then thawed, prepared and consumed. The feel, smells and tastes are all recounted along with Lizzie’s reactions to what she is attempting to do. She is a skilled cook and, with the help of a few internet searches, chooses suitable garnishes and accompaniments to go with the body part she is dealing with. The graphic descriptions are nauseatingly believable.

I found the book depressing to read, not least because Lizzie seemed to have few happy memories to recall from her long marriage. Her secluded cottage in the woods with its large garden seemed only to oppress her. She appeared unable to see positives in the few people she allowed herself to come into contact with, describing problems and flaws over achievements.

There were suggestions that Lizzie had become the way she was due to the manner in which her mother and husband had treated her. If her husband did little to bolster her self esteem then it was clear that she had treated him little better. We are only allowed to see the husband through Lizzie’s eyes, indeed much of the book is written from her point of view, so it is hard to form a balanced opinion of any of the other characters.

However Lizzie was treated, it is still difficult to accept that the way she behaved could in any way be described as a reasonable response. The book is well written, and an interesting slant on cannibalism, but is unlikely to make any reader think that this is a tempting means of corpse disposal.

I did not find the book an enjoyable read. Perhaps I had hoped for a little black humour, or some relief from a more typical supporting cast. By concentrating so fully on Lizzie’s view of the world the book remained bleak. Given her macabre activities it seems somehow appropriate that, despite my acknowledgement of the skill with which the story was told, I found it sickening more than satisfying.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.  

 

Why I am banned from grocery shopping

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I wonder why it is that certain subjects get blogged about by many people at the same time. Today there seem to be a few of us thinking about our grocery shopping experiences; what exciting lives we do lead.

My husband banned me from grocery shopping soon after we got married. He was shocked to discover that I bought only what I felt like eating at the time, with no thought for the future including the next day. I would wander up and down the aisles, filling my trolley with whatever caught my eye and looked tasty. I never planned meals and rarely bought basic ingredients. Most appalling of all in his eyes, I did not consider cheaper brands or stock up on items when they were on special offer.

I saw no problem with eating breakfast cereal for dinner, toast topped with whatever I happened to find in my cupboards, and bananas. I always bought bananas. My cupboards usually contained a variety of boxed and tinned goods, coffee and packets of biscuits. When I ran out of food I would go shopping again. Normally I went because I was hungry; apparently this is not a good idea.

Occasionally I would invite friends round for dinner. On these rare occasions I would hunt out a recipe and hit the supermarket with a list of  ingredients, many of which I had never heard of before. I was always trying to cook a dish for the first time when I was feeding somebody else, with varying success. As my flat had an ancient oven that belched smoke (I wasn’t yet aware that they should be cleaned occasionally) the suggested cooking temperature did not always produce the expected results. As far as I am aware, I have yet to poison a dinner guest.

My husband assumed that I would know how to shop and cook, I have no idea why. The first meal I fed him was a slice of pizza that I found lurking in the freezer section of my fridge, a baked potato and some tinned vegetables; impressive huh? I had no interest in acquiring cookery skills when I lived with my parents so left home knowing how to scramble an egg and toast cheese but little else. As a student I ate a lot of bread products and those ubiquitous bananas; obviously I survived. As I have been trying to lose weight since I was sixteen, food was my enemy and the less I had to do with it the better.

My husband can cook. In the early years of our marriage, when we were both working full time, he cooked at least as much as I did. When the kids came along though, and I became a stay at home mum, I was required to take on the role of family food provider. Now that I had babies to feed I started thinking about balance and nutrition. Too many mushy bananas are not good to deal with when processed by nappy wearers.

My husband still did not trust me to do the grocery shopping though. During the baby years I struggled to leave the house due to the need to shower and put on clothes. Also, I did not have a car. I would give my husband a list of food to buy and he would pick up provisions when he was out and about. This arrangement worked fine for both of us.

And then all the big supermarkets started to introduce on line ordering with a home delivery service. For this to work I had to plan out meals a fortnight in advance and let my husband know exactly what I needed. He would set up the order and I would stay in to accept the crates of groceries and put the food away. Suddenly I was organised with a rolling fortnightly menu that rarely changed; how boring this felt.

