US & THEM

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Last weekend Bee Wilson wrote a characteristically intelligent and lucid piece in the Guardian extolling the virtues of another characteristically intelligent and lucid writer, Nigella Lawson. In particular, she praised the merits of How To Eat – ‘For those of us who love How To Eat above all other food books, what it offered was that original voice, which worked its way into your head and made you feel braver in the kitchen.’ And she traces the liberating effect it had for subsequent cookery writers, opening the way for the likes of Thomasina Miers, Rachel Roddy, Thom Eagle, Gill Meller, Felicity Cloake and Meera Sodha. All of this may well be true, but if so exemplifies the problem with food writing in this country. That ‘For those of us’ is telling.

In the UK, food, and writing about it,  have always been the province of the middle classes, the well-educated classes at that. Food writers have really written for ‘those of us’, who already share their own passions, attitudes and background. The converted speak to the converted. This is not a criticism, merely an observation. It has always been the case, from Gervase Markham onwards (with the honourable exception of Florence White). The post-war admiration of Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson as epitomes of all that is best about food writing perpetuated the elitism that still governs that world. Of course, they were both brilliant writers, as, indeed, are Nigella Lawson and Bee Wilson,  but they wrote for the enlightened rather than for those who might seek enlightenment or those who might not be aware that enlightenment existed.

Food, good cooking, the sort of food and cooking Nigella Lawson, Bee Wilson, not to mention Thomasina Miers, Rachel Roddy, Thom Eagle, Gill Meller and Felicity Cloake and Meera Sodha practice, has helped perpetuate a form of social exclusion. If you don’t know your tahini from your harissa, you’re not part of the club. If you wonder what za’taar or pomegranate syrup are, you’re beyond a certain kind of culinary pale. The criteria of a culinarily-enfranchised minority have been taken to define the zeitgeist for the nation at a whole, even if a large part of that nation haven’t a clue what the minority is on about.

This may all seem like picking over trivia, but I think it has unfortunate consequences.  If you feel excluded from something, you tend to feel either resentful or apathetic. And if you don’t really care about what you eat, then in all likelihood, you’ll eat pretty badly, as a large percentage of people in this country clearly do. The statistics about obesity in children, the increase in Type-2 diabetes, heart disease and diet-related diseases are too well-rehearsed to need repeating here.

There may have been a food revolution in this country, but it isn’t the one on which we like to congratulate ourselves.   A narrow band of the converted may celebrate the joys of cooking proper food properly. For the rest, the sales of ready meals and snacks rise year by year and the ping of the microwave summons the hungry to eat (93% of households in the UK have a microwave). Ready meals, snacks and microwaves aren’t bad in themselves, but their ubiquity tells you something about the real attitude to food and eating of the majority of consumers. Clearly, few people actually cook  the dishes or in the manner so eloquently proselytized by  Nigella Lawson and Bee Wilson( and Thomasina Miers, Rachel Roddy, Thom Eagle, Gill Meller,  Felicity Cloake, Meera Sodha and dozens of other writers, come that) on a daily or even a weekly basis or ever. 

Why? Why don’t many people in this country feel the same ownership of their food culture that Italians, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Germans, indeed almost any European country, feel happy lay claim to? It’s not as if there’s been a dearth of articulate advice and encouragement in all kinds of media,  There’s been a constancy and consistency extolling  the delights of home cooking.  So why haven’t the cheery nostrums routinely rolled out had greater effect? 

We can blame social and economic pressures, and point the finger at the ubiquity of the supermarkets and the big industrial battalions behind them and the power of advertising. Still, it seems to me that the food writers have failed in the primary task of communicating with people who aren’t people ‘like us’.  It’s not the ‘people like us’ who need more recipes, but it’s people who aren’t like us, and who can’t find anyone who speaks to them. Persuading people how to eat is not a matter of what is being written, but how it is being written. 

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2 thoughts on “US & THEM

  1. Very good and timely piece when there’s so much in the media about diet and what we eat and health problems of poor diet. I think a lot of the problem is education. So many people don’t know how to cook and the less money you have, the better you can eat if you know how to cook well and make the most of cheap but nutritious ingredients. It doesn’t have to take lots of time – it’s just knowing what to do. I’m teaching my 3-yr-old grandson to cook … even a post about Never Too Young to Learn to Cook on my blog … but I know that’s very elitist … but shouldn’t we be teaching food and cookery in our schools? Dealing with the problems of poor diet – leading to poor health – at the start?

  2. It’s a fair piece, Matthew, but it’s not like these are the only food writers, or represent the mainstream. I see them as something of an elite, a kind of hive minded group who perpetuate the infinite cookbooks that keeps certain wheels turning. Personally, I can live without them, but they’re pursuits don’t bother me per se. We are nothing if not a nation of hobbyists and the middle classes have the time and money to indulge their passions. If they can turn it into a career, more power to them.

    But I think they only represent a certain strata. For me, the most successful food writers will always be Delia and Jamie, who have inspired people from all walks to learn how to make good, useable dishes that become part of their lifelong repertoire. I think their focus on familiarity, (relative) simplicity and techniques that maximise flavour is the key to their success and should be championed.

    One of the problems I see with our food culture is an obsession with the exotic. We’re bombarded with a global cuisine and a dizzying array of ingredients and cooking techniques. How is anyone supposed to grow into this? It’s impossible to master so many divergent cuisines, without any framework of authenticity. I think before we reach for the garlic and tomatoes of the Med, the spices and syrups of the east, or the smoky piquancy of the Americas, we should learn to embrace our own, albeit blander, national dishes (far too many of which have become synonymous with unhealthy and boring eating through industrial ubiquity).

    To master cooking ham hocks into pea and ham soups, scrag ends or breast of lamb into shepherd’s pie, Irish stew or Lancashire hot pot, leftover roast chicken in homemade chicken and mushrooms pies, even just understanding the difference between a good and a bad sausage, would be incredibly helpful. Simultaneously, understanding the basic cooking approaches behind these dishes and the importance of seasoning, herbs, the role vegetables play and how they all maximise the flavour of ‘cheap cuts’, would help bolster our inherent ability to produce tasty, healthy food, giving us a basic national food pride and providing a much better foundation for then exploring the wider cuisines of Europe and beyond. And don’t get me started on teaching kids how to make bloody cakes.

    I know all this makes me sound a bit like a rose-tinted spectacle-wearing, let’s go back to the 1950s UKIPer, but I assure you I’m not (I enjoy nothing more than making Vietnamese phò from scratch). I just think mastering a good shepherds pie (and I mean a GOOD one, one made from decent quality but inexpensive British lamb, cooked down properly with readily available vegetables and herbs to bring out the flavour of the meat – not just any old meaty ‘ragù’ made with ‘cheat’ flavour enhancing sauces buried under mashed potatoes and topped with cheese) would be the best foundation for learning to respect our national food traditions, and subsequently going on to appreciate the joys of a good moussaka later on.

    Mind you, I hardly buy any cookbooks, so what do i know about anything?

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