In the second half of the 20th century, western consumers were treated to an unprecedented array of high-quality, low-cost food. Monochrome national cuisines were spiced up by immigration, globalisation and holidays abroad. Increased disposable income turned a restaurant pilgrimage into an everyday jaunt. You could have pain au chocolat for breakfast, a Mexican tortilla wrap for lunch and a Thai green curry for dinner. Farmers’ markets popularised heritage tomatoes. Celebrity chefs took up residence in gastropubs.
Now, I think it’s great that in recent years we’ve woken up to the wonders of fresh, local, home-cooked food. But this new food culture is not quite as it seems. The spectacle of Jamie Oliver, a cheeky lad from Essex, tearing basil leaves on to spaghetti was in some ways a step forward for equality, but in other ways it was a sneaky step back – because it made it that much harder to notice the dodgy doublespeak that has come to dominate the way we talk about food.
A lot of celebrity chefs claim to be just like you and me. “I lead a normal life,” Nigella Lawson writes in the introduction to Nigella Express, “the sort we all share.” So that means living in a £12m house in Chelsea and sharing an estimated fortune of more than £100m with her husband, the art collector Charles Saatchi? Or there’s this, from Jamie At Home: “Like most people these days, with a busy family life and a hectic working schedule, I began to struggle with finding a balance between the two. I seem to have evened things up a bit now, and it’s all thanks to my veg garden.” That would be the veg garden that enjoys the attentions of a personal gardener.
Reality, normality, hard-working families: this is the mantra of the multimillionaire celebrity chef. But the recipes have trouble sticking to it because, despite the homely trappings, they are essentially restaurant food. Take Nigella Express, the book of the TV show promising “fabulous fast food and incredible short cuts”. The recipes are quick to make, it’s true, but look at the ingredients: mirin, poussin, pomegranate juice, quail, harissa, sake, garlic oil. It would take an afternoon to track them down. I have for many years wrestled with the matter of fresh herbs. They improve simple dishes no end: most of Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals rely on them. But I always find myself rummaging impatiently through a supermarket’s highly selective herb selection to find the one I need.
Every time I’ve tried to grow them on my balcony, they’ve lasted about three weeks. My shrivelled, dried-up herbs seem to me to encapsulate a broader problem, because they are the very baseline minimum of the grow-your-own business, the entry-level stage. And even that doesn’t seem to work. The glossy new food revolution that’s advertised on our TV screens and in our beautiful recipe books purports to be democratic, accessible, available to everyone, but it’s not. I’m fine with Heston Blumenthal‘s baroque creations, his frog’s leg blancmange and exploding cakes. He is not for a minute suggesting that we should try those at home. But if the others really wanted to come up with a quick and easy cookbook for “hard-working families”, they’d write one that used only the kind of ingredients I can buy at my local Costcutter: potatoes, tomatoes, onions and carrots.
Yet there’s an obsessive emphasis on teachability, on getting your hands dirty, on This Will Change Your Life. I remember recipe programmes on TV in the 80s that paused, politely, while you grabbed a pen to note down the ingredients list. Now, supposedly real-time cookalongs are a frantic marathon, and full ingredients lists are to be found only in the accompanying book, priced at £19.99. And to me it’s extraordinary that celebrity cookbooks rarely announce their gastronomical allegiance. A lot of celebrity cheffery blends into a modern European, pan-Asian melange. It’s beyond fusion. It’s category meltdown. I find it odd that, for all today’s flag-waving about the wonder of different cuisines, our modern chefs are so coy about their culinary brand. And for all the apparent kitchen-sink empowerment, I also find it somewhat patronising. These are often connoisseurs who’ve been trained to distinguish Spanish from Catalan tapas, or trace the genealogy of haute cuisine; but don’t you worry your little heads about such finer points, they seem to say. It’s the food equivalent of the modern post-ideological politician who gives speeches saying right and left are over, but back at Oxford made damned sure he mastered the taxonomy of political theory. Today’s TV chefs claim to be making food accessible, but they don’t give ordinary people the vocabulary, the building blocks, to get a handle on food. Just as art schools today don’t teach much drawing, there’s no going back to food-type basics, techniques or the elements of different cuisines: no culinary periodic table.