I sometimes miss those early dinners of a bag of cookies from the in store bakery and a banana eaten in front of the TV. I am still constantly trying to lose weight. If any kids are reading this, don’t be fooled into thinking you get to do what you want when you grow up. My husband may have killed my ability to be impulsive with his practical and efficient ideas, but it is my teenagers who nag me about my continuing inclination to adopt odd eating habits. I may now be able to produce a variety of nutritious meals from scratch each evening, but the only time that I truly enjoy my food is when the preparation has been taken on by somebody else.

Success

So, it seems that all I have to do to improve my cooking skills is write a series of blog posts saying how much I dislike the task and how bad I am at it (see Not a domestic goddess and The making of an incompetent cook). Not that I am now claiming to be competent and skillful. I will leave those accolades to my amazing friend Mrs Gillybird who can produce creations such as this: A Cake Fit For Angels. Still, this afternoon I was feeling in a positive mood and decided to make bread. I am rather pleased with the result.

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This is a loaf of Irish wheaten bread, made using my mother’s recipe with a few adjustments to allow for the fact that not all ingredients are readily available in this part of England. I used to make this bread regularly, until I had a run of unpalatable failures and lost heart. I was inspired to try again recently by a blog post written by Vernacularisms titled Well Raised. I asked for advice and tried his suggestions with great results.

Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing? Interactions with strangers get such a bad press but, just as in the outernet, the people that I encounter are mostly decent, thoughtful, supportive and willing to help out when they can.

Buoyed by my recent successes in a few areas of food production, last week I tried out a recipe that I came across on a fabulous blog written by A Girl Called Jack: Carrot, Cumin & Kidney Bean Burger. These went down very well with my fussy little family, were easy to make in advance and quick to cook when required.

I will be searching for more recipes on this blog. Jack cooks on a tight budget so does not use the sort of ingredients that are hard to come by (unless you are willing to pay Waitrose prices or have access to the sort of upmarket deli or street market that seem to exist in the posher parts of London where many of the popular food writers seem to live). Maybe I just order my shopping from the wrong places, but my store cupboard is pretty basic and I like it that way.

I made a curry for dinner this evening and there were no complaints, not even from my spice averse youngest. I really am on a roll. Perhaps my children were distracted by the prospect of pudding as my younger son had made a cake and a batch of cookies when he got in from school. Whatever the reason, producing food is much more rewarding when the results turn out as they should and are then eaten without complaint. I will be interested to see how long I can maintain this run of good results.

The making of an incompetent cook – Part 3

(If interested, the beginning of this saga can be read here: The making of an incompetent cook – Part 1)

When I first got together with my husband he quickly realised that, unlike him, my skills in the kitchen were limited. He mocked many of my efforts so I left it to him to produce food for us. Gradually, as I watched and learned, I picked up enough knowledge to know how to treat various foodstuffs without the need to constantly refer to my cook book. I also started to bake the occasional loaf of bread or experiment with a tasty pudding. I found that area of food production more rewarding.

With the arrival of our children I left full time work and took on the task of running our home. I was determined to feed my little daughter and then my sons well, cooking up and liquidising batches of baby food for the freezer so that I knew exactly what was being consumed. As they grew older I would allow them some of the kiddy food that they tasted at friend’s houses and adored, but I was never comfortable serving fish fingers, sausages or chicken nuggets. I always insisted on large, daily portions of vegetables; puddings were most often made up of yoghurt and fruit. Even if I had missed out on the cookery, the healthy eating lessons that my mother had passed on had been well learnt.

When my third child started school I found myself with more time on my hands and dug out my mother’s recipes for wheaten, soda and treacle bread. I would try to bake a couple of times a week, a task that was welcomed by my family as I would produce a cake, crumble or a batch of cookies while the oven was on. Somehow this period saw many successes as I relaxed into the task.

As our family grew our house seemed to shrink so we planned an extension out the back. Along with this work I chose a new, large and airy bespoke kitchen. The work on the house took six months, during which time we lived out of one room downstairs. When it was finally finished I planned a big party with all our local friends invited. Naturally, I provided a supper.

