Why Can’t We All Stop Talking About Food?
We have a pretty messed-up attitude to food in this country. Why else would we be so obsessed with it? I love food, I really do, but I’m sick to death of hearing about it. Most of all, I am sick of recipes. There is no doubt that there is a place for recipes when learning how to cook, but after a while we should be able to leave them behind and take off on our own. Yet we demand recipes, and no matter how many we get, it’s never enough. All the expertise of our chefs and food writers, acquired through a lifetime of hard graft in the kitchen, is fed through the giant mincer of the recipe book in order to reduce it to a familiar, unthreatening, easily digestible format.
Take Fergus Henderson, acknowledged as one of the most inspirational cooks of his generation. He defies easy categorisation and his books are a delight to read and to cook from, subverting the genre with their provocatively brief and witty recipe introductions and idiosyncratically written ingredients lists. Yet even he, after saying that young broad beans and peas are ‘ideally eaten standing next to the plant, plucked, podded and consumed there and then’, wearily acknowledges ‘but this is a cookbook, so you need recipes’. How foolish of us to try to contain his maverick talent in a formula, the very same one applied to volumes such as 1,001 Ways with Mince or 500 Foolproof Pasta Recipes.
In his book, Appetite, Nigel Slater takes a stand against what he terms ‘the tyranny of the recipe’, arguing that ‘we have become too reliant on the printed recipe and less thoughtful about the ingredient itself, what it wants and what we want from it’. With his usual gentle precision, he gets to the heart of our dysfunctional relationship with what we eat. The endless outpouring of recipes is not, after all, proof of a national love affair with food, simply evidence that, after thirty-odd years of a much-hyped ‘food revolution’, we’ve learned next to nothing.
If recipes books are a formula that has been done to death, then so is the TV cookery show. It seems to me that the ultimate expression of our failure to allocate food an appropriate place in our lives is that we have turned it into a form of entertainment. Once, television cookery programmes were probably as good an illustration of Reithian values as any. Now we have shows that focus on competitive cooking and ritual humiliation, from which no one can be expected to gain any insight other than, perhaps, into the darker side of human nature.
If we had a more rational relationship with food, we wouldn’t feel the need to bang on about it all the time. Calling yourself an obsessive foodie is almost a badge of honour these days, but, really, is obsession healthy? And the very word foodie – how can anyone use it with serious intent? Coined by Ann Barr and Paul Levy in the 1980s when they wrote The Foodie Handbook, it was intended as a satirical term, gently poking fun at the kind of people who ‘agonise over the vinegar’ and believe that ‘the unexamined meal is not worth eating’. Now we’re expected to take it as a compliment.
Let’s assume we really have had a food revolution – what did it give us? A farming industry in great shape because farmers get a decent price for their produce? A butcher, a baker, a greengrocer, a fishmonger on every high street? A network of good restaurants across the country, so you can walk into pretty much any establishment and expect to be well fed, with food cooked from scratch by skilled chefs? Absolutely not.
It’s not that these things don’t exist but they’re a tiny minority, swimming against the tide. The stand-out winners in the British food revolution are the supermarkets, which exert near-total control over what we eat. They preach choice but give us the food equivalent of Springsteen’s ‘57 Channels and Nothin’ On’ – acres of shelves stocked with mostly own-brand products of a startling homogeneity. And coming a close second to the supermarkets are the chain restaurants, bars and cafés that dominate our towns – identikit establishments serving identikit food produced God knows where. There are people struggling to make a living out of running small independent food businesses, trying to raise the bar. If we all care so much about food, why don’t we support them, instead of ‘sleepwalking into the supermarkets’, as Joanna Blythman puts it in Bad Food Britain?
Here’s an idea: teach children to cook properly at school, so they leave with an understanding of ingredients and techniques plus a fistful of blueprint recipes on which they can base a lifetime’s cooking (not, please, the abominable recipes my children were forced to follow in their mercifully brief ‘food tech’ sessions). Lobby government to give meaningful support to British farmers, and local councils to offer favourable rents to local food businesses. Stick to seasonality, the only way of eating that makes sense. Then we can start to think in terms of a food revolution, one that removes the worse abuses of the present situation and returns our relationship with food to something approaching normality. And then maybe we can turn our back on the constant media chatter and hype and concentrate on quietly getting to know our ingredients, as Nigel Slater suggests, working out what it is we should be doing with them in order to enjoy them at their best.
One chef bravely titled his cookery book, Relax, It’s Only Food. It really is. Let’s keep it in its place.