Now, you might be thinking, what’s wrong with a little recreational food porn? I’m not averse to a bit of Nigella myself. But while these fantasies may be fun, they are not harmless. We lap them up, but they ultimately leave us still more famished. The more time we spend watching cookery programmes and reading restaurant reviews, the less we spend actually cooking. According to the Food Standards Agency, in 1980 the average meal took an hour to prepare. By 1999, it took 20 minutes. And a 2002 Mintel report found that only one in five viewers tries a recipe after watching a chef on TV and only one in seven buys new ingredients. A large proportion of apparently handmade gastropub meals are actually trucked in by catering giants such as Brakes or 3663, which provide microwaveable or boil-in-the bag versions of old-fashioned rustic classics such as venison and pork sausages “infused with sloe gin and served in a rich and sweet bramble berry and red wine sauce”, or, for dessert, an “apricot, apple and stem ginger crumble… heaped with hand-placed golden oaty all-butter crumble”. The “authenticity” of these dishes is a fib impossible to spot. We may be aware there’s been a huge rise in sales of ready meals, but now they’re being disguised as home cooking.
My problem is our refusal to admit that reality is obscured by illusory ideals. It’s not only that Jamie employs around 5,000 staff and is reportedly worth £65m, it’s that he foregrounds his lovely-jubbly persona and rapport with dinner ladies. TV executives try to get around these contradictions with the help of that weasel word “aspirational”. But it just doesn’t wash. This is not just food. This is 100% mock-authentic, mock-egalitarian class hierarchy. Supermarket labels such as “organic”, “finest” and “taste the difference”, or “economy”, “basics” and “everyday”, are euphemisms for food apartheid. I am addicted to the genius TV series Come Dine With Me, but the butt of the jokes are the wannabe foodies in Luton who serve starters of “microsalads”, main courses in “towers” on large square plates and desserts that always come as a trio. Jamie’s Ministry Of Food claimed to bring home cooking to the ordinary British family, but the series was riddled with undeclared class dynamics. Those mothers who passed chips through the fence at Rawmarsh school in South Yorkshire after it started serving Jamie’s healthy school dinners were protesting against paternalism. As one of them explained, “This isn’t about us against healthy food, like they’ve been saying… It’s about how people change the rules.” I believe Jamie’s gastronomical good intentions, but his outrage at seeing mothers bottle-feeding Coke to their babies has a class dimension that is never explicitly addressed. Because he himself doesn’t sound posh, there’s a sense that if he’s made it good, so can they. Jamie raises the stakes for middle-class fans by presenting expensive, cheffy food as barrow-boy basics (“Tear up yer tarragon, drizzle yer top-quality olive oil”). And he raises the stakes for working-class mums by implying that there’s no excuse for not pulling themselves up by their culinary bootstraps.
It’s not only class inequality that lurks beneath the new food culture, it’s gender inequality, too. When Jamie debuted on British TV as The Naked Chef in 1999, he was credited with encouraging the most male-chauvinistic of oafs to try their hand at a fairy cake. And indeed, this has come to pass in some households. But very often it’s the men who are flambéeing the bananas at the Saturday night dinner party, while the women are plotting how to stretch the Sunday roast leftovers into day three. Female TV chefs are filmed in a cosy kitchen, male chefs in some kind of rustic outhouse or on a beach with an improvised barbecue. In 2010, Waitrose spent £10m on an advertising campaign featuring two people: “Britain’s best chef” and “Our best-loved cook”. No prizes for guessing which was Heston Blumenthal and which was Delia Smith.