My husband and I hosted many parties and dinners around this time with the majority of the food cooked from scratch by me in my fabulous, new kitchen. I would still try out new dishes for these events, but would back them up with trusted standbys. It was only when we started being invited back, to the reciprocal parties organised by our friends, that I began to feel that my efforts were not as impressive as they had seemed to me. So many of these ladies were admirable cooks, as well as having talents in table decoration and flower arranging. I should not have judged myself against their high standards, but my confidence in my abilities was knocked.

Why the disasters started I have no idea. My cakes started to sink, my bread became doughy, my puddings were undercooked. I began to dread having to produce food for anyone other than family, who ate whatever I produced although often with bad grace. I stopped inviting people round for meals, except for my in laws. They were always presented with the same sort of offerings; even I rarely went badly wrong with a roast dinner.

There were other things happening in my life around this time of course, many of which I have blogged about previously. Perhaps it was a culmination of everything that was going on that caused me so much disquiet; perhaps it was this that was affecting the shaky results I was achieving as I persevered with the daily grind of feeding my family.

One thing that my overall experience of cooking has taught me though is the importance of introducing my children to basic food production. My daughter has responded well to this challenge, producing a variety of pasta and rice dishes recently as required. Her desire to prove that she can be trusted to look after herself has encouraged her to take note of how certain dishes are prepared.

My younger son is less interested in cooking savoury dishes, but can at least make decent cheese or tomato sauces to go on pasta; he will heat up a frozen pizza for himself if left on his own at a mealtime. His pleasure in cooking comes from the yummy cakes and cookies that he will make unsupervised; these are often requested by visiting friends.

It is my older son whose attitude towards food reminds me more of myself at his age. Although he enjoys his food, he shows little interest in feeding himself beyond hydrating a pot noodle to go with his cup of tea and numerous slices of toast. I guess it is hard to interest a recalcitrant teen in anything unless they choose to participate.

My sister first picked up the basics of cooking from my mother, and I should have been able to do the same. When the lessons were being offered, I suspect that I just wasn’t paying attention.

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The making of an incompetent cook – Part 2

(If interested, this saga starts here: The making of an incompetent cook – Part 1)

I moved into my first flat late in 1988. I had started work the previous summer and was eager to make the home for myself that I had been dreaming about and working towards for the past eight years. I arrived with my newly purchased bed, fridge, kettle, toaster, crockery, cutlery, pots, pans and an iron. The previous occupants had left their rather tired looking oven and washing machine. Although I had no other furniture, no curtains and no idea how to work the heating system, that first night spent in my own home felt blissful.

Over the coming months I started to gather together some of the other things that I both wanted and needed. I bought a squishy sofa, table and chairs, shelves for my many books and a cabinet to store my hi fi. I replaced the washing machine when I discovered the old one leaked, painted my bedroom and hung curtains at the windows. In the spirit of the times the decor was a mix of black, white, grey and red; to my eyes it looked fabulous.

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Having built my nest I wished to show it off so invited a few of my new friends from work round for a meal. When my parents socialised this is what they did so it seemed a perfectly natural course of action. I did not consider that I still had no experience of cooking. Having received five acceptances to my invitations I consulted a recipe book for a suitably impressive three course meal for six. Starter and pudding could be prepared in advance and I sensibly opted for something that sounded straightforward for the main course. I decided that I would roast my first chicken.

Instructions on the cellophane wrapped bird that I bought told me how many hours it needed to be cooked for. Having cleaned my flat from top to bottom, bathed and chosen what I would wear for my exciting evening, at the prescribed time I switched on the oven for the very first time. As it began to heat up black smoke gushed out, filling the flat with a noxious smell. Panicking a little I threw open all the doors and windows before frantically attempting to clean the beast as best I could. With my inadequate supplies and lack of experience (I had never cleaned an oven before) I felt impotent, but knew that I needed to try again. By the time my friends arrived the chicken was bubbling away in it’s juices and only a little smoke was puffing out the oven door. A few comments on the strange smell that permeated the now freezing flat were made, dinner was served a little later than planned, but we survived the food and an enjoyable enough evening was had by all.

