Jamie Oliver, patronising? Never!

After years of cheering Oliver's crusade to educate the salad-dodging masses, why is the commentariat now turning on him?

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

Topics Politics

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Earlier this week, TV chef, noted lunchbox inspector and all-round mockney mug, Jamie Oliver, found himself in an unfamiliar position: on the wrong side of the commentariat.

The furore was sparked by some comments he made in an interview in the Radio Times, while plugging his new Channel 4 show, Jamie’s Money Saving Meals, in which he hopes to educate impoverished families how to eat healthily and heartily on a budget.

In his familiar patronising tone, he remarked how, after ‘spen[ding] a lot of time in poor communities’, he found that ‘the poorest families… choose the most expensive way to hydrate and feed their families: the ready meals, the convenience foods’. Referring to a scene from his 2008 show, Jamie’s Ministry of Food, he went on to voice his confusion that the self-same cash-strapped oiks were hoovering up their cheesy chips in the glow of big-screen TVs. ‘It just didn’t weigh up’, he lamented, in dumbstruck reminiscence.

Writing in the Guardian, an outraged Alex Andreou deemed this a ‘bogus distinction for the 13million people living in poverty in the UK right now’. Meanwhile, in the Independent budget-food blogger Jack Monroe labelled Oliver a ‘poverty tourist’, damning his comments as ‘not only out of touch but… dangerous and damaging’.

Both fair points. But after nearly eight years of Oliver’s crusade against the phantom obesity epidemic, starting with Jamie’s School Dinners in 2005, these critical commentators are rather late to the party. In fact, while spiked has criticised the classist and short-sighted nature of Oliver’s campaigns time and time again, up to now the newspapers were singing his praises.

In 2008, the Guardian dubbed Ministry of Food, ‘the most powerful documentary in years’. And why wouldn’t it? Oliver’s commitment to educating working-class parents about nutrition and, when all else fails, handing over the responsibility of feeding their kids to JO-approved school meals, chimed with the ongoing leftist preoccupation with micro-managing parenthood and ‘civilising’ the uneducated hordes. Even his crack about parents prizing a Sky box and a flat screen over some hummus on a flatbread echoes their own characteristic bashing of the supposedly consumerism-crazed lower orders.

So why turn on him now? Has the pompous Oliver simply taken things too far? Hardly. This latest outburst pales in comparison with the comments he made in his 2006 follow-up to School Dinners, where he thought nothing of calling parents who gave their children fizzy drinks ‘arseholes’, ‘tossers’ and ‘idiots’. If anything, he’s been positively pussyfooting around this time, poking fun at his own considerable wealth in a promo for a parallel series of affordable recipes to be published in the Sun, no doubt hoping that a dash of self-awareness will make up for his complete lack of understanding of life on the breadline.

Any hope that these commentators have seen the error of their ways on the anti-obesity, masses-bashing front looks set to be dashed. As scathing as some of their pieces were, they all made a point of highlighting their underlying support for Oliver’s cause.

The only salient reason for this sudden disillusionment with the chef seems to be fittingly shallow – that, like all over-exposed celebs, he’s simply become a bit of a bore. Various pieces jibe about how ‘irritating’ and ‘hectoring’ he’s become, but Simon Kelner’s comments in the Independent are perhaps most revealing: ‘My main problem with Oliver is his ubiquity. It is hard to walk down a street in any major British city without seeing one of his outposts, its billboards shouting in that chummy way that he knows what’s good for us. The truth, however, is that he does.’

So, just as left-leaning commentators and New Labour first courted the TV chef as a likeable face to front their own existing crusades, he’s now been dismissed with the same fickle nonchalance. Don’t be fooled by this sudden spate of criticism: the food fascists are still down for the cause; they just got tired of their poster boy.

Tom Slater is spiked‘s culture editor.

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Topics Politics


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