On my visit home for the Christmas holidays my mother gleefully shows off her new Slow Cooker Crock Pot.
‘You’ll like this modern gadget. You with your new cooking ideas. I just leave the pot on all day and it cooks over a light bulb. It really saves money – you should buy one.’
After several light-bulb-cooked stews, we sit down to evening meals with dread. The slow cooker is renamed the slop pot by those who gather at her table. Early in the morning my mother fills a saucepan with the food choice for the evening meal. Then she slops the saucepan contents into the slow cooker, switches on the light bulb, leaves it all day and slops the food onto our plates at night. As my home visit progresses, the slop pot stores a magic brew and it’s no surprise if lumps of Sunday’s roast lamb appear as Tuesday’s stew along with pieces of roast potato and brussels sprouts.
‘There’s no need to waste anything – you just add to the pot. If you boil it up before you put it into the slow cooker it’s fine – and safe.’
She doesn’t want to hear my stories of clostridium botulinum or salmonella poisoning. Over the weeks her slop pot recipes become more adventurous. The Christmas turkey will probably be dumped in it soon along with bread sauce, sage and onion stuffing and a teaspoon of her latest new ingredient – curry powder.
One day, in a hurry to get to Leicester’s vegetable market, she empties a bag of frozen, chopped carrots into the slop pot. The light bulb does its best, but we meekly eat frozen carrot chunks that night but we say not a word. My mother is too fierce for criticism. She might down her tools on the draining board and leave for her sewing room if we suggest that something is not quite edible.
‘You cook next time!’ she’ll threaten. But if I try it’s met with ‘Mucking up good food!’
My mother’s other excitement is a large chest freezer with a top opening lid which barely shuts as it’s so full of frozen fruit and vegetables from her garden along with packs of Sainsbury’s reduced food with its yellow stickers. She’s a great gardener and we’ve always eaten fresh fruit and vegetables, powered by horse manure which she collects from local fields and country roads. As a child I had the shameful task to collect horse poo from our street after the horse drawn delivery cart for milk and fizzy Corona had rounded the corner. I so dreaded that my friends would catch me shovelling up the pongy stuff into a bucket with our coal shovel.
My mother serves her fruit and veg when they are in season. Spring brings early salads, asparagus and sweet peas. By summer there’s crops of raspberries, strawberries and gooseberries and long runner beans which we eat unfashionably raw in green salads. Autumn fruit trees are laden with Victoria plums, Cox’s apples and Conference pears and she picks wild blackberries to stew with cooking apples. Throughout the winter there’s a plentiful supply of purple sprouting broccoli, spinach and leeks. And carrots, parsnips and potatoes emerge from under her rich, well fertilised soil.
Since the arrival of the giant chest freezer my mother has swapped serving seasonal vegetables and heated up frozen mystery choices – the bags have unidentifiable contents which have been frosted into obscurity. So now runner beans, spinach and carrots are served all year round but never taste like the ones picked fresh from her garden, boiled within minutes and served topped with melted butter. The thrill of opening a plastic tub containing a rare treat of Wall’s Vanilla Icecream has gone too – it’s more likely to be full of frozen plums, raspberries and blackberries or leftover stew. I send her a Home Freezing Handbook so she can learn how to bag, label and date her frozen stuff but a pair of step ladders might be more useful so she can climb into the freezer and turf out those piles of frozen stuff.
Slow cookers soon become the rage as more women join the workforce, and in the thrifty 1970s, saving fuel bills is important, so light bulb cooking is to be admired.
A few years later, the slow cooker is used to cook the newly fashionable dish, chilli con carne, using dried red kidney beans. But cooks must follow the recipe instructions which requires the beans to be cooked in boiling water for at least 10 minutes. If the beans are not boiled for long enough a harmful toxin, lectin, found in the beans, is not destroyed. The toxin can lead to sickness and diarrhoea and make you feel really, really poorly. Canned red kidney beans, which are safe to eat from the can, were not yet for sale.