Food snobs

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?

One comment on “Food snobs”

  1. Thomas's comment - added on 4th of March, 2011 at 10:53 am

    This is like an all-you-can-eat buffet of an article… have you exorcised every phantom post that has been haunting you through these months of silence, all in one go?

    On a not-very-serious note, I think Dave Chappelle sums it up in

    On a more serious note, you’re not really suggesting that schools are the place to learn cookery are you? I’d’ve thought schools could teach children about food production and food science (so children would know – if not care – what they’re eating and how it’s made) and they could practically teach basic agriculture (if schools had vegetable gardens, that would combine their cheap, unskilled labour-force with the need to reduce school catering budgets) … but cookery? 25 children crowded around a cheese sandwich and a blunt knife going “urgh”? That’s what families are for, with their smaller class sizes; adequate, privately-funded teaching resources; less constrictive health & safety regulations; kinesthetic learning models; culture-specificity; etc, etc.

    So, what if parents can’t cook properly because they grew up in the middle of an exodus from the country to the city – a wave of fragmented families, discarded traditions, processed food, the hunt for novelty, the excitement of transportable out-of-season produce, and relative economic availability (or credit) that made these choices possible? We could always make them watch 10 years of TV chefs – who, for all the faults of celebrity culture, are at least telling us it’s good to be passionate about food – until the national level of interest and awareness has been raised, then set them loose again. The book you recommended to me – Niki Segnit’s Flavour Thesaurus – is perhaps a sign of an approach to cookery and recipes that might start to trickle down (since its previous incarnation seems to have got lost somewhere between our grandparents and us), of not relying on a recipe with its list of ingredients, half of which you haven’t got, but being able to put together meals by knowing what goes with what, and roughly what the basic steps of cooking are.

    Overall though, I think where we’re at is possibly on the way to a better understanding of the importance of food-related decisions after two or three decades of letting the myth of convenience rule everything – myth because a lot of meals in packets are only marginally faster to make than the recipes are to produce from scratch… and certainly not cheaper. Convenient for supermarket profit margins, sure. What I think still needs to happen – and perhaps farmers’ markets, for all their current middle class snobbery, are one of the first steps in that direction – is a reduction in the power of big industry in our food, and by industry I mean both the large-scale food producers and the supermarkets and food distribution companies, their PR and marketing arms included. If we could buy ourselves and smaller-scale producers out of their death grip, we’d be in a better place, eating better food.

    The answer is obvious: legislate to ensure they behave ethically and make them pay all their taxes (first article I could find:… once the field is level, if we’re still stupid enough to buy Mothers’ Pride rather than something our Mothers really would be Proud of, then we’ll only have ourselves to blame.