The nine food groups of the Apocalypse? Kim Knight on the joy - and essentialness - of mince.
My memory will tint this past month sepia. So much beige baking, so much browned mince. The Pantone colour of the year will be Pandemic Sourdough. We talked incessantly about flour, but most days I think my street was cooking mince.
Smell that cheap, meaty science. The Maillard Reaction in action. Forced to feed ourselves for 28 days on end, confined to home cooking only, we cranked the heat and turned amino acids and natural sugars into bolognese, moussaka, and homemade hamburgers. We ate prime, premium and ordinary; sometimes we turned chicken into larb but at the end of the interminable day, it was still mince.
When was the last time you ate this much ground meat? I was 13, 14, 15. A weekday boarder at the Greymouth High School hostel where our diet was sausages, saveloy and two kinds of stew - the one where sinewy steak is cut into chunks, dredged in flour and fried off first for flavour; the one where a pulverised amalgam of many different cows is mixed with peas, onion and, dear-God-please-make-it-stop, frozen corn kernels. Meat soup.
Bolognese was just another stew, however garlic, wine and tomato paste made it 1989 and dinner at my first flat. My dad thought Italian cooking was silly (no potatoes?!), but lasagne was really just my generation's Sunday roast.
My first flatmate once asked me how to boil peas. Um, I said, you boil the peas. Yes, she said - but for how long? Thirty years later, she emailed me during lockdown to say "All I know is that if you'd told me a month ago I'd be washing my groceries and David would be baking I'd have thought you needed professional help." On the other hand: "There has also been a certain peacefulness in slowing down, cooking meals together . . . "
It was okay when you could go to the Sabato website and order insanely expensive Easter eggs to send to the South Island. It was okay when you could order salmon delivered to the door from one company and the wine to go with it from another. Then the redundancies happened. The pay cuts happened. The uncertainty tasted like mince.
It's not even that cheap now, right? Three packs for $20 at Countdown, but that implies you can afford to buy in bulk. Those with money always save more money and at every level this matters. How, for example, does a teacher instruct students who don't even have a space of their own to work in? How many of those supermarket check-out operators should have been finishing Year 13 and thinking about what they were going to wear to the school ball instead of signing contracts as newly essential workers? And now think about the word "essential". Does it smell like salmon or mince?
The cookbook that I took to my first flat was Alison Holst's Family Cookbook. It's squat and fat, like a novel. There are no photographs and it has 26 chapters with titles like Potatoes, Sausages recipes, Bread-based lunch and tea dishes and Minced meat. The latter contains a chapter for egg-stuffed meatloaf. It contains one cup of crushed cornflakes and was, writes Mrs Holst, "the first recipe I made on television!"
I remember a meatloaf from other straitened times. We'd all driven home from our respective parts of the country anticipating pork roast with crackle, lemon meringue pie with cream. There was a meatloaf in the roasting dish and it had been bulked with careful accounting - rolled oats, mixed herbs and hard-boiled eggs. The best of a bad situation tastes like mince.
Over Easter, I crowdsourced a list: The Nine Food Groups of the Apocalypse. "Gin Gin Gin Gin Gin Gin," replied a friend who had lost the ability to punctuate, count or follow instructions.
Another friend who is imagining end-times as a gathering of high-decile school mums sent the following: Anchovies, Italian crackers, salmon pate, buffalo cheese, parmesan cheese, tomatoes, chardonnay, pasta, garlic, red onion, potato chips and MDMA. Later, she emailed: "I forgot olive oil!"
A paltry list of two from the vegetarian friend ("granola, hot cross buns") but even she has been dreaming of mince. Specifically, lahmacun - the thin, crispy Turkish pizza packed with spicy minced meat and peppers. Her lockdown revelation is lahmacun made with lentils, the pizza dough rich and short with yoghurt and oil.
A friend who farms cows suggests eggs, anchovies, curry, honey, salt, frozen pizza, cheese, Buck's Fizz (the breakfast-adjacent champagne) and, yep, mince. From a few suburbs across: "Chocolate, pasta, tomatoes, rum and sunshine." The last time I ate at this house, it was dumplings with a 7-year-old who discussed the relative safety merits of football versus rugby and concluded that another sport he quite enjoyed was darts.
It is dinner time again. We are having hamburgers again.