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Jamie Oliver’s unpalatable ministry to the poor

Once again the celebrity chef, cheered by the media, is adopting a missionary position as he sticks it to the junk-eating lower orders.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

Topics Culture

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Another Jamie Oliver crusade. It feels like he’s had more campaigning programmes than I’ve had hot dinners. So my heart sank at the thought of his latest vehicle: Jamie’s Ministry of Food, which kicked off last night on Channel 4.

Oliver, celebrity chef and mockney muppet, has made a habit of playing the white knight on our screens in recent years. First there was Jamie’s Kitchen in which Oliver recruited unemployed young people to work in his new London restaurant, Fifteen. Having got the taste for ‘giving something back’, he followed it up in 2005 with Jamie’s School Dinners, which started out from the not-unreasonable premise that it would be a good idea to get children eating better at school, but soon descended into inaccurate scaremongering about health, grouchy attacks on parents, and anti-working class prejudice. Earlier this year, we had Eat to Save Your Life, featuring real dissections of dead fat people, and Jamie’s Fowl Dinners, on the miserable lives of factory-farmed chicken.

It’s a very modern and very successful business model: use television to do something worthy, and flog a few books-of-the-series off the back of it.

Jamie’s Ministry of Food starts from the premise of his school dinners campaign and takes it to its logical conclusion: if working-class children eat so badly that it threatens their lives, the ultimate answer is in the home, not the school canteen. However, it is a gross exaggeration to suggest, as Oliver does repeatedly, that we face an epidemic of disease because of our eating habits, and even more fanciful to believe that better school meals or learning how to cook meatballs would be the answer to preventing such an epidemic.

The focus of Oliver’s new mission is Rotherham, an industrial town in northern England, where he will try to teach the great unwashed how to cook. The first person he went to see was Julie Critchlow. In 2006, as Channel 4 was broadcasting a follow-up to Oliver’s school dinners campaign, Critchlow and a friend were taking orders for takeaway food through the fence of their children’s school. They were vilified in the press for undermining the school food crusade, even depicted as ‘fat slags’ in an especially vile cartoon in the Sun. In fact, they were just ensuring that their children got something to eat; as part of the post-Jamie reorganisation of school meals, the school had so royally messed up its lunchtime arrangements that some children weren’t able to get fed. Oliver, not bothering to check out what was really happening, just laid in, calling the women ‘fat old scrubbers’.

Critchlow was magnanimous on last night’s show, however, accepting an apology from Oliver and deciding that she really quite liked him in spite of his comments. But she had little time for his latest scheme, telling Oliver he was often ‘pompous’ and ‘lived in a bubble’. Far from playing to the stereotype of the ‘fat old scrubber’, Oliver was surprised to find that Critchlow actually cooked at home rather a lot. Clearly, she wasn’t going to be a suitable subject for his zealous style of intervention. Somebody has also clearly had a word with Oliver about how he reacts to people. Telling them they are ‘scrubbers’, ‘tossers’, ‘white trash’ and ‘arseholes’ who feed their children ‘shit’ – all labels used by Oliver to describe those who don’t play ball with his half-baked schemes – will only, quite rightly, get people’s backs up. Now he’s Mr Positive, seeing both sides of the story, and laying the blame for failure as much at his own door as at other people’s.

The ‘big idea’ in Jamie’s Ministry of Food is that people don’t cook anymore because no one has ever shown them how to. Oliver started by getting together a group of eight people who couldn’t or wouldn’t cook, with the aim of teaching them, over the course of a few weeks, how to prepare 10 dishes. This small group will then teach the recipes to two friends, who will teach them to their friends, and so on. This pyramid scheme will ultimately, Oliver hopes, lead to the whole of Rotherham being able to cook pancakes, meatballs with spaghetti and chicken korma, building culinary self-esteem and leading to a revolution in the way people eat.

Oliver’s most suitable cases for missionary work in episode one were Natasha and Claire. Single mother Natasha fed her children on kebab meat, chips and cheese every night, all eaten out of polystyrene containers while sitting on the floor. In the fridge, the salad drawers were filled with chocolate bars rather than rocket and tomatoes, and everything was washed down with lashings of Dr Pepper. Claire, we were assured, ate ten bags of crisps and a large chocolate bar every day and didn’t know what boiling water looked like.

These two women became the stars of the show. Both of them realised that their eating habits were far from ideal, but neither had done anything about it. For the programme-makers, they were clearly passive, empty vessels, ideal for Oliver’s mission. They quickly took to Oliver’s idea and started teaching their friends how to cook, too. In Natasha’s case in particular, it seemed as if Oliver’s arrival had given her the sense of purpose she needed to lift herself out of a depression that was compounded by poverty and debt.

The reaction from his first group was mixed. They all enjoyed the chance to learn something new and took great pleasure in the fruits of their labours. But few of them went on to teach the recipes to their friends. Oliver’s optimism about the world’s problems being solved by his charging in and sprinkling some celebrity-chef fairy dust was seriously dented.

