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Defending Delia from the food fanatics

The food snobs slating Delia Smith over her new convenience cookbook seem not to realise that cooks and chefs have always cheated – with very tasty results.

Justine Brian

Topics Books

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There should be a ‘hate-o-meter’ on the web, which we could use to see how much something or someone has pricked the contemporary zeitgeist and wound up leading commentators. If such a device existed, I imagine that the publication of Delia Smith’s new cookbook would make its needle take a double trip around the dial before resting in the ‘Burn the Witch’ zone.

Delia Smith is an English cookery writer and broadcaster who has ‘taught the nation to cook’ in print and on TV since the 1970s. Her books regularly become bestsellers, and she has that rare honour of being known and recognised simply by her first name. My late aunt Liz was a teacher with a firm but friendly air – and growing up, I always thought that Delia looked just like her and was always equally authoritative.

Now, however, Delia has committed a crime in the eyes of trendy food writers: she has produced a book, How to Cheat at Cooking, in which she suggests that we can save time and hassle by using some processed foods instead of always having to use ‘proper’ ingredients. She’s into processed packets and jars, stuff in tins, frozen things – products that are available in supermarkets. Yep, and not respectable supermarkets with bullshit ethical outlooks (Waitrose), but in Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Wal-Mart’s UK arm, Asda.

Delia’s promotion of processed food and supermarket convenience is blatantly out of step with the current trend for promoting local/seasonal/organic/fresh/natural food (delete as appropriate according to your own personal obsessions). Worse, Delia declared in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s flagship news show, Today, that she was more concerned about families eating properly than about the welfare of chickens; that taste mattered more than whether food was ‘organic’; and that she is sceptical about the notion of ‘food miles’. ‘I’ll stick to teaching people to cook’, she told listeners. ‘I can’t get into the politics of food.’

The condemnation of Delia has come thick and fast – and some of it has been highly personal and unpleasant.

Carol Midgley, writing in the The Times (London), says she never ‘got this hero worship of a woman [Delia] with Vicar of Dibley hair… who quite often seemed to be stating the bleeding obvious’. On Delia’s refusal to get involved in ‘food politics’, Midgely accuses her of playing an insincere ‘girlie act’. One ex-Delia fan, Daily Mail columnist and nutritionist Jane Clarke, believes Delia ‘is jealous of other chefs and wants to undermine all the good work everyone else has done’. Clarke says that, yes, tinned tomatoes, ready-made puff pastry and stock cubes are fine, but frozen mashed potato is a step too far – despite the fact that Delia’s preferred brand, Aunt Bessie’s Frozen Mashed Potato, contains just five ingredients: potato, milk, butter, salt and pepper.

Paul Levy, writing on the Observer’s food blog ‘Word of Mouth’, recoils at the rumoured damehood for Delia, dismissing her as ‘just a cook, like you and me’ rather than a chef. I’m not sure Delia has ever claimed to be a chef, seeing as she has never had to manage a brigade of cooks in a professional kitchen… but again, what really irks Levy is Delia’s refusal to support organic food and condemn the use of battery hens. He suggests that you and I, the caring readers of the Observer’s food blog, care more about our food provenance than ‘ditsy Delia does’.

So, what possessed the nation’s favourite home economist to so buck the trend of contemporary food thought and become a figure of hate and despair for Britain’s foodie commentators? Delia’s introduction to her new book says that ‘Mums and Dads both work but families still need feeding’. She is suggesting that there is a different way of approaching home cooking that is somewhere in-between relying on supermarket readymade meals every evening and trying to emulate the TV chef who tells you that with just 11 separate ingredients, a trip to your local fishmonger, a deep fat fryer and 30 minutes to spare, you too can cook your own wholesome, additive-free, home-made fish fingers for the kids’ tea. Delia seems to possess a greater degree of common sense than most TV cooks when it comes to people’s domestic cooking needs and experiences. And that’s who the book is aimed at. People like you. And me.

Much fuss has been made about Delia’s ‘cheats’ in the book – shortcuts that save 10 minutes here and a trip to the shop there. But the bulk of the book is much like any other. And in fact, How to Cheat at Cooking is a complete reworking of her very first cookbook – of the same title – published in 1971. Also Delia has been ‘cheating’ online for years, via her cookery website DeliaOnline.

And Delia isn’t alone in taking shortcuts in home cooking. BBC2’s Nigella Express was the buxom Ms Lawson’s take on the same cheating theme, though with slightly posher ingredients from, I imagine, slightly posher shops. Even Jamie Oliver, ever in the vanguard of foodie campaigns, likes a bit of cheating. In his recent TV series, Jamie at Home, he made a really nice-looking apple pie and then insisted that the best thing to serve with it was not a home-made custard but – wait for it – a tub of supermarket vanilla custard, poured over cold. I nearly fell off the armchair.

In fact, ‘cheating’ goes back a long way. On my bookshelf is a small paperback by a French writer called Edouard de Pomaine, titled Cooking in 10 Minutes. It was published in 1930. De Pomaine created a set of recipes to help the working person recreate the Edwardian French cuisine of the day in 10 minutes or less, often with the judicious use of ‘cheats’ such as tinned vegetables. It’s worth noting that, at the time de Pomaine was writing, there was a certain degree of snobbery about mass-produced tinned food – but he wrote the book anyway.