Perhaps I should have learned my lesson, but I would continue to invite people round to eat, and try out new, exciting dishes on them. Most of the food that I cooked for my many dinner parties was tried for the first time on the night and never repeated. There were many close calls and disappointments that went unmentioned: the soup starter that took me five hours to prepare; the range of expensive spices that went into the only curry I have ever made from scratch and which tasted totally bland; the prime cuts of meat whose potential succulence I failed to appreciate, ending up with a jaw challenging dish that resembled biltong.

At home, alone, I was still content to live on simple fare, although I did begin to cook a little more often for myself as time went by. I’m not sure that I ever got the oven in my flat properly clean though; it was only ever used when I had people round.

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The making of an incompetent cook – Part 1

I was seven years old when I first tried my hand at baking. My brave teacher, Mrs Dodds, who was also instrumental in encouraging me to push ahead with my love of Maths, decided to run a lesson showing how yeast reacted when added to other ingredients. I missed the end of this fascinating experiment as, for the only time in my entire school career, my parents took me out of class early. They were driving across the country to visit friends who had moved from our area to run a pub several counties away. I remember the excitement of being allowed to stand behind the bar that loomed taller than my head, before the pub opened to the public. I knew that this was distant, adult space, banned to children in those days.

My teacher had whisked my tiny little bread roll out of the oven early for me to take with me, and I nursed it’s warm crust throughout the long car journey. When I eventually ate it I remember it’s hardness and the strangeness of the taste. My mother made delicious bread regularly, but not with yeast. I ate it in the car, feeling guilty that it was too small to share. I would have liked to split it, spread on some butter and show it off. There was too much going on that day to seek attention. I nibbled on it dry, trying not to drop crumbs on my father’s car.

A year or so later I became a Brownie Guide, where we were entreated to ‘do a good turn every day’. I took this mantra seriously. We were told that giving our parents breakfast in bed would be a big treat for them; looking back I am not convinced that my parents wished to risk crumbs on the sheets and would have preferred to rise at a time of their choosing. Ever eager to please, and having recently learnt how to scramble eggs, I went through a phase of getting up early on a Sunday morning to make them a breakfast which I carefully carried to their bedroom on a tray. This ‘good turn’ came to a halt when, unbeknown to me, the clocks changed from summer to winter time and I ended up making their breakfast an hour too early. My sister heard me going through my routine and intercepted me before I disturbed our parents. I returned to the kitchen and cried hot tears of shame and frustration as I tried to keep the food warm. It was the last time I made anyone breakfast in bed.

When I moved on to grammar school I was required to study Domestic Science with a characterful teacher with the apt name of Mrs Pepper. I was truly hopeless at the subject. When we made shepherds pie I could not get the potatoes to boil soft enough to mash; how did I find this so difficult? Mrs Pepper had little time for such incompetence and I dropped the subject as soon as I was allowed.

At home I had learned to grill cheese on toast, cook eggs and heat up tinned food, but was rarely required to produce food for myself or anyone else. The only exception to this that I can remember was when my mother fainted one afternoon and had to spend a night in hospital under observation. My sister was elsewhere so I felt that I should produce dinner for my father and I. Fish had been left in the fridge, to be grilled for the evening meal. I had no idea how long to cook it for and ended up drying it out completely. We manfully chewed our way through what should have been a soft and succulent dish, but I have not attempted to cook plain fish since.

When I first moved out of the family home I lived on cereal, toast, cheese, soup, salads and fruit. With a kettle, toaster and microwave to hand I could avoid the oven and hob entirely. In a series of shared houses, with others who seemed comfortable in the kitchen, I was too embarrassed to demonstrate my lack of skill. It wasn’t until I was able to buy my first flat, at the age of twenty-four, that I began to cook hot meals from raw ingredients.

My mother had produced most of our family dinners in a scary device called a pressure cooker. She would chop up and throw in the meat, vegetables and potatoes before adding a little water and heating it all up until there was an audible whistle. The heat would then be turned down and a heavy weight put over the vent at the top. Occasionally the weight would be blown off resulting in a frightful clatter and a rush of steam. After a prescribed time the pressure cooker would be placed in the sink and cold water run over it before the weight and then lid could be removed and the food served. I have never wanted to own a pressure cooker.

