A kind friend alerted me to the delights of Jonathan Meades’ splenetic meditation in the Observer on 21st October on Stephen Poole’s equally splenetic book You Aren’t What You Eat. Both book and review make for splendid reading, Jonathan Meades doesn’t simply endorse Stephen Poole’s general contention that our interest and appreciation of food has gone much too far and become pretentious and preposterous, but then uses it to roll out his own broadside in his inimitable, mighty, grandee manner. Heston, Jamie, Gordon, the Soil Association, and even the blameless Craig Sams, all get it in the neck.
I strongly recommend reading Stephen Poole’s book, not because it is right, but because it’s a point of view, a fine polemic, not a reasoned line of reasoning. He scoffs at the very idea that food could have any cultural, social or historical significance. He lampoons the pretentiousness of utterances on food and cooking. He brings immense seriousness to the business of taking people to taske for taking themselves too seriously, deploying a full battery of Socrates, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Roger Scruton Jay Rayner, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Terry Gilliam, Dionysus, Apollo, Slavoj Zizek, Plato, Filippo Marinetti, Claude Levi-Strauss, Thomas Aquinas, BR Myers, Pope Gregory, Francine Prose and St Simeon Stylites among a lot of other fancy thinkers. Actually, I added in St Simeon Stylites to add a bit of leavening.
He lines up the lines up absurdities and then demolishes them with gusto. In a classic ploy he sets up the arguments to fit his rebuttals. For example, he takes Stefan Gates to task for saying that it’s his ambition to make people to ‘think’ about food. Stephen Poole goes on ‘Potential concern for ethical issues aside, why should people think about food any more than any of us already do. Why is thinking about food a good thing per se, rather than thinking about unemployment, or metaphysics or heavy metal.’ Well, if Stephen Poole’s assertion about what Stephen Gates said is correct, and there’s no reason to think it isn’t, he never claimed that thinking about food was good ‘per se’, and he never suggested that we should do it to the exclusion of unemployment, metaphysics or heavy metal. Maybe we could think about food as well. In my experience it’s more fun that unemployment, metaphysics or heavy metal.
All this is endorsed by Jonathan Meades, the critic who gave us Marco Pierre White and Jean- Christophe Novelli, with a kind of high flown, do ut des, kai ta leipomena, kai ta loipa (look it up), de haut en bas hauteur. He’s on cracking form as The Great Fulminator. ‘This is a bloody, brutal and necessary sacred cow hunt. Heston, Jamie, Gordon and the entire gruesome galère of monomial foodists are mocked, derided, exposed and forced to endure the echo of their vacuous “philosophies” and inane dicta’, he begins, and he continues, like Hurricane Sandy, gathering force as he goes. He comes across of as a High Table Wing-Commander Buffy Frobisher, massively disgruntled of Godalming.
In the end, however, the subtext of Stephen Poole’s and Jonathan Meades’ thesis seems suspiciously like the old Victorian stricture that it’s vulgar to talk about food. Personally, I’ve always thought that it’s far too important a subject to be taken seriously, certainly as seriously as Stephen Poole and Jonathan Meades take it. (I’ve adapted that bon mot from Oscar Wilde, in case you thought it original.)
You Aren’t What You Eat – Fed Up With Gastroculture (Union Books; £12.99)