I remember a time when they were only three television channels. Saturday would role round and the airwaves would drip with sport, Grandstand vied with ITV’s World of Sport, in bringing the British Public the most obscure sports they could handle (parallel bars anyone?) But there was an oasis that I ran to. Every Saturday BBC2 would trawl their archives and fill their non-sport void with a film. Not just any film, but a classic black & white affair. It was here I discovered the joys of Jimmy Stewart and the wonders of Henry Fonda. I was happy seeing great masters use their guile and grace, with consummate ease, to create stories that still resonate with me, even now.
It all changed in the middle of the eighties, with the advent of more channels filled with shows-that-you-never-knew-you-wanted-to-watch, and the supermarkets discovery of the public’s love of pasta. Like the new television channels, the British public went crazy for this Italian staple ‘What do you mean it comes in other shapes than spaghetti?!’ From then on no one gave a jot nor tittle for anything we already had; it was all about what was new and different.
The food snob was born – ‘are you sure this is fettuccine? It looks more like tagliatelle! And I can’t believe he’s using tomatoes in that ragu, when I was in Italy….’
Ready meals broke out of the frosted doors of the freezer section and onto the chilled shelves, where they were embraced, and subsequently rejected by the food snobs (although there were still enough of the great unwashed left to make them an unstoppable force). When our appetite for fusilli and penne started to wane the supermarkets responded to our ever-demanding need for the unknown, with all manner of exotic fare. Pomellos, mangos, paella, tex-mex, chorizo, soy milk, gluten free, strawberries in winter (don’t get me started…), fresh prawns, squid, quails eggs, pitta bread, Kim chi, refried beans all now feature in aisles of the big four.
Whilst new is good and expanding ones culinary horizons no bad thing, continually looking forward whilst ignoring the past means the definition of ‘everyday’ foods shifts.
Farmer’s markets, local produce and homemade cakes are no longer the preserve of the great and the good, but an almighty game of brinkmanship and bragging.
“Lovely broccoli Katie? Is it local?”
“Oh yes, we picked it up at the Farmer’s market from that chap with the funny hat”
“I get all mine from him! Which field is it from? Because I insist on all mine coming from the front fields, it saves on food miles you know?”
I’m an inverted snob – I like nothing more than pouring scorn on the moneyed middle classes and cocking a snook to the SUV driving folk who think they are saving the planet by buying organic American apples in June, but would turn their noses up at anything other than a spelt-laden sourdough loaf.
I feel that food should be an all-encompassing affair with as much room for Mother’s Pride as its wood-fired cousin. The exclusion (or lionisation) of a product due to its inferred social status is simply missing the point of it all.
Sadly, you cannot put the cork back in the bottle – the genie of convenience food has been well and truly released. But by creating a two-tier system where processed equals cheap and ‘real’ food priced is at a premium, you place a ‘health tax’ on the poorer people in society. No longer will people justify spending a larger proportion of their income on raw ingredients, to prepare their own meals from scratch, when the very knowledge to do so has been lost.
We reached a nadir in food consumption, where fast food chains took up permanent residency in our high streets and weekly menus and supermarkets pressured us into buying one and getting one free. Then when all hope seemed lost and our destiny appeared one of super-sized snack food and endless ready meals, in rode, upon white steeds, the knights of Celebrity Chefdoms. Promising the key to their kingdom of The Mysterious Restaurant Secrets – they arrived wave after wave. Their shaggy haired Prince Jamie, buxom Lady Nigella, King Gordon and court jester Ainsley all came to impart their wisdom and sell their ‘magic’ books.
The only problem is it’s entertainment, not education. All these shows are there to make you buy that book, and that book is there to tell you how to make ‘that’ dish. How does the old saying go? If you give a man a recipe book he can cook that dish, if you teach a man to cook he won’t actually need that book.
As with Newton’s third law – with every food fad there is an equal and opposite food drought. Along with wave after wave of new products that broke in the aisles of the supermarkets, traditional recipes and processes become distant memories. Instead of keeping culinary traditions alive through education, cookery in schools became a thing of the past.
With lessons gone and a generation coming to rely on ‘ambient’ and ‘chilled’ convenience foods, those who can actually cook are seen as food magicians – ‘wow you made this cake?!’ and chefs are regarded as superstars. The cooks have become the centre of attention where the ingredients should be the focus.
The answer is obvious. Teach cookery in schools, increase the price of processed food to subsidise fresh produce and put obscure sport back on the telly. Now where’s my Basil Rathbone box set?