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From Fanny Cradock to cookery porn

Once, statist chefs instructed the nation on how to boil an egg - now Nigella Lawson raises our temperatures with her finger-licking antics.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics Culture

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The television cook Delia Smith has announced that she is to return to our screens, having declared her ‘retirement’ from the medium in 2002. Is this welcome news? It depends upon whether you think cookery programmes exist to inform us, or to entertain us.

This is certainly something that exercised Delia Smith’s mind. When she did initially retire five years ago, Delia bemoaned: ‘Now people want to be entertained, whereas I was teaching people how to cook.’ This raises the question: what is the point of TV chefs? Should television cookery be functional and prescriptive, or ritualistic and descriptive?

When I was a boy in the 1980s, TV cooking features were decidedly didactic. Whether it was Delia Smith telling us how to boil an egg, or Blue Peter’s Sarah Greene imparting the recipe for Rice Krispie cakes, we were always methodically guided as to how to prepare such dishes, with how many ounces of ingredients to use, in what order, at what temperature to cook it, and for how many minutes.

Before my time there was the terrifying Fanny Cradock, who epitomised the statist ethos of the 1950s. This is a decade now parodied principally for its endless, nagging public information broadcasts – largely exalting the benefits of nudism, or informing school children that the best way to protect yourself from a nuclear attack was to hide under a desk. And this was an era of austerity, despite Harold Macmillan’s protestations to the contrary, when viewers did actually want to find out the best way to make their meagre fare last the longest.

Cradock was the product of her time, just as was Delia. The 1950s and the 1970s were decades in which Britain was an impoverished country suffering from a cultural hangover – in the former, from the Second World War; in the latter, from the exuberant (but unrealised) optimism of the 1960s. These were days when Britons were in need of nourishment – culturally and literally.

Since the 1990s, TV cooking programmes have become less informative and more performative. They are less about the food, more about those who are preparing the food. We live in an age of celebrity chefs – an age in which recipes have vanished.

The results, to be fair, have been mixed. Sure, Ainsley Harriott, of Ready, Steady, Cook is a loveable, ebullient cove, and Antony Worrall Thompson should be saluted both for his Snickers pudding and support for smokers’ rights. But then there are the all-too-familiar idiots. Jamie Oliver must be afforded the obligatory mention, principally because of his hilarious speech impediment and because he left us wondering whether his ‘mates’ on his programmes were really his friends or just hired extras.

No one takes notice of Nigella Lawson’s recipes because everyone just stares at her boobs all the time, or gawps at her while she seductively licks sauce from her fingers. This is cooking as faux-pornography, something that can also be witnessed in Marks & Spencer television food adverts. Then there is the gonzo-chef Gordon Ramsay, the personification of the celebrity chef. One is tempted to salute Ramsay for his outspokenness, for being a champion of excellence who pours scorn on mediocrity, the Nietzsche of the kitchen. But he is not. He is just a crap Jeremy Clarkson. He fails to realise that using bad language is only effective when it is used sparingly. What a fucking idiot.

It is hard to decide which is worse: the grim, O-Level type cooking programmes of yesteryear that methodically commanded you how to make bland and boring cakes; or today’s cult of celebrity chef who is, frankly, a show-off, and who gives succour to the absurd fantasy that Britain is a cultured nation that has embraced haute cuisine.

No, we have not. Britain is a nation enthralled to kebabs, chips, burgers, pizzas and curry. And a good thing this is, too. Does anyone actually enjoy going to ‘prestigious’, over-priced restaurants to be served by waiters that are either incredibly rude or just incompetents? What kind of people book months ahead to visit Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsay’s eateries? I’ll tell you who: gluttons and social climbers – people who worship their bellies and people who are obsessed with status.

The emergence of the non-informative celebrity TV chef is to be both lamented and celebrated. It may mirror our narcissistic culture, but it nevertheless reflects the fact that we live in an age of abundance. We no longer need Fanny Cradock to tell us how to make bread-and-butter pudding or what to do with our powdered milk, because starvation is something we in the West no longer fear. It has always been the norm in societies that the poor are thin and the rich are fat. For the first time ever in human history, this dichotomy has been reversed.

This is why TV cookery programmes are no longer about teaching people how to prepare food, but have become a ritualised source of entertainment. Food used to be regarded foremost as a precious course of nutrition; now it is perceived as a source of enjoyment, or a signifier of social status.

This is why I also think Delia has got it wrong. Admittedly, I don’t watch that many cooking programmes, but when I do catch them by accident, I tend to enjoy them for the same reason I enjoy Top Gear: not because I want to be a chef, or a brilliant motor car driver – but because it can be entertaining to see people excel at their metier. If I really want to improve my cooking recipes, I would consult the internet or one of Delia’s excellent cookery books. Public information television, in whatever guise, is for societies in which the state has too much power, and the populace has too little intelligence – or stuff – to fill a plate.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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