It’s a new backlash sexism, I believe, that accounts for the fact that so many famous chefs’ wives are prominent foodies themselves. Their role is to absorb the feminine connotations of their husbands’ cookery. “The trick to Christmas,” says Tesco Magazine Celebrity Mum of the Year Tana Ramsay, being interviewed for said magazine, “is making things in advance as much as you can, such as chopping the vegetables on Christmas Eve.” After the Ramsays have opened their stockings, the article continues, “Gordon and son Jack, eight, whizz off to Claridge’s to wish his restaurant staff a merry Christmas. At home, under Tana’s watchful guidance, daughters Megan, 10, Holly, eight, and Matilda, six, help their mum keep an eye on the turkey.”
The end result is that celebrity chefs and their wives – Tana’n'Gordon, Jamie’n'Jools – end up modelling in the media traditional gender stereotypes that undercut the right-on rhetoric. Take Jools Oliver’s Minus Nine To One: The Diary Of An Honest Mum, which contains children’s recipes: “A few months before our wedding,” she confides in the book, “Jamie asked if I wanted to become his PA. I agreed, as it meant that I would get to see him every day and I thought it would be fun, plus I was never really a career girl anyway. (Who was I kidding? I wanted the babies, the baking and the roses round the door.)” For all the metrosexual class-busting bluster, it’s this message we are left with.
My local Waitrose offers a choice of four different kinds of salmon fillet: standard fillets; “Wild Alaskan Sockeye” fillets, “caught in Alaska’s well managed, sustainable fishery, certified to Marine Stewardship Council standard”; “Select Farm” fillets from “dedicated farms in locations carefully chosen for their highly oxygenated, fast-flowing tidal waters”; and “Duchy from Waitrose Organic” fillets, “organically farmed to Soil Association standards on Shetland and Orkney”. It’s a classic example of totally uninformative information. If I were a salmon, I think I’d appreciate highly oxygenated, fast-flowing tidal waters; so how come Duchy from Waitrose organic salmon don’t get to swim in them? And how come wild Alaskan salmon are caught in a fishery? That shelf of salmon fillets appeared to offer a diverse range of tasty, affordable, environmentally-friendly fish. But the reality of which kind of fillet would be best for me, best for the fishermen and best for our oceans is simply impossible to make out.
The same goes for seasonal fruit and veg. Seasonality is a virtue heavily promoted by Jamie and the rest. It has the advantage of being an enjoyable virtue, too: I love summery, flavoursome tomatoes and sweet blackberries. But if I go to the supermarket or the local grocer, it’s just not that easy to work out what’s on nature’s menu.
Then there’s organic food. The tech spec of organic food – the fact that nothing synthetic is used in its production – suggests flavour, nutritional value and agricultural ethics. But it has become a devalued, mass-market symbolic indicator. Organics are promoted as both available to all and a luxury treat, but often they’re more expensive and they taste the same. And they’re not even necessarily good for the environment, either. Increasing demand has led to organic meat being raised on vast industrial feed lots, and the scarcity of organic ingredients means they are flown around the world. Research sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs showed that the production of a litre of organic milk requires 80% more land than conventional milk. And that organically reared cows burp and fart twice as much methane as conventionally reared cattle, which would be amusing if it weren’t for the fact that methane is 20 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2.
Overall, the research on environmental impact is contradictory, which only makes it harder for consumers to work out what to do. The marketing of organic food taps into our innermost drives and ambitions: to be good, to be good to ourselves, to be worth the extra cost. But the only people for whom it definitively seems to be good are managers of multinationals. Ben & Jerry’s is owned by Unilever. Coca-Cola has a majority stake in Innocent smoothies. Back To Nature is owned by Kraft. Supermarkets may display their organic food in rustic-looking baskets, and Starbucks may camouflage its corporate brand under local “community personality”, but farmers in the developing world suffer from diminishing profits, and our soil, sea and atmosphere are ever more degraded.