All of this meant that I had not regularly observed other types of cooking first hand, and had little experience to fall back on. I had paid scant attention to what was being done in my mother’s kitchen; I had no interest in participating and learning. My mother was an advocate for healthy eating long before this became popular. I may not have picked up her cooking skills, but I had taken on board her message that processed food was bad; that fat and sugar should be avoided; that puddings other than fruit and yoghurt should be a rare treat.

For the first few months after I moved into my flat I would pop down to the local convenience store after work and buy whatever I felt like eating that night. I continued to survive largely on breakfast cereal, cheese, toast, tinned food, salad and fruit. Once I had managed to save up enough of my wages to furnish the flat, I decided that I wished to show it off and planned my first dinner party. The fact that I had little knowledge of cooking did not present itself as a problem to my naive mind. This first event set the tone for the many to come. For me, preparing the food for each of my dinner parties became a memorable, if fraught, experience.

TBC

English: A pressure cooker with a simple regul...

Daily life

A few months ago I wrote a post about my dislike of cooking (Not a domestic goddess). I am revisiting this theme because, in the last couple of weeks, I have come to realise that things are improving. It is not that the food I am preparing each day has suddenly developed into anything attractively delicious, but rather that my family seem to be showing a little bit more acceptance of what is put in front of them. I don’t expect compliments (although I did unexpectedly get one last week!), but I am gratified that there have been fewer complaints.

I think that there may be a number of factors at play here. My daughter spent a month of the summer exploring Madagascar. For a couple of weeks she was required to camp in remote villages, acquire food and prepare it on a small camp stove. To survive she could not be too fussy about what she would eat; as a vegetarian her choices were limited further.

Alongside this experience she has been showing a great deal more maturity in the way she notices how others are reacting and feeling (I wonder if her trip away helped with this). She realises that I am doing my best and is being more considerate. She is also developing her own cooking skills and can produce a meal for herself and her brothers if I wish to go out. There have even been occasions when she has done the washing up.

My elder son has reached the stage where it is hard to feed him enough. Satisfying his constant hunger is a challenge, but it does mean that whatever food is produced will be eaten. His complaints have not vanished, but have decreased markedly. Both children are noticing more often the efforts I put in to feeding them, even if the food produced is not always what they would choose to eat.

With these small improvements in my everyday life I have felt encouraged enough to make a tentative return to baking. This weekend I made bread for the first time in ages and it was pounced upon and consumed with enthusiasm. Requests for more were made and I felt gratified that the exercise had been worthwhile. The next day I spent much of the afternoon in the kitchen preparing a more interesting evening meal than is normal. It seems that, with just a little more appreciation being shown, I can gain some enjoyment from feeding my family after all.

Cooking is unlikely to ever give me pleasure in itself, but providing my family with something that they enjoy consuming is rewarding. Having gained these small successes I am now feeling uplifted enough to be encouraged to make other improvements in our day to day lives. If my family are capable of showing some appreciation of the food that I produce then perhaps they can also appreciate a more comfortable and appealing home. Perhaps it is worth my while redecorating a messy bedroom or getting some of the maintenance tasks that I have been procrastinating about seen to.

We support an organisation that works with families in Uganda. They aim to educate the mothers in improved hygiene, food production and storage, as well as in managing family finances, small business opportunities and rights to land. If the mothers can be kept healthy and productive then the whole family and community benefit. I sometimes think that I could learn a valuable lesson from this.

I am always inclined to put the needs of my husband and children before my own. Their happiness makes me happy so this makes sense to me. What I need to remember is that, on a day to day level, my mood and attitude affect them markedly. If I am feeling down then their home life becomes less pleasurable. They may act at times as if they do not notice that I exist, but the vibes I give out can act as a catalyst to their behaviour. When I am happy and full of energy we are all more likely to have an enjoyable, family time.

This week I will bake them another loaf of bread; I will try out that new recipe I found for bean burgers; I may even bake a cake. As my younger son told me at the weekend, not all of my cooking is a disaster and, even when it is, it doesn’t taste so bad that it isn’t eaten. Praise indeed…

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Staying healthy

I have a friend who believes that those who can afford to have a duty to buy the best quality meat and organic vegetables that they can find to encourage production of these types of food stuffs. This same friend takes the most varied cocktail of drugs of anyone I know in an attempt to keep herself as healthy as possible. She has many health issues and spends a great amount of her time dealing with these. She and I do not see eye to eye on many of her theories around consumption and it’s effects on the human body.

