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Resisting the new cookery conformity

The reported failure of Jamie, Gordon, Ainsley and the rest to change our culinary habits should be a source of national pride.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics Culture

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According to a report in The Times (London): ‘An insatiable appetite for TV cookery shows has had little impact on the variety of food served in the average home.’ It seems that no matter how many culinary programmes we watch, we are no better for it, and that we are still eating roast chicken, spaghetti bolognese and Chinese stir fries. Just six dishes account for the most frequent meals in 98 per cent of British households ‘despite the best efforts of Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay’ (1).

Good. Hear, hear. Hallelujah.

There is so much rubbish written about food these days, and so much cant that accompanies it. First, we have had the panic over obesity, junk food and ‘carbs’. Well, carbohydrates are actually an essential part of your diet, and a far more efficient source of energy than protein or fat. ‘Carbs’ do not make you obese: being a greedy, lazy bastard makes you obese.

Secondly, there is this pervading misapprehension that there is such a thing as ‘junk food’. There isn’t. There is only such a thing as a ‘junk diet’. Fast food is only bad for you if you eat it all the time. Like beer or chocolate, fast food should be treated as a delicious treat to be taken – and enjoyed – in moderation.

Thirdly, we still labour under the assumption that British food is essentially boring, bland and rubbish, and we attribute this to some national failing. Since when did cuisine become a sign of cultural grandeur? So, the Italians, the French and the Chinese invented good food? They also, respectively, invented Fascism, Nazi collaboration and torture. The manner in which the British are today so desperate to prove that they can cook good food suggests that our ‘identity crisis’ is more serious than previously thought.

Most of all, I’m glad we are ignoring TV celebrity chefs. People who are good at cooking are essentially show-offs, and television chefs are the worst culprits. People who cook just want to impress and intimidate people. Just think: have you ever told a dinner party host ‘this is disgusting! Can’t we go for a take-away?’ Gordon Ramsay has built a career on merely swearing, being rude to people and pretending he’s Scottish. Jamie Oliver has dined out on his speech impediment and pretending he’s got friends. Ainsley Harriott may be quite loveable, but it doesn’t quite explain why he loves himself so much. Plus he fits into the template of the music hall caricature of the ‘is he or isn’t he?’ camp entertainer. And Nigella Lawson’s cookery shows are just pornography.

I hate sitting down for dinner or going to restaurants. I’d much rather go to the pub than be forced to sit down in one place for hours next to someone I don’t particularly like, making banal pleasantries and listening to them make unbelievably trite points to the effect of ‘George Bush is the REAL terrorist’ or ‘Tony Blair: Tony BLIAR more like it’. Really, does anyone out there actually enjoy dinner parties? Or would you prefer a few pints followed by a kebab? I want to know if I’m alone here.

There is a more serious point, which I think explains why today’s TV cookery programmes are not having an effect on the British populace. They are no longer didactic. Back in the days of Fanny Cradock, or even Delia Smith, cookery programmes were designed to inform, and they delivered to the viewer a specific inventory of ingredients for a specific recipe. It might have been slightly boring or schoolmasterly, but at least it had a residue of intelligence.

Today, however, cookery programmes have become ceremonial rather than informative. They are less about food, than the presenters. This may be a good sign. In the days of postwar austerity or the bleak 1970s, viewers did actually want to know how to make their food go further. But as we now live in an age of abundance, it doesn’t really matter.

Unfortunately, our age of abundance has also brought about an age of narcissism and anxiety, or at least it has for the well-off. Where rich people have existential worries, poor people have everyday concerns. The paradox is that traditionally, rich people were always fat, and poor people were skinny. In today’s affluent society, it is the reverse.

Thus, it is good news that people are ignoring TV cookery programmes. There is nothing wrong with British food, and nothing wrong with ‘fast food’, whether it be Indian, Lebanese or Chinese. Cuisine should not be a signifier of national pride.

The failure of our cookery programmes to indoctrinate our society should be both a source of shame and pride. Yes, there’s nothing wrong with eating well, or, indeed, foreign food, but don’t be so envious of it. After all, foreign food makes for the best ‘junk food’.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV reviewer and an obituary writer for The Times (London). Visit his blog here.

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spiked-issue: TV

[1] TV cookery shows have no impact at home, The Times, 1April 2008

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