The food industry successfully hides its influence behind persuasive talk of the power of the individual. The industry and government alike argue that it is consumer choice and consumer demand that really drive change. Yet a Royal Society report published in 2010 revealed that, although consumers consulted 10 years earlier about whether they wanted GM food had responded with a resounding “no”, GM has nevertheless thoroughly penetrated the food supply in the form of soya animal feed and cooking oil. The notion that consumers are in control of the food industry is a myth, as is the notion that they are at liberty to make well-informed decisions about the food they buy. One of the Cornish pasty company Ginsters‘ favourite slogans is “Keeping it local”. But its pasties are taken on a 250-mile round trip by lorry before being delivered to the Tesco next door to its Cornwall plant (they insist it’s more efficient that way). A slice of Cranks seeded farmhouse bread has twice the amount of salt as a packet of Walkers ready-salted crisps. McVitie’s light digestive biscuits have less fat than McVitie’s original digestives, but more sugar, so the difference between the biscuits is just four calories. But then a 2009 article in the New Scientist pointed out that even calorie labelling is unhelpful, because the body digests different foods at different rates. “Consumers aren’t stupid” is the stock industry response when challenged on their campaigns of misdirection. Yet in her 2010 book Green Gone Wrong, the environmental writer Heather Rogers quotes the director of an organic conglomerate noting that “most consumers are simple minds [who] look at the label and nothing else”. But with labels that are this misleading, intelligence is a red herring.
The industry insists that in selling the sugary, fatty, salty foods that are contributing so much to rates of obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, it is simply giving people what they want. In reality, of course, the industry doesn’t just respond to desires: it shapes them. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein talk a lot about food choices in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth And Happiness. Their proposals, which include placing fruit at eye level in school canteens, are an acknowledgment that people aren’t very good at choosing healthy food. They’re an acknowledgment, in other words, of the fallacy of the much-trumpeted notion of the rational consumer, although the governments that are in thrall to the politics of nudge seem untroubled by this contradiction. For all their good intentions, Thaler and Sunstein underestimate just how energetically the food industry is working to prevent healthy choices. Often what is needed is some basic information, some rudimentary transparency, rather than a nudge. A traffic light system for labelling healthy and unhealthy food would be a start – research shows it’s the most helpful one for consumers – but that would mean giving consumers real power to choose.
One of Tory health secretary Andrew Lansley‘s first moves in office was to promise that “government and FSA promotion of traffic light labelling will stop” as part of a big shake-up of public health. Out went regulation, legislation and “top-down lectures”; in came voluntary corporate action and individual responsibility. Lansley set up a series of “responsibility deal networks” designed to get public health officials to “work with business”. The idea of McDonald’s, KFC and Pepsi designing public health policy outdoes Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. And one of the networks, in charge of “public health behaviour change”, was to work with the government’s newly set up “nudge unit”. There it is again, the real payoff of nudge policy: to nudge us into buying from big corporations.
There’s a huge denial of inequality here: between consumers and corporations, and also between different kinds of consumers. In reality, there is one group of shoppers that can afford to be ethical and another that can’t. The fact is, people on low incomes are more likely to buy food that is bad for them and bad for the environment. But corporations and governments take advantage of the taboos of false consciousness and inequality in order to protest that they are simply letting consumers choose what they want. We are labouring under the delusion not only of freely available, low-cost, great-quality, nutritional food, but also of a level playing field of money, power and information.
The fact that we tolerate this delusional state of affairs does not speak well of us. It makes us seem passive, blinkered and bovine. The cheapness of food has provided us with a false sense of security, allowing us to believe we’re getting the best of both worlds. But food prices are rising. In some ways that will make food choices more conscious, and more consciously political. But there’s also a danger that we’ll focus more attention on price alone. It’s not really our fault. It’s hard to make good choices when the marketing of products is so opaque and befuddling. It’s hard to detect the silent promotion of inequality by mainstream food culture when the headlines are all about democratisation and demographic change. But we are like orally fixated toddlers, transfixed by Nigella’s cupcakey bosom, Starbucks’ vanilla frappuccinos and Michelin-starred creamy, frothy sauces. We need to wise up to the rhetoric of food and start tasting reality.
This is an edited extract from Get Real: How To Tell It Like It Is In A World of Illusions, by Eliane Glaser, published by Fourth Estate at £14.99. To order a copy for £11.99, including mainland UK p&p, visit the Guardian Bookshop.
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