What really galls the food absolutists who have leapt to condemn Delia’s latest work is that she uses convenience food, and what’s more it is the wrong kind of convenience food. Convenience itself is frowned upon by today’s food fanatics – being quick and convenient means people aren’t paying homage to the process of cooking and eating in the way that many celebrity chefs and food writers would like them to. The food snobs lament the fact that Delia, in a single work, has potentially undone all of their missionary work in reshaping the nation’s attitudes and diets over the past decade.

Guardian columnist Zoe Williams, though she recently defended Delia against her critics, argued in an earlier article that we’ve grown ‘too lazy’ for real cooking. But what is ‘real cooking’? Who defines what’s ‘real’ and what’s a cheat, and on what basis? Is the equation that the rawer the state of the product, the realer the food? And how far would Williams and others take this idea, I wonder?

Consider the ubiquitous olive. When we talk of sourcing, using and eating real food, does that mean in the case of the olive that we (a) go to a local olive tree, (b) climb said tree to shake the bitter, hard and inedible berries off it, and (c) pickle them in a brine solution for about four weeks to turn them into edible little morsels? I doubt it. I suspect Zoe Williams’ olives come from a tin or a jar from the supermarket, or, if purchased in a delicatessen to make the consumer feel closer to the product, they will have been imported in huge white plastic tubs, before being carefully displayed in earthenware. Either way, the olive is a processed food – and thank god for that. It saves us oodles of time and effort to be able to buy ready-to-eat olives in stores around the country.

The same can be said for anything we buy which is tinned, jarred, frozen, pre-prepared, packaged, wrapped, bagged, or just not personally grown or produced by our own hands. It’s all processed food – so why is a jar of imported olives okay, but a pack of Aunt Bessie’s Frozen Mashed Potato is not? How about that dried pasta in the cupboard – should we be making our own pasta from scratch every evening? Or what about that tin of Italian peeled plum tomatoes – should I be growing my own tomatoes for the pasta sauce I want to make, or sourcing them on a daily basis from some miraculous supplier who can give me ripe and tasty plum tomatoes all year round and out of season?

Most food commentators (writers, critics, chefs) use certain words and phrases that we’ve all come to know and understand but which are never held up to critical scrutiny: ‘good food’, ‘nutritious food’, ‘real food’, ‘natural food’. These emotionally loaded words with no real meaning are used with abandon to assert the superiority of one product over another – even when there is no objective difference between the ‘good’ food and the ‘bad’ one. The real difference is snobbery.

The absolutism of the food snobs suggests that we’re all stupid, that we don’t know the difference between a McDonald’s burger and a meal at Gordon Ramsay’s eponymous Chelsea restaurant. The reality is that most of us, most of the time, make choices about what food we can squeeze in, and where and when we eat it. That KFC meal in your lunch break fulfils a different need and purpose than the choice you make when you decide which restaurant to have dinner at, or what meal you’ll cook at the weekend when you have more time and choice on your hands. Food is sometimes sustenance, sometimes pleasure, sometimes an exquisite combination of time, place and matter (that perfect meal with friends, for example). The contemporary debate on food suggests these shades of grey don’t exist. Everything is black and white – pure and good, or adulterated and bad.

If a cookbook does its job and is to be more than bookshelf food porn (and I own a lot of food porn), then it should push you towards the kitchen to try new recipes. Delia’s How to Cheat at Cooking does just that: it has got me trying lots of new things with interesting new products I never even knew existed: Auntie Bessie’s Frozen Roast Potatoes with cheese and spring onions were fine; the frozen mashed potato served with sausages had a surprisingly good texture, but I’d add extra seasoning next time; the frozen sea bass fillets covered with half a jar of pesto, capers and black olives were scrummy; adding jars of roasted Greek red peppers, olives and Heinz Tomato Frito to two pounds of pork and a sliced chunk of chorizo was, according to the dinner party guests who scoffed it, a success.

Sadly, my favourite Delia cheat recipe is available at Delia Online but not in the new book. It’s Gnocchi Carbonara, a tea-time staple in my house. In honour of Delia and eating tasty meals with minimum effort, I share it with you now.

Take a bag of potato gnocchi (available from all good supermarket chill cabinets), together with a tub of carbonara sauce (from the same cabinet, probably). You also need a pack of cubed pancetta (or smoked streaky bacon chopped up small), a ball of mozzarella (or be really Delia and buy the ready-grated stuff in bags) and lots of parmesan cheese (in a lump, or ready grated, however you like it).

Fry the pancetta without oil in a small pan until crispy, and meanwhile boil the gnocchi in a pan of salted water (it only takes a couple of minutes to cook and the little things float to the top of the water when done). Heat the carbonara sauce in a separate pan (I like to add lots of extra black pepper to the sauce at this stage). When the gnocchi is ready, drain it and then place in a buttered baking dish, throwing over the pancetta and its juices when cooked; cut the mozzarella into cubes and chuck that over the gnocchi and pancetta. Mix it up a bit, and then pour the hot carbonara sauce over the top, covering as much of the pasta as you can. Finally, grate as much Parmesan on top as possible, stopping just short of an obscene amount, together with a final grate of black pepper, and then place the dish under a hot grill for 10-12 minutes until the top is golden brown and bubbling.

Serve as it is in front of the TV, or with a lightly dressed green salad and a glass of crisp white wine if you’re in ‘sitting at a table’ mood. Delia says this serves four, but we’ve never made it stretch to more than three portions before the dish was empty and licked clean.

Justine Brian is national administrator of the UK schools debating competition, Debating Matters.

Delia’s How to Cheat at Cooking, by Delia Smith is published by Ebury Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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Topics Books

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