I think that our bodies are amazing. To survive we must eat and breath yet, in our modern world, both our food and our air are polluted. Thankfully we have inbuilt systems for detoxification and we seem to be able to cope with the small quantities of poison that we consume or inhale. We can assist this process by exercising regularly and by keeping our bodies well hydrated. Beyond this, a bit of common sense in what we consume seems to be enough to keep most people in a state of reasonable health.

I am not a good cook. I don’t enjoy preparing food and the meals that I produce tend to be fairly bland. This is partly down to my lack of confidence and skill in this area, and partly down to the varied tastes of my family which limits what we can eat. One of my sons likes meat and strong flavours, dislikes a wide range of vegetables, and gets bored being fed the same thing too often; my other son dislikes strong flavours and likes to know what he is eating so is often unwilling to try anything new; my daughter dislikes fish, meat, certain vegetables and salad. Trying to please everyone is a challenge as I am not willing to produce different meals at one sitting.

I use a lot of fresh ingredients and cook mainly from scratch. I do use some jars of sauce for flavour and a few of my daughters vegetarian alternatives come from a frozen packet, but most of what we eat contains only basic, recognisable foodstuffs that I have chosen and added. I do not concern myself with brands unless there is a notable difference in taste. As much of the food is mixed up together in the cooking anyway, I buy what is on offer.

The recent horse meat scandal did not disturb me too much as horse meat is probably better for us than much of the offal that goes into food from other animals. It is always a concern to hear that creatures reared for consumption are fed a variety of chemicals to promote easy health and fast weight gain, but the chemical fertilizers and sprays that promote growth in vegetables are already in the human food chain through animal feedstuffs. We are told that organic vegetables are no better for our health than the ordinary, mass produced variety and that vegetarian alternatives to meat are as full of flavourings and additives as a cheap burger or sausage. I do not dispute that these things are bad for us, only that we have to eat something and the alternatives may not actually be that much better.

What we can do if we wish to stay healthy is to exercise more. Physical exercise will make our vital organs function more efficiently, speed up digestion and help our bodies to flush the harmful chemicals out. My children may not appreciate that I send them to school on the bus rather than  driving them, which would be much cheaper, but the required walk to the bus stop and then on to school and back will help to keep them healthy (complaints about sore backs due to heavy bags of books notwithstanding).

I am fascinated by the scientific studies that have found links between what we think about our health and how healthy we are. In certain situations, participants in studies have been given placebos but told it is a curing drug and have subsequently been cured. It is obvious that not all illness can be cured in this way, but I believe it shows that attitude is vital for good health. There are times when we are ill and our bodies tell us that we need to rest; allowing a time of rest and recovery is sensible and important. However, I also believe that we can think ourselves more ill than we are. There seem to be a lot of people who, for no apparent reason, seem to come down with every bug and virus going. There are others who manage to avoid most minor illnesses or who can just keep going through the sniffles and aches. I cannot put myself inside anyone else’s head to know how they feel, but I do wonder if some are more prone to illness than others or if they just believe that they are less healthy.

I have never been one to use the mass of antiseptic sprays and wipes that are promoted for hygiene in the home apart from in the bathrooms. I think this worries my friend. She disinfects surfaces with fervour, replaces scratched items which may harbour bacteria and does all in her power to keep dirt from her home. I have a much more relaxed attitude to these things. A bit of hot water and soap plus a sensible attitude to hand washing does me. If we ingest a bit of dirt our immune systems will be strengthened. Bacteria can fight infection as well as cause it. I would rather not cover the surfaces of my kitchen with yet more chemicals.

I realise that it is easy for me to have a fairly laissez faire attitude to food and hygiene when I have the good fortune to have a robust and healthy family. Good health should never be taken for granted. Time spent working to maintain it may not always be fun, but is a worthwhile investment. I should probably also invest a bit more time in improving my cooking skills.

The Healthy Eating Pyramid, from the Harvard S...