There’s nothing wrong with providing people with an opportunity to learn to cook. Eating well is a life-enhancing experience. Oliver could easily have produced a show where he simply showed ordinary punters how to make interesting meals. Unfortunately, that’s all a bit too Delia these days, and instead the whole exercise was turned into a military-style campaign to save the lower orders from their own failings.

Hence, the connotations of war and national emergency in the idea of a new ‘Ministry of Food’. In place of Herr Hitler, the enemy is the local takeaway. In place of the threat of subjugation under the jackboot of fascism, we have the impending disaster of obesity. And above all, we have a nostalgic, sepia-tinted return to the good ol’ days when the government could tell us exactly how to live and when people did as they were told.

This kind of thing appeals to health busybodies in government who are desperate for some means of influencing society. Indeed, Oliver’s pyramid scheme looked remarkably like the diagrams of ‘stakeholders’ beloved of policy wonks as they marshall their forces in an attempt to make us live their version of the Good Life. Having failed to scare us into conforming through relentless health propaganda, Jamie’s Ministry of Food put forward the foul idea that individuals are extremely vulnerable to today’s toxic environment of junk food and drizzled it with a substantial portion of ‘social inclusion’ and ‘community-building’. It was New Labour’s wet dream, in many ways the culmination of 10 years in which the role of politics has been reduced from increasing and sharing out the material wealth of society to making sure we stay alive for as long as possible – whether we like it or not. More than anything else, the rise of Oliver as a serious player in political and cultural debate captures the redefinition of politics away from human aspirations and equality to pure bovine survival.

No wonder, then, that the Guardian was beside itself this morning, its masthead declaring ‘How Jamie Oliver made the most powerful documentary in years’. Inside, the paper’s sour food writer extolled the virtues of the new show: ‘Miss this Ministry of Food series and you’ll be missing some of the most powerful political documentary in years. In it, whether by intention or accident, the naked chef has entered the domestic life of a British town and captured a snapshot of the country’s social health. The result is an indictment of the current political system as disturbing as any ideological tract. Food, and real people’s experience of it, is still all about class.’

It is, indeed, all about class – just not in the way that the Guardian would have us believe. Less well-off people do die younger, on average, than those who live more comfortably, but that is for a variety of reasons, of which a poor diet is just one: other factors include a tendency to smoke more, inferior healthcare, and worse housing. All of these things are, by and large, a product of poverty – yet there seems to be little appetite to tackle any real, material problems. It’s far easier to hector people about what they eat, look sniffily at ‘fat scrubbers’ who feed their children ‘shit’, and come up with schemes for how people should spend what little money they have.

Oliver’s ascendancy is not solely down to his own celebrity, buck-making nous, or to the desire of Channel 4 to air petty lifestyle programmes. No, Oliver’s rise has gone hand-in-hand with the reorientation of British society around ‘the politics of behaviour’, where the political and cultural elite have become obsessed with micro-managing our lives rather than macro-managing society or leading us towards a meaningful Good Life. There are some important political shifts behind the new politics of lifestyle intervention. In the past, the working class was a substantial force in its own right, but it is now a disconnected and relatively powerless section of society that seems thoroughly alien to the powers-that-be, and which must apparently be ground into submitting to endless varieties of state intervention for its own good. It is this development that means a mainstream TV programme, fronted by New Labour’s favourite celebrity and cheered on by the press, can treat working-class communities as some kind of zoo, chucking healthy dishes at them in the way curious kids throw bananas at apes in cages.

This outlook both demands and reinforces passivity, reducing people – few of whom live up to the stereotypes presented in Jamie’s Ministry of Food – to vulnerable and anxious individuals who can only stumble through life thanks to the efforts of outside experts like Jamie. This series takes a positive aspiration – the desire to eat better for its own sake – and uses it in an entirely instrumental fashion to promote the idea that we require missionaries from on high to tell us how to live. The Guardian compared Oliver’s latest wheeze to George Orwell’s social study, The Road to Wigan Pier. It’s worth remembering that during his travels, Orwell encountered a communist who was incensed by the attempts of the upper classes to ‘teach the unemployed more about food values’: ‘Parties of society dames now have the cheek to walk into East End houses and give shopping lessons to the wives of the unemployed…’ We should tell today’s dames, disguised as caring experts, to get out of our kitchens.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. He is chairing the session Can GM crops feed the world? at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art, London on 1&2 November.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons reckoned that Return to school dinners marked the return of Jamie the tosser. Elsewhere, he called the school dinners revolution a dog’s dinner, and warned that the government was using obesity to start weighing into family life. Patrick Basham and John Luik argued that dieting is a waste of time, and told Rob Lyons that we’re being fed a diet of misinformation. Justine Brian defended cheap chicken. And Stephen Bowler wondered why we are so obsessed with our bodies. Or read more at: spiked issue Obesity

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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